Russian President Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum
The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall was this week, and much was made about the great strides Europe has made in the last three decades to put itself back together after over 40 (or 50, or 80) years of war, violence, and separation. Though problems still remain in the Balkans, and though the internal movement of people as the European Union continues to enlarge proves to be a big point of contention in recent years, the prospects are looking good for continued European prosperity.
That is, until you look at Europe’s eastern borders. In Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the continued unrest in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has led to increased NATO military buildups in that country and the Baltic states, not to mention over 4,000 deaths. In Georgia, the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been able to maintain a de facto autonomous status. Moldova has such a region as well, and it is perhaps this one that is most emblematic of one of the causes of these problems: the breakaway Moldovan Republic of Transnistria’s flag is the Flag of the Soviet Union, with a green line through it.
At the beginning of September of 1991, the two most powerful presidents of the Eastern Bloc, Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR and Boris Yeltsin of the Russian SFSR, spoke to the assembled Congress of People’s Deputies to plead for a reorganization of the Soviet system to save it from collapse. We all know they ultimately failed, their mutual animosity not helping the situation. However, there is one thing that they did agree on: change had come to Russia, and would not go away. “‘The Russian state, having chosen democracy and freedom, will never be an empire, nor an elder brother, or a younger brother,’ said Mr. Yeltsin. ‘It will be an equal among equals.’”
The KGB, one of the organizations most easily associated with the concept of a Big Brother, was understandably not so happy with these new pluralist values glasnost and perestroika had brought. One KGB officer, stationed in East Germany at the time of the Fall, was particularly upset. Much has been said about how Vladimir Putin once called the break-up of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, how his press censorship is setting the Russian media back twenty years, and how his cult of personality is eerily reminiscent of various premiers and general secretaries from the previous century.
There seems to be more evidence of Putin’s desire for a return to the order of business pre-1985. Just this week, Russian warplanes resumed high altitude flights down to the Gulf of Mexico, flights they had cancelled at the end of the Cold War due to budget constraints and lack of threat. The Russian navy has deployed ships to the edge of Australia’s waters in preparation for the G20 in Brisbane this week, claiming they are there not for show-of-force purposes but for “scientific research” and “security for world peace.” Sweden became quite alarmed when they recently detected a submarine in its territorial waters, suspected of being of Russian origin. And, of course, there is the column of Russian armor that entered Ukraine this week to support the “people’s republics” in the east of that country.
While it may seem that President Putin is trying to resurrect (to the extent it is possible to resurrect) the Soviet Empire, that explanation does not capture all that Putin is trying to do. On one of its covers earlier this year, TIME Magazine labeled Putin a czar. There are serious comparisons to be made with the old Russian Empire. Putin has revived the idea of Russia having a responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in other countries (which worked out so well in 1914), and has made sure to place the Russian Orthodox Church, repressed during Soviet times and the paramount bastion of conservatism in society, in as established a position as he can without making it the established church.
However, describing him as a Caesar does not quite cover it either. To me, Putin seems to be cherry-picking the best parts of the Russian and Soviet Empires and hoping they work well together. Putin knows Russia will probably never become the “second center” of the world again, one of only two superpowers vying for global domination, so he seems quite happy making sure Russia is recognized as a central player on the global stage and the unquestioned dominant power in its region/sphere. He knows large territorial gains and holdings are costly, so he seems to be seeking power and/or hegemony through economic means, creating the Eurasian Union to rival European and East Asian competitors and perhaps replacing the CIS due to his perception of it as ineffective.
With remilitarizing the Arctic, greater state centralization, heady doses of Russia’s history (not just Soviet times) in state media, more focus on regional hegemony than global reach, and less emphasis on party doctrines vis-à-vis old fashioned power politics, Putin seems to be creating his own style of governing Russia that does not comport with a democratic, Czarist, or Soviet model. So, while Gorbachev warned this week that the world was on the brink of a new Cold War, I doubt I’ll see a new Berlin Wall go up, or hear that grade-schoolers are drilling to find the nearest fallout shelter, or that America is the last bastion of freedom against a global Red conspiracy. I also doubt I’ll see Putin wearing a crown, forcing “peasants” to build national infrastructure projects, or abolishing the conscript army in favor of professionals. Putin, it appears, is determined not to be a traditional politician, so the traditional titles of president, czar, and premier cannot alone describe him. As much as I hate to give Mr.-bare-chested-photo-op-seal-hunter his own field, Putinism might be the only way to accurately describe his actions and goals. Maybe he will fit into a more familiar model in the future, but for now, as far as I can tell, meet the new boss; he’s not the same as the old boss.
Michael Alter is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government and Economics and minoring in History.
Image Attribution: “Vladimir Putin 20090128 2” by Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0