More On: Ukraine
Biden was so preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict that he missed Putin's progress in other important places
The 24th of February, 2022, was a jolt to the European mentality. The invasion of Ukraine, which lacked any credible justification, the massive use of military force against civilians, and the attempted assassination of a lawfully elected government were all completely unexpected. But so did August 1st, 1914, or September 1st, 1939: they were all shocks that shook the world. However, they should not have been as surprising as they were.
We are startled by Vladimir Putin's onslaught because it appears to originate in a completely other mental environment. Prior to February 24th, respected analysts concluded that US intelligence warnings of an imminent invasion were the result of a combination of foolish fantasies and paranoia. They were taken aback afterwards. Many, including France's Emmanuel Macron's crew, who attempted the final serious peace negotiations prior to the commencement of hostilities, have simply determined he is mad.
Indeed, what might be called Putinism has a long history. It is rooted in both European and Russian history. The script is based on the nineteenth-century playbook of imperialism, the drive to achieve dominion by any means necessary, regardless matter how ruthless or devastating. It is only supplemented by the KGB's procedures and tactics. We should then consider the problems in an imperial manner of generating reality, rather than Putin's particular psychopathology.
Here are the five imperial pathologies as they arose in nineteenth-century Europe and have been co-opted and modified by Putin.
To begin, empire is largely a political response to weakness and humiliation by a politician. The pivotal imperialist turn in France and Britain occurred in the 1870s. In all instances, it was intended to compensate for loss. Bismarck's war had resulted in France's loss. Jules Ferry viewed France's expansion into Tunisia, Madagascar, and Indochina as a means of reviving French glory. His critics, most notably the great patriot Georges Clemenceau, saw it as a diversion from France's fundamental priorities, the recapture of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and the construction of the Vosges blue line. Britain under Benjamin Disraeli was also shifting toward a new form of power politics, owing to Germany's ascent and the perception of relative British industrial and economic decline. Bismarck later pressed for imperial participation in 1884, believing he was losing control of politics. Imperialism, in a nutshell, is for losers.
Putin's perspective is primarily motivated by his renowned appraisal of the demise of the Soviet Union as the twentieth century's greatest geopolitical calamity. Ukraine's collapse, along with its political structure, is a means of correcting that basic defect in the Russian mind.
Second, the reality of empire necessitates a theology of global political uplift—not just national interests. The idea must be connected to a universally appealing proposition, regardless of how hypocritical it may sound, particularly in retrospect. There was a mission civilisatrice for nineteenth-century France — and particularly for Ferry. Cecil Rhodes of the United Kingdom stated in his will (testament): "I contend that we are the first race on the planet, and that the more of the planet we inhabit, the better for the human race." And, of course, proponents of imperial grandeur have always emphasized their fundamentally peaceful intent, as in Emanuel Geibel's now-famous 1861 poem, which was originally intended to demonstrate the curative powers of a peaceful process of rationalizing political boundaries: "The whole world may heal itself through German character." "And it may be that the German Wesen / Generates the World once more."
According to Putin, there is also a common worldview to which Russia may contribute its own distinctive perspective, its own version of a civilizing mission. Today, politicians from right to left, from radicals to moderate centrists, are falling over themselves to condemn neoliberalism as a fading and failing dogma of US hegemony. Russians, more than anybody else, are adept at playing the anti-liberal card. Russian policy shifted significantly more aggressively in 2007–2008, during the height of the global financial crisis, which was widely interpreted, not just in Russia, as a discrediting of American capitalism or the end of the American period of global hegemony. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, President Putin's senior ideologist, has argued for Russia's engagement in the Ukrainian war on the grounds that "neo-liberal ideas form the conditions for civilisation struggle."
Thirdly, the universal and the local are entwined: a particular country presents itself as the ideal embodiment of the moment's need. Putin has a very traditional perspective of nations and nationalism from a linguistic standpoint. His July 2021 thematic essay is unmistakably Herderian, updating the position of Johann Gottfried Herder, a German thinker from the 18th century who emphasized the importance of language commonality, especially in countries with numerous regional variants and dialects. Later followers of Herder concluded, first in central Europe and then globally, that major language groups deserved and required statehood. Putin stated in "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" that "the inclusion of western Russian areas into the one state was not the outcome of purely political and diplomatic actions." It was founded on a shared faith, shared cultural traditions, and—as I have previously stated—language commonality."
