From de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…. The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
While the particular paths both the US and Russia forged from the mid-19th century until now don’t neatly fit de Tocqueville’s parameters—the US has not necessarily been shy in using military force—it’s as good a starting point for discussion as any.
Any cursory examination of the histories of both nations easily leads to the conclusion that both the US and Russia have had a sense of mission. That of the US is to spread democracy and self-determination across the globe. (Again, I’m speaking of self-conception, not reality on the ground.) Russia’s mission has been to see itself as defender of the Slavic peoples, and of Slavic Christianity; essentially, as the inheritor of Rome and Constantinople. It is a mission wrapped in mysticism and destiny. Even its 70 year sojourn under Communism was imbued with this mission, this time to make the world one large soviet. But at heart, Russia has seen itself as a natural great power, perhaps the greatest.
The idea that a thousand years of Russian culture would be eradicated by the fall of the Soviet empire was, at best, a fool’s dream. And I admit, I participated in it. I looked at summits between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin with relief and pride: two great enemies becoming partners, ushering the world into a new age free of great power conflicts.
And, truthfully, Russia was no longer a great power. Yes, it still had nuclear weapons; but the entire society was caving in on itself, of no threat to the West, dependent, in fact, on Western largesse. Bit by bit it became entrenched in the global economy, enmeshed in webs of finance and trade which are difficult to break.
But Russia’s rush to capitalism was based on theft. A few became the proverbial “Russian tycoon”, while the majority wallowed in penury. That was the first clue that things wouldn’t turn out quite the way as we optimists hoped. And politically there was always a strong undercurrent of revanchism, of a pining for a lost empire, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky being the prime proponent of this. Yeltsin, who may have genuinely believed in democracy, was nevertheless wrapped up in the corruption of the selling off of state assets. The elections in which he participated were far from the standards of the West. Authoritarian communism was being replaced with an authoritarian quasi-democracy, with a large dose of rule by oligarchs. The wheels were starting to come off the great Russian experiment quite quickly. (The fact that the West insisted on “shock therapy” for the Russian economy didn’t help matters much.)
The fulcrum, the pivot between the flawed experiment and the Russia we have today was Yeltsin annointing Vladimir Putin as his successor.
As an aide to the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin had an air of the reformer about him. It was thought that he would continue to enhance Russia’s slow lurch to democracy and free markets. He easily succeeded to the Russian presidency after Yeltsin resigned.
However, he was not even a flawed democrat as was Boris Yeltsin. In 2005 he gave a speech wherein he said:
Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
He did give lip service to “democracy” and “free markets”. But all the while he was consolidating independent media under state control. He was recreating state corporations, taking from the holdings of oligarchs who did not tow the Kremlin line. In a sham of democracy, he annointed his prime minster as the next president, only to push him aside once his term was done to reassume power. (Of course, his record towards Russian minorities is also reprehensible.)
Putin has embraced wholly Russia’s sense of destiny, and sees himself as its embodiment. And it’s not something he’s forcing on his citizens; enough of them believe in this mission to keep him more or less securely in power.
The invasion of Georgia was the opening gambit to the recreation of a Russian superstate. The seizure of Crimea is the first real test.
The problem, however, is that as flawed as Russia’s integration into the world economy has been, it is integrated with it. The Russian stock market has lost 20% of its value in two weeks. The US and EU are preparing ever harsher sanctions the longer Putin holds onto Crimea. The oligarchs who support Putin’s regime may soon find their access to their fortunes clinched shut. At that point those who form a separate power block outside of the Kremlin are going to have to face a choice: a Great Russia, or the comforts and privileges they’ve acquired over the past 20 years.
The fact that Russia is isolated in the UN Security Council, with even China abstaining on a resolution calling on Russia to respect Ukraine’s integrity, is no minor matter. Russia no longer has a bloc on which it can rely to give it cover. It is, finally, isolated.
Putin has a choice: become, finally, a full member of the world community; or plunge it into an anarchy not seen since the 1930s. In this sense, Russia holds the destiny not of half the world, but of the world entire.