Little Letterhole: The bear is back

I’ve never been to Russia. It’s a huge, bear-shaped hole at the eastern edge of my personal map of Europe. To me, and much of the rest of the West, it remains a grey, enigmatic country of tall Soviet tower blocks and desolate forests and mountains that stretch on for vast, uncounted miles. In our collective imagination it is still identified as the standard-bearer for anti-Western sentiment.

It’s not an unreasonable suggestion. Much of Russian history has been defined by its need to defend itself against its western neighbours. The North European Plain that stretches across European Russia has made it ripe for invasion: over the centuries Poland, Sweden, France, and Germany (twice) have tried, with devastating – if unsuccessful – results. As a result, Moscow has often turned to creating a cordon sanitaire of sympathetic states between it and its enemies. In the 20th Century this was the Warsaw Pact, and in the 21st it has been Belarus, Ukraine and Armenia.

Russia has been playing a long game. Under Stalin, millions of ethnic Russians were transplanted into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In 2014, following the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin used the protection of ethnic Russians (an ill-defined group) as the pretence for annexing Crimea and covertly invading Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Much of the Russian-speaking population welcomed Russian intervention, and it received only a limp response from NATO. That would not be the case if Putin used the same argument to interfering with Estonia and Latvia, two NATO countries still hosting a relic population of Russians. The mistreatment of that group may be a grim augur of things to come if Putin’s strategy comes to fruition.

What is his strategy? If some theories are to be believed, the Kremlin is funding Western demagogues such as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn with an eye to planting sympathetic, anti-NATO voices in positions of power. Add to that Putin’s confirmed support for the increasingly popular Front National in France, and the collapse of the alliance starts to seem like a real possibility. Seizing Crimea was a statement of intent, designed to show NATO that Russia is not yet ready to give up its authority over Eastern Europe.

The world, however, is not defined by a Manichaean struggle between Russia and the West. Putin’s actions are not driven by paranoia, but by historical geopolitical necessities. Indeed, even when Russia has courted friendly relationships with the West it did so as protection against other enemies in its immediate vicinity such as Poland and the Ottoman Empire. Understanding Russia is the first step to understanding the state of politics in the West in 2016, which will be the subject of our next blog.

Picture credit: 70th Annual General Assembly Debate by United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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