The Russian empire is being rebuilt. The
Russian people demand it. Russian politicians are using this popular attitude
to placate the people, and distract them from the fact that Russia is turning
into a dictatorship. And so Russia is pressuring its neighbors to do what they
are told by Moscow. In support of this, the Russian government has
re-established control over key industries, as well as all the major mass
While the 1917 revolution destroyed the
ancient Russian monarchy and simultaneously rejected democracy and the market
economy, the 1917 revolution didn't work. The overbearing and inept czarist
aristocracy eventually returned in the form of overbearing and inept Communist Party
officials and state-appointed industrial managers. The second revolution in
1991 was less bloody than that of 1917, but the huge Communist bureaucracy was
not dismissed, only reduced.
Unlike the 1917 revolution, 1991 one saw
the dismemberment of the czarist empire, something even the 1917 Reds were not
willing to tolerate. Territories that had been Russia's for centuries, like
Ukraine and Belarus, plus others that had only been conquered in the 19th
century (Central Asia and the Caucasus), were suddenly independent once more.
But not completely free. The Russians called
their new neighbors the "Near Abroad" and treated them more like prodigal
children than sovereign nations. In the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of
Independent States (CIS) was formed by Russia. The CIS was sort of a successor
of the Soviet Union. But after he 1990s, the CIS began to fall apart. Some
members, especially Armenia, Ukraine,
Georgia and Turkmenistan, drifted away. Or at least tried to. Apparently you
could join the CIS, but not leave it.
The New Russia of the 1990s faced
serious economic and political problems internally, as well as unrest on its
new borders with these new neighbors. Russia sought to solve all these problems
to its advantage, Thus the Near Abroad nations are increasingly hostile to
Russian interference. During all this, Russians grew increasingly nostalgic for
the old empire. Russian politicians played on this by talking of rebuilding the
There were other considerations. For
over a thousand years, Russians have lived in fear of invasion. Thus it has
always been popular to absorb or subdue neighbors, to provide a buffer zone
between the core Russian (mainly Slavic) territories, and potential invaders.
The Golden Age was the post World War II period, when Russia still had all the
czarist conquests, while Eastern Europe, Mongolia and North Korea were run by
communist governments that were basically satellites of Russia. Memory here has
been selective. The empire was expensive, in terms of cash, diplomatic ill-will and poor public
relations. But only the good things are now remembered, which is how
nationalistic memories usually work.
Ironically, the Russian military
industries were saved in the last decade by India and China. These two nations
kept Russian weapons manufacturers alive with large orders. More importantly,
the booming economies in China and India drove up the price of oil, of which
Russia is a major exporter. The billions in oil wealth propped up the Russian
economy and allowed the armed forces to be rebuilt. Now Russia talks openly of
reclaiming its status as a superpower and dictating the fate of its neighbors.
But Russia remains a second rate military power, with a second rate arms
industry and a collection of very hostile, and fearful, neighbors.
The war in Georgia comes on the heels
of threats (of violence) made to Ukraine. Before that, Russia cut off energy
supplies to Ukraine to show who was really in charge. Russia makes more threats
to the Baltic States and East European countries over membership in NATO and
the construction of a U.S. anti-missile system. The bear is back in a fighting
mood, and the world wonders how far this reassertion of empire will go.
Western Europe is paralyzed by fear of
losing a quarter of its natural gas supplies. When Russia set up those gas
pipelines during the Cold War, somber pledges were made that gas deliveries
would never be used for political purposes. After seeing what happened to
Ukraine, and other East European customers, no one can be sure anymore. After
Georgia, no one can feel safe from Russian violence anymore either.