“All politics is local” works in the international arena, too. Shakespeare put it well in Henry IV Part II (4.3.343-345) when the king counseled his son and successor: “Be it thy course, dear Harry, to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”
Vladimir Putin certainly has reasons to “busy giddy minds” in Russia. His economy, in free fall for years, is now barely coming out of stagnation. Russian public health—high morbidity and low life expectancy—is worse than in some African countries. Tied to the price of resources, especially oil and gas, Russia remains, as German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once quipped, “an Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.” The Kremlin needs an oil price of $80 to $100 to balance its budget. That price currently oscillates around $50. Basically, Russia has failed to join the global knowledge economy.
Yet Putin need not fear for his political life, nor does he need to manipulate his country’s elections. Russians may hunger for prosperity. They may want to escape from sanctions and isolation. Presumably, they also cherish the rule of law. But there is a powerful substitute, which is nationalism.
When they draw from that wondrous well, they can enjoy a political good that defies scarcity. Material goods are inherently limited, and so are symbolic ones like power and status. Not so nationalism, that über alles feeling of collective superiority. What I imbibe, I do not take from you. We can both drink to our heart’s content—rich and poor, country and city, Slavs or Bashkirs. Nationalism is not a zero-sum game. It is the great equalizer. It unites all in common pride, a conviction that generates enormous cohesion and overwhelms the usual cleavages of politics.
Nationalism revolves around exceptionalism, which comes with a historic mission. Therefore, Russia must sacrifice and not listen to the false gods of materialism. So when Vladimir Putin castigates the moral decline of the West, he raises up the rodina, the community of fate that is Russia. When he grabs Crimea, he feeds the nation’s pride—never mind that it was only a short-lived Russian possession. Catherine the Great stole the Crimean Khanate from the Ottoman Empire in 1783.
To recoup Ukraine, at least the Russian-Orthodox East, is not just a matter of geography, but a sacred mission whose value dwarfs the monetary costs. Wasn’t Ukraine—the Kievan Rus—the very cradle of Russia whence it expanded all the way to the Pacific? To restore it to Russia is an obligation bequeathed by Russia’s glorious past.
So nationalism is one, but only one engine of expansionism, and it comes with religious fervor. Russia has always seen itself as “Jesus” among the nations. It must suffer and sacrifice to fulfill its messianic vocation. Nor is this conviction tied to any particular ideology. Even in Soviet times, Russia saw itself as the “Third Rome”—after the Roman and then the Byzantine Empires.
This impulse has served the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, and now, it is serving Vladimir Putin. Hence Western expectations that Russia’s dire economic straits will force Putin back into the community of nations will not soon come true. Suffering, to turn a phrase, is as Russian as vodka and kasha. It took seventy years before the Soviet Union fell under its own weight.
But to repeat, nationalism is just one engine. Here is the twist. Something that has always existed, cannot logically explain Russia’s shift toward expansionism circa 2008. There must be an intervening variable. Call it “opportunity.”
Recall that Putin I, president from 2000 to 2008, did not gallop off into neo-imperialism. It was Putin II, president again since 2012, who turned toward authoritarianism at home and expansionism abroad. What had changed? The intervening variable is the presidency of the United States that kicked in when Barack Obama took office in 2009. A sign of things to come was the occupation of South Ossetia in August 2008, presumably because George W. Bush seemed crippled by his lame-duck status and his unpopularity at home.
At first, Putin must have looked on in disbelief as he saw Obama prescribing self-containment—retrenchment and retraction—to his country. Obama would pull the last of U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011. He was drawing down U.S. forces in Europe. He was cutting defense expenditures—though, it must be said, with the help of a Republican Congress.
Instead of playing Globocop, the United States, as Obama orated, must take care of itself; it was time “for a little nation-building at home.” Then came the infamous “red line” Obama drew over Assad’s chemical weapons. Yet hardly had he laid it down, when Obama vacated it. In Europe, the White House outsourced the “Ukrainian Job” to the EU that was loath to confront Russia with anything more than limited sanctions. The embattled Ukraine certainly would not get arms to defend itself against Russia’s “little green men” and its local surrogates, neither from the U.S. nor from the EU.
So opportunity came knocking at nationalism’s door. Should anybody have been surprised? Putin is not an imperialist pursuing a grand design, but an opportunist who carefully tallies risks and gains. He understood that the U.S. would not commit serious forces to Syria; so he committed his own. Today, the Russian air force controls the skies over the entire Levant. The range of Russia’s anti-aircraft missiles reaches deep into Israel.
In his State of the Nation Address on December 1, Putin did appeal to Russian pride when he noted that the “Russian Army and Navy have shown convincingly that they are capable of operating effectively away from their permanent deployment sites.” He took another page out of the nationalist book: “Let’s remember that we are a single people, a united people, and we have only one Russia.” So nationalism is the great unifier.
Yet it does not really explain the expansionist turn of events. The appeal to “Mother Russia” must be married to opportunity and low risk. That is the moral of this tale. Exploiting perceived weakness is the oldest rule of international politics. No balance, no stability; no resistance, no containment. You don’t have to be Putin or Russian to live by this general maxim. Nationalism is good, opportunity is better.