Fourth, geopolitics is critical to understanding how and why a functional nation must transform into an empire. Today, there are numerous calls for increased geopolitical thinking. They have resounded since the 2008 financial crisis, but particularly with the emergence of Xi Jinping, Donald Trump's presidency, and the onset of a new Cold War. For others, it's a nebulous feeling of continents and vast geographical areas; for others, it's a notion that reality is a never-ending struggle in which space is more important than ideas, maps more important than chaps. The latter claim, that geopolitics is a zero-sum game in which one side must lose in order for the other to win, is most closely associated with the Bavarian thinker Karl Haushofer, his lessons from Japan's rise, and his desire to use them to instruct a defeated Germany on how to rise again following the defeat of 1918. Haushofer lay the groundwork for geopolitics' definitional ambiguity. He viewed himself as the geopolitical prophet, but he could never articulate just what geopolitics was. A distinctive approach was the normative injunction that "Geopolitics must and will become the state's conscience." Haushofer influenced Alexander Dugin, who is fond of acknowledging intellectual debt and whose Eurasian perspective shaped another component of Putin's worldview.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is a defined time window for a successful outcome in the fight for empire. At the start of his political reign, Putin made a strategic gamble that Russia, like the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, would be able to exercise influence through the use of its natural resources: luring client governments with the promise of uninterrupted supply of cheap energy (dependent of course on continued compliance). Russia's critical error in the 2000s was to abandon any notion of transitioning to sophisticated industrial production or pursuing a strategy of industrial rather than raw material orientation toward a global market a la Deng Xiaoping's China. The technique appeared to be phenomenally successful during periods of high energy prices but would be problematic if energy prices fell. The oil price increase of 2007–2008 prompted Putin to develop a new assertiveness philosophy.
Other petroleum-producing states, including post-Soviet Kazakhstan, considered decarbonization. Russia did not comply. Without the gas, Gasputin would be impotent. The increased discussion of CO2 emissions and the movement toward global climate agreements (both of which were briefly stalled by Donald Trump) therefore undermined the Russian long-term strategy. If carbon energy becomes useless at some point in the future, Russia's advantage will soon erode. This results in a logic of conflict sooner rather than later, reminiscent of the German military planners' miscalculations in 1914, when they were fearful of Russia's likely development in economic and population strength, as well as its expanding capacity for rapid military mobilization. War sooner rather than later: this was the destabilizing attitude of decaying imperiums.
Perhaps reiterating as a "lesson of history" that imperialisms fail and create reaction is superfluous. The ancient imperialisms succumbed gradually. Putinism, too, will collapse, and is now failing, rapidly: yet we should be concerned that failing political orders can cause enormous damage, and that the damage is incomprehensible when they possess nuclear weapons.
Imperial decline's financial story
The final historical lesson, however, is about a particular kind of failure: the story of how would-be imperial nations amass vast economic and financial reserves that they believe will shield them during the inevitable struggle. Imperial Germany amassed a gold war reserve, which it held in a medieval fortification tower near Spandau, the Juliusturm (the idea of storing up wealth was a little medieval too). Putin purposefully accumulated a sizable amount of international reserves, including 74 million troy ounces of gold (as of the end of January), which is currently valued at $142 billion. However, gold reserves are worthless, despite the fact that they are predominantly concentrated in Russia, because to their inability to be easily transferred and traded. Germany's reserves in 1914 were equally tiny, capable of covering only a few days of conflict.
Instead of preserving a stable system, the ruble and its golden backing now offer a road to resistance. Historically, the capacity to sell government debt was viewed as a key vote of financial confidence, and central banks controlled interest rates to entice individuals, patriotic or not, to purchase national securities. Putin has clearly failed to earn that essential vote of confidence.
It is also dangerous for demonstrators to take to the streets in Russia. The majority of billionaires are afraid to express open criticism, as illustrated by the stunning tableau of acceptance in the Kremlin's stately Hall of St Catherine. However, similar to the Russians who deserted the front during World War I, residents can still vote with their feet and exit the currency. The queues in Moscow to obtain dollars are a sort of protest in and of themselves.
Additionally, there is an intriguing new potential for how money functions as a voting mechanism. Electronic private currencies (cryptocurrencies) enable the expression of dissatisfaction and the transmission of a financial vote of confidence. The extraordinary increase in the price of bitcoin after the imposition of Western financial sanctions reflects the flight of Russian dollars and assets, the spectacular flight of capital from a system that has lost credibility. Money — and a lack of it — is the destroyer of empires. Modern money (cryptocurrency) is even more efficient at restoring liberty.
