How is the new, “post-Crimea” era distinct from the post-Cold War era? What impact will this transition have upon Russia, itself? At least four distinct elements of the new period may be becoming clearer.
First, the world will undoubtedly become a more dangerous place than it recently was. Certainly, the West will not be able to count on Russian reluctant acquiescence or active support for actions against Iran or Syria, or similar constructive exploits in other arenas. Indeed, like the longtime Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, Putin’s current foreign emissary, Sergei Lavrov, may become this era’s new “Mr. Nyet.”
In addition, in the new multi-polar era, Putin’s incursion into Crimea has reinforced a rather illiberal norm that perhaps the U.S. and its Western partners helped to legitimate by their recent actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere: that is, that the use of force has become much easier to consider currently. During the Cold War era, such military engagements (or outright land grabs, as in Crimea) were usually kept in check by the threat of an ever spiraling escalation. Now, it may become accepted, when convenient, for any number of regional or global powers to use force indiscriminately when it serves their narrow interests.
Secondly, although a monolithic Sino-Russian axis is unlikely to appear in this new era, their relationship now will grow ever closer, which will impact the global geopolitical system, but also Russia itself. Of course, a military alliance between China and Russia will continue to be frustrated by Russian fears of Chinese encroachments in Central Asia and especially Russia’s far eastern provinces.
For its part, China worries about Russia’s ties with Beijing’s regional nemeses in South and Southeast Asia. Still, Beijing’s recent U.N. abstention actually demonstrates the lengths to which China has supported Russia over the Crimean annexation, even at the cost of perhaps severely undermining its own heretofore single-minded focus upon the international norm of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Indeed, China’s abstention could give license to Uigher or Tibetan nationalists seeking secession. The Chinese abstention was certainly not cast lightly.
What will Beijing require in return? Surely, the decade-long negotiations over Russian natural gas deliveries to China will be settled in May, at a price of China’s liking. As well, China may now ask for greater Russian backing for Beijing’s ongoing territorial claims in East Asia. Moreover, perhaps additional Sino-Russian energy and infrastructure deals will advance in east Siberia and the offshore Arctic. In addition, and perhaps most alarming, the two powers will surely seek to limit further U.S. influence in a variety of other arenas around the globe.
Thirdly, since Putin’s rise to the presidency in early 2000, Russia has teetered between West and East, never fully choosing between one or the other. With his Ukrainian gambit, Putin has finally taken sides, steering Russia on a perhaps irreversible path toward Asia. And, Putin’s own “Asian pivot” will reinforce Russia’s growing authoritarianism, a trend that has grown stronger since his return to the presidency in 2012.
Throwing in his lot with Asia and, in particular, China, leaves the wily Russian president less need to appease Western audiences, with no reason now to allow even a patina of democratic liberality.
Finally, and perhaps rather unexpectedly, Russia’s decided turn toward Asia will perhaps generate real motivation domestically to finally modernize Russia’s economy and turn away from an almost absolute dependency upon oil and natural gas production.
Liberal economic reforms may be entertained — as long as they don’t disenfranchise the current governing elite’s hold on specific economic sectors — because in order to confront both the West now and in the medium term, and China in the longer term, Russia’s economy must develop and flourish. To not undertake this long overdue transformation would be condemning the economy — and Russia’s sovereignty over its Eurasian landmass –— to the “ash heap of history.”
Tom Rotnem is a professor of political science at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. He studies comparative politics, with a specialization in Russian politics.