EU has weakened. But Putin’s Russia has limited influence.
The last time geopolitics intruded into an Olympics, during the 2008 Beijing Games, Vladimir Putin was the crisis’s winner: his military delivered a decisive spanking to Russia’s neighbour Georgia, whose government had fatally overestimated the West’s willingness to intervene on its behalf.
Today the Olympics are on Russian soil, and violence is convulsing another nation in Moscow’s traditional orbit. But the crisis in Ukraine is sending a rather different message. So far, events in Kiev have been a lesson in the limits of Russian influence, and the implausibility of Putin’s claim to offer a rival civilisational model to the liberal democratic West.
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After a century in which Russia styled itself a revolutionary power fighting the West’s reactionary capitalists, the former KGB man has sought a return to the ideological role his nation played under the czars — as a conservative bulwark against the West’s revolutionary liberals. Crucially, this rhetoric isn’t just for domestic consumption: it’s also pitched to the developing world. But there is a vast difference between Putin’s grand strategy and both its Czarist and its Soviet antecedents.
The czars sought a “Holy Alliance” to defend a still-extant ancien régime — a rooted, hierarchical system that still governed many 19th-century European societies. But today’s Russia, brutalised by communism and then taken over by oligarchs and grifters, is not a traditional society in any meaningful sense of the term, and the only thing it has in common with many of its potential developing-world allies is a contempt for democratic norms. In the Romanov era, the throne-and-altar idea still had a real claim to political legitimacy. But there is no comparable claim Putin can make for his own authority, and no similar mystique around his client dictators, be they Central Asian strongmen or Bashar al-Assad.
Which is not to say that Putin’s geopolitical approach is all folly. On the contrary, he often plays the great game far more effectively than his European and American counterparts. But the weakness of Russia, its government’s corruption and the unattractiveness of its alleged traditionalism all combine to foreclose his grandest ambitions.
And the struggle is particularly telling given that the Great Recession exposed the EU as a spectacularly misgoverned institution, whose follies consigned many of its member states to economic disarray. Yet even that record hasn’t persuaded the majority of Ukrainians to warm to Moscow’s embrace instead. It takes much more than mere misgovernment to make the European project less attractive than Putin’s authoritarian alternative.
For an interesting parallel to Putinism’s problems, consider what’s happening halfway around the world, in Venezuela, where the laboratory Hugo Chávez built for “Bolivarian Revolution” is descending into the same kind of violence as in Ukraine. Like Putin’s traditionalism, Chávez’s neosocialism was proposed as an ideological challenger to the American-led world order. (And Chávez had more American cheerleaders than does Putin.) But like Putinism, Chavismo lacks basic legitimacy absent the threat of violence and repression.
The lesson in both cases is not that late-modern liberal civilisation necessarily deserves uncontested dominance. But 25 years after the Cold War, from Kiev to Caracas, there is still no plausible alternative.