The ending of the Cold War caused by the spectacular fall of the USSR generated in the world a real wave of hopes about the alleged start of the epoch of non-violence in the relations between the great powers and, hence, the exclusion of the danger of a nuclear war. The pacifist enthusiasm was so big that the finding of Francis Fukuyama, American sociologist and economist of Japanese origin, about “the end of history” caused a stir in sciences about society. The first attempts to democratize Russian society of the beginning of the 1990s inspired hope. Then, few of the observers of the international life warned about the imperial complexes of Yeltsin’s Russia, which stared to be felt early, in the military conflicts in Transnistria and Abkhazia already. However, at the beginning, enticed by the perspective of a democratic Russia, the international community preferred to close the eyes to the imperial backsliding of Moscow’s policies in the post-Soviet space, the fate of Moldovans and Georgians being sacrificed for the sake of the geopolitical illusions of the West in that period.
Initially, the West didn’t hear Russia’s threat
However, at the beginning of the 2000s already, it became clearer that the fall of the USSR was a serious wound, but this didn’t lead implicitly to the death of the Russian empire. At political and economic levels, Russia substantially lost from the Soviet Union’s weight on the international arena, losing also the quality of world superpower. But as nuclear military power, Russia kept the role of the second power in the world, comparable with that of the U.S. In terms of collective mentality of Russian society, the Soviet imperial spirit was kept only with insignificant narrative changes, without losing basic substance. Russian society remained profoundly anchored in the spiritual values of ‘great power’ imperialism, in the imperial nostalgias of Russian society, these serving as favorable grounds for political revival of the Russian imperial revenge.
In 2007, in his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference, Putin announced his plans to review the relations with NATO and condemned “the monopolist domination of the United States in the global relations”, this way laying the basis of the Anti-American and anti-West political course of his regime. The West didn’t hear sufficiently clearly the Russian threat, continuing to use the cheap energy supplied in almost monopolist conditions by Russia to the European markets. The fabulous sums obtained by Moscow from energy trade enabled the regime of Putin to buy the political loyalty of Russian society and to fully subsidize the military complex and the army, while the Kremlin’s propaganda raised the cult of victory in the Great Patriotic War to the level of paroxysm, imbedding the consent to the war as a method for restoring the lost imperial grandeur in contemporary Russian society. This way, there was paved the way for the future wars in the space of the former tsarist and Soviet empire that Putin identifies as historical Russia.
And those wars were triggered swiftly. The rebel Chechnya became the first victim of the imperialist war waged by Putin’s Russia. Georgia’s turn came in 2008. The next act of the Russian imperial aggression was the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. The ongoing war against Ukraine started by Russia on February 24 this year is the highpoint of the Russian imperial revenge. In response to such impertinent defiance of international law and interstate norms of conduct that are commonly accepted in the world, the international community, first of all the Western civilization, after an annoying delay of several years, reacted by consistent measures of solidarity and political, military and other kinds of support for the victim of the Russian military aggression – Ukraine. To the same extent, measures are being taken to politically and economically blame the aggressor, the Russian Federation, to isolate the Russian state and its decision makers at multiple levels, these becoming the guiding line of this policy.
Now, Russia’s isolation is real
At the moment, owing to the international opprobrium due to the military aggression against Ukraine, Putin’s Russia hasn’t yet achieved the condition of an outcast country, like North Korea, but Russia no longer forms part of the world agenda, which is not linked to the subject of World War II. After the Russian army attacked Ukraine on February 24, no major nation supported Russia. Russia’s confrontation with the West in the case of the war in Ukraine generated broad programs of political and economic sanctions that pushed Moscow to the outskirts of would politics and of the decision-making process in pressing problems, such as, for example, the human rights or climate change. Russia’s isolation at international level is pressingly felt at the level of Russian civil society: there are no more tourist excursions and scientific trips; the athletes under the Russian Federation’s colors are banned access to the arenas of the world, business is no longer done as usual, either narrowly or broadly.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine angered also Moscow’s neighbors from the post-Soviet space and made such countries as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to look for allies elsewhere. The fact that Russia increasingly becomes a proscribed state is also proven by the big problems faced by Moscow within the CSTO, the political-military alliance of CIS states in the area of Russian geopolitical domination. This January, CSTO conducted the first and, eventually, the last successful common operation in Kazakhstan, saving the political regime in Astana from the fury of street protests. But the “saved” Kazakhstan immediately adopted an open anti-Russia position, refusing categorically to help Russia overcome the Western sanctions. During the visit paid by the President of China Xi Jinping to Kazakhstan this year and his meeting with President Tokayev, the two leaders ascertained the constitution of a strategic external partnership between the two states, Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia being in this case fully eclipsed. What is interesting is that immediately after this visit, the minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan said that the country will not violate the anti-Russia sanctions somehow.
