There is a monster on the Russian state coat of arms: The double-headed eagle. Traditionally, the unpleasant mutant had been watching over imperial possessions in East and West. Recently, its watch has extended to all cardinal points — not just Europe and Siberia-Pacific, but also the Arctic and the Middle East. This is not an eagle anymore; this is a cuckoo nest on steroids.
Russian expansionism cries “imperial overstretch” so loudly that the usual suspects behind any aggression, such as security concerns, struggle for resources, and consolidation at home, fail to explain it. Consider the latest strike in Syria. According to the Kremlin, in Syria it pursues two goals — first, to bomb Islamic State into the Stone Age, and second, to restore the authority of the “legitimate” regime of Bashar Assad. Neither is realistic, and both are charged with peril for the perpetrator.
Like every ideology-driven insurgency, Islamic State is blessed with outstanding powers of regeneration. The simplicity of its tactics and weapons renders strikes against its arms depots and command posts virtually meaningless. President Vladimir Putin, of all people, should know that: His generation of Russians had fought a disastrous war against the Islamic State-type ghost army — in Afghanistan. “Spirits” (doukhi), the Russians called the mujaheddin.
Worse, attacking in Syria, the Kremlin has invited the Islamic State partisans to retaliate on Russian soil. Again, this is a familiar scenario: already on Putin’s watch, Chechen fighters hit Russian cities, including Moscow, to get even for the destruction the Russian military had brought on Chechnya.
It is too late to try restoring the authority of Assad’s regime. Combined, the Russian air force and Assad’s ground troops may be able to secure the coastal areas of Syria, where Assad’s power base is. Not the whole country. Furthermore, for Assad to maintain control over even his shrunken realm, the Russian military will have to stay in Syria indefinitely. Instead of a little victorious war, the Kremlin seems to have signed up for a quagmire.
Temporary friendships bring lasting animosities. Russia’s ad hoc alliance with the Shiite coalition has already earned it a bad name in Sunni capitals. Saudi Arabia, reputedly, keeps the price of oil low to hurt a Russian economy built, as we all know, on energy exports.
By any standard, the Russian military intervention in Syria is folly, unless we look beyond its material worth. This is why almost every article on Russians in Syria asks “What is Putin’s endgame?” Indeed. Does he expect the West to recognize the annexation of Crimea in exchange for Russians joining the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State? Or does he want to mess up the region even more and then walk out on the resulting chaos, leaving the United States to face the music?
Perhaps. But it seems that Putin is aiming higher than that. His endgame may be a new contract between Russia and the West. Not to be “forgiven” the occupation of Crimea and the stealthy war in eastern Ukraine (because that would not be enough, the absolution time and place are specific), but something along the lines of “We agree to disagree on many things. Now let’s move on.”
In his seminal 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man,” Francis Fukuyama, developing Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s concept of history, suggested the presence of two alternate human mindsets. One is that of the “economic man” guided by material self-interest, someone whom we may call practical and rational. Another type is the person who wages battle for “pure prestige,” steered above all by the desire to be recognized by others.
Fukuyama calls that species “thymotic,” from the Greek “thymos,” the word blending self-esteem, pride, anger and determination. The difference between the “thymotic” and the egomaniac? The egomaniac is the irrational one. You can’t placate him. But with the “pure prestige” person, recognize him as your equal, and he will sheathe his sword.
Look at Russia’s history of intervention in the last two years. First, the Kremlin annexed Crimea. Instead of developing the territory, as it promised the 2.2 million people living there, the Russian leadership almost immediately plunged into stealthy war in eastern Ukraine. Why? Because, despite the occupation of Crimea, the West remained unpersuaded of Russia’s greatness. The crusade in eastern Ukraine brought Moscow grief instead of recognition, but instead of settling the conflict, the Kremlin just dropped the miserable rogue “people republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and jumped into Syria.
If that succession of military interventions is not a battle for pure prestige, what is?
“Recognize us as equal players,” the Russian leaders seem to be telling Washington. “You wanted Assad out, but we are able to keep him in. Waging your war on terror, you strike sovereign nations at will — Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq — suggesting that you are doing this for humankind’s greater good. That’s what we are doing and saying now. Prove us wrong, or don’t judge us.”
“Recognition” is among the vaguest social terms. It seems that for the Kremlin the inspiration is the short-lived Big Three concert: Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Josef Stalin rearranging political maps and the world order behind closed doors during World War II. To “compensate” Poland for the eastern provinces occupied by the Soviet Union, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to move Poland’s borders west onto historically German lands. They awarded East Prussia to the Soviet Union, to become Kaliningrad province, still Russian now. Once, Churchill even proposed a “percentage deal” to Stalin, drafting the post-war British and Soviet spheres of influence on a sheet of paper (“Hungary 50:50″; “Bulgaria 90:10″ — and so on).
That brazen kind of diplomacy generally belongs to the past, yet its underlying philosophy lingers: To paraphrase George Orwell, “some nations are more equal than others.” A good example would be the thoroughly undemocratic United Nations, with the five permanent members of the Security Council enjoying veto power, thus rendering the opinion of all other nations rather inconsequential. The U.N. system is nothing but a caste system, in clear violation of the one person (one nation)-one vote principle.
This kind of undemocratic incongruities in world affairs make Putin’s Kremlin both angry and hopeful: In an unfair system, the Kremlin can expect to be eventually rehabilitated, its ambitions acknowledged, if not fully accepted. But even if this is to happen, the solution is going to be only temporary. In the modern world, Fukuyama’s “thymotic” man generally loses to his calculating twin, the “economic man.” A worrisome consideration for the current occupants of the Kremlin and their supporters Russia-wide should be the fact that their interpretation of “prestige” is impossibly conservative and un-modern.
Consider China. Its situation is in many ways similar to Russia’s. Both desire to be recognized by Western powers as peers, not apprentices in the art of liberal democracy who still have a long way to go before getting admitted into the guild. But where Russia rattles the sabre, China works the spade. Russia grabs land (Crimea); China builds islands in the South China Sea in spots it designates as strategic.
Still, the generation currently in power in Russia wages the battle for prestige in earnest, even if this is a losing battle. Generation — I have used the term deliberately: the tectonic changes in Russian politics should not be attributed to just one man, and “Russia” is not spelled P-U-T-I-N. Vladimir Putin is the cohort’s inspiration, embodiment and leader, but he is not their Maker.
Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.