Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Russia, Ukraine, Crimea

The crisis in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula is one of the most dramatic and alarming confrontations since the end of the Cold War.  The struggles in the former Yugoslavia were prolonged and horrendous.  Russia's wars against Chechnya and Georgia have been bloody - quite extraordinarily so in the former case.  But the manoeuvres and geopolitical jostling underway at the moment are on a much larger scale, with much more at stake.

Russia is historically an empire, and its approach to its sphere of influence was matched in the policies and positions of the Soviet Union, and is echoed now again in the Russian Federation - Russia is a very large and strong state that seeks to maintain zones of influence, geopolitical freedom of movement, and buffering between it and other powerful countries and blocs.  For Russia, this was, at least in part, the geo-strategic logic of the 'communist' regimes of eastern Europe and the military alliance that held them together after 1955: the Warsaw Pact.  But with the collapse of the USSR, the WP also melted away.  Russia underwent a brutally rapid and chaotic transition to market capitalism during the 1990s, with ferocious terms prescribed to it by the World Bank and the IMF.  Russia under Vladimir Putin has succeeded, primarily via its hydrocarbon resources, in achieving a somewhat healthier economy, and a renewed sense of its great power role. 

But Russia's shambolic and sometimes violent emergence from the ruins of the USSR has not always been aided or made easier by Western powers.  The terms of integration of the Russian economy into the global capitalist economy have been very poor.  Western powers have done little to discourage the shocking oligarchical economic structures of corruption and power that Russia has developed.  And the West, led by the United States, has foolishly and unthinkingly maintained the NATO alliance, and pressed it very close to Russia.  It is an unattractive but necessary fact that part of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis has stemmed from the wish of Western powers to push the NATO alliance deep into Russia's traditional zones of influence - its 'near abroad', as represented not only in the Baltic states and Poland, but also in Ukraine.  The late Peter Gowan predicted the force and seriousness of the Russian reaction to Western influence in Ukraine as long ago as 1999.

To say this is not in any way to deny that the Russian regime is deeply undemocratic, corrupt, and authoritarian.  But one cannot understand what is happening in Ukraine, Crimea and Russia at the moment purely in ethical-moral terms.  This is not simply a struggle over democratic values and human rights, but needs to be understood in the terms of machtpolitik

This blog has often expressed respect for and interest in the work of John J Mearsheimer.   Mearsheimer is a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, and he is the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.  In this book, Mearsheimer sets out a chilling vision of post-Cold War global politics, simply sweeping away any illusions of a stable 'New World Order'.  Mearsheimer's angle of vision of the international system is called, in his own terms, 'offensive realism'.  By this, Mearsheimer means that the best way to understand the international system is to see it as constituted by perpetual Hobbesian struggle between states for power.  These struggles, which involve even small states like Ireland, are dominated, of course, by the 'great powers'.  These struggles are not always limited or contained by economic relations or international law.  Russia is a former great power, seeking to recover its role in the world.  Its quest to do so is not always pretty.

Mearsheimer's perspective is valuable not because he is a radical leftist, much as this blog might wish at times that he was.  It's valuable because Mearsheimer is, in a way that is rare in the American foreign policy establishment, almost entirely unsentimental.  He is not necessarily interested in the plight of the weak,  and he  is not above advocating for the interests of the United States, but he cuts through the diplomatic and policy-theoretical verbiage and pious hypocrisy that passes for public wisdom in the halls of power in Washington, London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin.  Here  he is in the New York Times on March 13 last, on the current crisis:

Getting Ukraine Wrong - NYTimes.com

For some background on Vladimir Putin, and the way in which he's steered Russia over the last decade, one could hardly do better than to read Perry Anderson.  Anderson is surely one of the most impressive and formidable Anglophone Marxist intellectuals alive.  An early editor of the New Left Review, Anderson (born in Waterford, and brother of Benedict Anderson, a leading scholar of nationalism), has taken part in many of the most important  debates in Western Marxism since the Sixties.  With Tom Nairn, he offered a powerful diagnosis of British politics in the 1960s, arguing that unlike other major European countries Britain has never experienced a 'bourgeois revolution'.  This led him into dramatic and famous politico-theoretical clashes with EP Thompson, which were also exacerbated by the fact that Anderson and his NLR colleagues represented a heavily 'continental' strain in British Marxism, indebted to thinkers such as Gramsci, Sartre, Althusser, the Frankfurt School writers, and Lucio Colletti, whereas Thompson's positions reflected his training as a positivist historian.  But Anderson's range has always been astonishing.  Still a young man, he produced two magnificent historical syntheses in 1974 - Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, and Lineages of the Absolutist State - and a series of short volumes tracking British and European Marxism which are masterpieces of pithy interpretative summary.  More recently, he has produced wonderful volumes in the history of ideas - A Zone of Engagement and Spectrum - and a massive study and critique of the idea of Europe - The New Old World.  Anderson frequently writes for the London Review of Books, and even there his stylish, mordant and sinewy essays stand out for their acuity, erudition and the sheer pleasure they offer the reader.  He wrote a long essay on Putin and Russia in 2007, which still stands up very well.

Russia’s Managed Democracy: Why Putin? · 25 January 2007