Conquering empire in search of allies in Africa and Asia
The Kremlin tries to break the international isolation by frenetically looking for allies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, planning to constitute an anti-West coalition. For the purpose, Moscow’s propaganda invokes the so-called hypocrisy and double standards of the policies of the West. This propaganda narrative includes a permanent call to keep in mind the historical role played by the West in creating colonial empires and robbing the former colonies. What the Russian propaganda does not say is the fact that Russia itself, in all its historical incarnations, was a conquering empire and caused immense sufferings to the occupied nations.
Russia banks a lot on its relationship with China in the hope that it will be able to overcome the disaster caused by the international sanctions. But China – this new world superpower – strictly promotes the own interests in Russia’s frontal confrontation with the West. In particular, China avoids becoming involved to help Russia overcome the sanctions even if it fully benefits, alongside India, from dumping prices of the Russian energy resources that, losing the Western markets, are sold at disadvantageous prices in the Asian countries. This position of China is recognized even by the American officials, including President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. And nothing changed on this dimension even the U.S. made a determined approach in the form of a visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Furthermore, China even reduces many of the economic projects agreed earlier in Russia.
Russia isolated, Putin also isolated
The disaster of Russia’s isolation is more evidently shaped by Putin’s position of proscribed politician in terms of international relations. The first signal in this regard for Putin was given at the G20 Summit of the largest economies held in Brisbane, Australia, in 2014. In that summit, Putin took part shortly after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the reprehension by the international community for this defiance of international law by Moscow was manifested by a symbolical gesture of placing the Russian leader in a remote corner of the traditional family photo. Furthermore, in that meeting Putin was so much avoided by other leaders that he preferred to leave earlier, before the summit ended.
But the Kremlin leader learned the Australian lesson in an exhibitionist manner. Eight years later, after he launched the invasion war in Ukraine on February 24, he threated the West with the use of nuclear weapons. He chose to be fully absent from the crucial event of the international political year 2022, the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Putin resorted to this forced measure in order to avoid public humiliation greater than that he experienced at the Brisbane summit, choosing to delegate his minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov to take part in the meeting in Bali. This time Lavrov already experienced public humiliation when a number of leaders of the G20 states refused to appear on a common photo with the representative of the state that attacked Ukraine. The Russian minister, as his superior in 2014, left the Bali summit much earlier than this was over. Many observers noted the unsuccessful practice of Moscow, which this way tried to protect the Russian leader from a storm of condemnations in Indonesia, but Putin’s absence risks further isolating Russia that was already struck by the unprecedented Western sanctions.
When will curse of own history be overcome?
Seriously hit by sanctions, becoming a more noticeably proscribed country at international level, Russia continues and amplifies the war in Ukraine only owing to the political will of the authoritarian regime in Moscow. The war in Ukraine shows with precision the source of political autocracy in Russia, which identifies itself with the imperial project, while the dictator from the Kremlin uses the imperial war to liquidate his enemies and to disseminate fear all over the Russian society. The democratic ideas didn’t triumph in Russia during the years after the dissolution of the USSR as Russian society accepted the imperial project to the detriment of liberal democratic freedoms. The recent history of Russia shows how heavy the cultural burden of the past is and how persistent the habits of autocracy to force the Russians to live in fear are. The conclusion about the prospects of a durable peace in Ukraine, which can exist not only as a result of the replacement of the political regime in Moscow, but also as a result of a profound change in what is called the definition and condition of the Russian nation, derives from here. In this regard, Russia’s future will be configured not only by the mystic laws of history, but also by the way in which the Russian leaders and citizens assimilate and interpret the tragedy of this brutal and unjust war for them. This means the Russians should no longer allow Putin or any other politician with dictatorial ambitions to be able to define what being Russian means. And the chance for the Russian society to overcome the curse of own history together with the possibility of annulling the status of proscribed state for Russia and the triumph of democracy in Russian society will become real only when Crimea is set free and the Ukrainian flag is flown, including over Sevastopol.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.