The chronicle of imperial decline in international relations
When imperialisms come to an end, a great deal depends on the manner and style of their demise. And that style, in turn, is contingent upon other powers—particularly when those in charge of empire are concerned with geopolitics. After 1945, one of the international order's primary responsibilities was to provide a framework for the end of empire, or imperial decline.
Britain's experience with decolonization may provide a good lesson. Suez was a watershed moment in its imperial fall. The Suez expedition began on October 29th, 1956, with an Israeli attack on Sinai, followed by a British and French ultimatum and the beginning of a paratroop operation on November 5th. The proposal amounted to a hasty attempt to recapture the Suez Canal from Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, but it was carried out without consulting the United States, with whom London had convinced itself it had a "special relationship." The hope of Prime Minister Anthony Eden's British administration was that the coordinated effort with France and Israel would succeed fast and that the US would be satisfied with the outcome and delighted to see Nasser fall. Indeed, the disorderly operation fizzled, and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was enraged. He desired that the world's attention be drawn to the illicit Soviet conduct in sending tanks into Budapest, but now saw that the world was being shown something quite different, a high-handed and failed old-style exercise in Western imperialism. The US then understood that a sterling crisis would bring Britain to heel; Harold Macmillan, the wily Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had previously backed the Suez move enthusiastically, altered his opinion about the British plan's logic. As former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson quipped later, he was "first in, first out." According to historian Diane Kunz's classic study on the financial aspects of the Suez crisis, he may have encouraged the American financial attack on sterling in order to undermine Anthony Eden, whom he eventually succeeded as Prime Minister.
This ancient tale, which shaped British politics for at least a generation, retains considerable importance today. Is there a friend who can manage and nudge Russia's imperial fall in a non-aggressive and pleasant manner? China is the essential partnership for a Russia grappling with its own form of imperial decay. Vladimir Putin may have believed that a swift and immensely powerful effort to bring Ukraine into line and change its government would earn him praise in China. That, of course, was Eden's objective in 1956 at Suez. Rather than a great but brutal surgical strike, Russia waged an egregiously harsh and poorly managed war. The appalling extent of civilian casualties in Ukraine, the deterioration of Russia's army, and the threat of widespread nuclear contamination, if not from nuclear warfare (and there is even a threat of battlefield nukes being used), then from the reactor fire in Europe's largest reactor, Zaporizhzhia, caused by Russian shelling. These are all atrocities that have rendered Russia a worldwide pariah.
The fallout from the botched battle puts China's commitment to a tight relationship to the ultimate test. Putin and Xi Jinping declared themselves "best friends" in 2019, and just a few weeks earlier at the Beijing Winter Olympics, they declared that their friendship had "no bounds." On March 8th, Xi Jinping urged "utmost moderation" in calling for peace talks. These "best friends'" "limits" are being put to the ultimate test.
China is far more committed to a multilateral international order. Despite efforts to implement a "Dual Circulation Strategy" following Covid in order to reduce reliance on external supply chains, China is more reliant on global trade than ever. There is little interest in seeing existing trade disputes escalate. Ukraine is a significant economic partner of China and a critical link in the country's engagement with Europe. Second, Taiwan is affected by the Ukraine war. A swift and successful Russian operation reorienting Ukraine would almost certainly have impacted the People's Republic's ability to exert pressure on Taiwan (and limiting the capacity of the US to provide an answer). However, dismantling Ukraine is detrimental to the PRC. China is adamant about its understanding of state territorial integrity for a very specific reason: recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as breakaway states implies that there is nothing wrong with Taiwan's independence as a renegade state.
It's deeply aggravating for the US and Europeans to stand by and provide only little aid to a country that is tearing itself apart and destroying itself. However, it is equally evident that the fear of nuclear war precludes direct military support, the presence of NATO forces in Ukraine, and the establishment of a no-fly zone. Beijing is necessary for Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin to deal with Russia. President Xi is the only individual who can authoritatively order Putin to halt. As President Eisenhower did with his old buddies in the "Special Relationship," Xi may find himself in the position of informing his "no boundaries" "best friend" that the time has come to call it a day. That is the responsibility, however unpleasant, of being a counsellor throughout the imperial fall process.