According to Time, Pope Francis was the ‘person of the year’ in 2013, and with good reasons. Who else has given answers, symbolic and material, to the West’s worst economic crisis since the Second World War? Another magazine, Forbes, chose Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, as ‘the world’s most powerful man’ in 2013 (and in 2014), when Putin was often feared yet recognised as a smart statesman by the American and Western media and press. Russia had just scored a crucial diplomatic victory on the Syrian question.
How have things evolved in 2014?
Western media has criticised and sometimes even ‘demonised’ Putin’s presidency, in particular since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis and the controversial decision to adopt economic sanctions. This assessment demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complexities of Eastern European history, coupled with the weight of vested interests, particularly on the USA side. Let us start with the latter. The USA is increasingly controlled by a clique of major players – in the financial industry, the IT sector, the media, the ‘military-industrial complex’. Such groups are unaccountable and unrepresentative and have become a real ‘oligarchy’, as is highlighted in a straightforward way by the US political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, in his recent book ‘Political Order and Political Decay’. Fukuyama openly points to the moral decay, corruption, and institutional decline of American politics, which is slipping further and further away from what a democracy ought to be. Groups like the investment corporation BlackRock, with assets under management of 4.6 billion dollars, or the lobbies linked to the Department of Defence, which spent 640 billion dollars (SIPRI, 2013) last year, enjoy disproportionate power and massively influence US foreign policy. Speculative attacks, funding of protests and ‘coloured revolutions’, and even the enlargement of the EU and the NATO eastwards tend to all serve the interests of a limited number of powerful groups. In addition to vested interests, Western (and, again, American in particular) political establishments have shown no sensibility towards Eastern European history and culture, and by supporting protests in Kiev, have created the conditions for a divide within the country. Ukraine is a complex puzzle and overlooking its importance for Russian history has been a serious error. Kiev is the cradle of modern Rus’, and the share of Russian native speakers in the country is estimated at 30%; these are less tangible aspects which American decision-makers, and their fellow European, have completely disregarded.
In the light of the above, the ‘West’ cannot really claim any moral high ground and Vladimir Putin’s policy in Ukraine looks understandable and reasonable. Far less reasonable instead is the policy of the European Union, which has once again shown an almost total dependence on Washington’s choices. Southern European countries are battered by massive economic problems, and France’s unemployment rate is almost 11%. Germany, which would have the economic weight to promote change, keeps following a senseless austerity policy, which is in line with US and British interests; and the EU institutions have very little voice of their own. Thinking about bringing Ukraine into the EU right now defies any sort of common sense; how could a country with more than forty million citizens and a Gdp of approx. 3,500$ per head be truly welcomed into an EU which is unable to financially stand on its feet?
The European Union does not have political autonomy and has not really offered its own solutions to the Ukraine crisis. Nor has Angela Merkel’s Germany, which keeps refraining from making any clear-cut decision in international affairs. Such inertia is more dangerous for Europe than for Russia; the EU strongly depends on Russia for gas and on the USA for security; all of this is happening on the background of the tremendous rise of a third player, China. Putin’s Russia, in contrast to the EU, has implemented a robust policy of engagement in three directions: a) the Eurasian Union; b) China; c) the other BRICS and selected emerging countries.
The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) was first proposed by Putin in October 2011 and will formally come into force on 1 January 2015. Three countries have already ratified the founding treaty (Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), Armenia has plans to join, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan look poised to follow. Western critics (including Hillary Clinton) see the EEU as a sort of ‘new Soviet Union’, or even Russian empire, and have pointed to divergences among its prospective members. These remarks miss the point. President Putin’s vision has become reality in few years, and the three current members already possess 20% of the world gas reserves and 15% of the oil reserves. The EEU is a smart answer to a world of rising Powers and trade blocs, in which Russia and its neighbours claim a significant role. The new organisation, formerly called ‘Customs Union’, has made in a few years steps which had taken the EU several decades. The fact that countries such as Turkey and India have expressed interest in it is a testimony to its success.
China’s policy has been another big achievement of Putin’s presidency. China and Russia signed a landmark gas deal on 24 May, and are co-operating on a range of issues, from strategy to the economy. Paradoxically, as Andranik Migranyan has highlighted in ‘The National Interest’ (“Washington’s Creation: A Russia-China Alliance?”, 10 July), Western aggressiveness contributed a lot to bringing Russia and China closer. Beijing is the big challenger to Washington, while Moscow, in theory, could play a mediating role. US mistakes (better not to refer to the tragicomedy of the EU) have transformed two potential opponents into potential allies. Of course, the economies and strategic interests of China and Russia are complementary in many respects, and the embrace between the “Bear” and the “Dragon”, already tightened in 2013, has become even more intense.
Putin’s Russia has been extremely active in relations with emerging countries as well. Last July Russia’s President visited Latin America, and in particular three countries at odds with the West; Cuba, Nicaragua, and Argentina, in which important agreements were signed. Even more importantly, in Brazil Putin met the other BRICS leaders, and they established a joint New Development Bank, which is meant to become a competitor of the World Bank, and contribute to a new and more equitable international financial order.
To summarise, and address the thought-provoking title question, Putin’s Russia might not be a superpower like the Soviet Union, but has recovered strength and credibility, and is again a ‘global’ power with a pro-active role on multiple fronts. Unfortunately, Europe is not one of them. While Russia cannot neglect Europe, of which it is a part; the EU and its governments will have to re-gain political and economic autonomy and engage Russia in an independent and constructive way.
A new international order is taking shape, but the West has either not understood that or simply pretends to ignore.
Photo: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service