When journalist Adi Ignatius asked Vladimir Putin what his favorite Beatles song was in late 2007, the Russian leader replied, “Yesterday.” For some commentators, this expression of nostalgia is enough to convince them that Putin is the second coming of Stalin and that the Cold War is ending more than two decades of dormancy.
However, the clash between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine represents not a restart to the Cold War so much as it represents a contest over the terms of its proper conclusion.
When the Soviet Union was on its deathbed, its leader, Gorbachev, met with high-level diplomats in order to negotiate the future of East Germany. In early 1990, Gorbachev had agreed to a German reunification plan that halted NATO expansion east of West Germany.
However, after having second thoughts, the U.S. offered Gorbachev a new plan several months later — one that would allow for German unification and the gradual expansion of NATO forces into East Germany by 1994. While Gorbachev agreed to this altered plan, subsequent Russian leaders, including Yeltsin and Putin, believe that the eastward expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe violates the spirit of these talks.
The Russians and Americans likewise contest the nature of the 1994 Memorandum of Understanding, which denuclearized Ukraine and also called on the major powers to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from economic coercion designed to…secure advantages of any kind.”
However, Russia’s latest actions, including its economic pressures on Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, and its support for rebels in the eastern Ukraine — not to mention similar interventions beyond its borders elsewhere — show that Russia is a restless and expansionist military power.
Putin has pursued an all-out modernization of Russia’s military, which will cost $750 billion by 2020. The military seeks to increase the number of active-duty personnel to 1 million by that year and plans to augment the number of tanks, helicopters, planes, ships, submarines, and satellites by significant margins. Putin also aims to have 70 percent of the military’s equipment and weaponry be “next-generation” grade by this 2020 deadline.
But why has Russia been so quick to use its military power, especially in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014?
One explanation lies in protecting Russia’s economic interests — and especially its energy interests. More than half of Russia’s federal budget revenue comes from petrodollars: the country contains one-fifth of the world’s natural gas reserves, and Russia exports as much oil as Saudi Arabia.
First in 2006 and again in 2009, Russia’s energy conglomerate Gazprom cut its energy supply to Ukraine after disputes over payments, and prior to the recent crisis, Russia demanded billions in energy payments just as Ukraine was negotiating its entry into the European Union.
Russia has used this strategy before to deter countries from developing closer ties with Europe.
In 2013, it threatened to cut energy shipments to its impoverished neighbor Moldova while it was planning a free-trade deal: at the time, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Dmitry Rogozin callously told Moldovans, “We hope you will not freeze.”
Russia has taken other precautionary measures to keep other countries hooked on its oil and gas supply. It has constructed a pipeline that bypasses Ukrainian territory in order to guarantee its unobstructed shipment of energy to Europe, which currently imports one-third of its natural gas from Russia.
Russia has also tried to scare off investors interested in fracking natural gas reserves in Poland and Ukraine by claiming that it can cause “black stuff” to spout from one’s faucet.
However, others attribute Russia’s military chauvinism to Putin’s need to garner domestic legitimacy in a country that his chief ideological supporter and long-time svengali, Vladislav Surkov, once dubbed a “managed” democracy — one that is notoriously lacking in political freedom or pluralism.
In other words, Putin may be stoking ethnic nationalism domestically and engaging in an aggressive, irredentist, pan-Slavic foreign policy abroad in order to mobilize supporters at home.
When Adi Ignatius spoke to Putin in 2007, Putin lamented that the rapid dissolution of the USSR left many Russians stranded.
“Twenty-five million Soviet citizens who were ethnic Russians found themselves beyond the borders of new Russia,” he told Ignatius. “Nobody gave a thought to them. Is it not a tragedy?”
Since taking the helm, Putin has backed separatists all across the former Soviet Union — from the breakaway Transnistria region in Moldova, to the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, to the pro-Russian rebels in southern and eastern Ukraine.
In a two-hour address to the Russian parliament in March 2014, rather than referring to “Rossisskii” – which designates citizens of the Russian Federation, regardless of their ethnicity, Putin claimed to speak and act on behalf of “Russkii” — ethnic, linguistic, or cultural Russians regardless of where they live.
This ethno-nationalist propaganda has seeped deep into the consciousness of Russian citizens.
For instance, 90 percent of the population has access to the immensely popular TV show,Vesti Nedeli, or News of the Week, hosted by Dmitry Kiselev – a populist figure not unlike America’s Glenn Beck. Kiselev proudly boasts that Russia can still turn the U.S. “into radioactive dust,” declares that the U.S. orchestrated the anti-Yanukovych Maidan protests in Kiev, and believes that the blood and organs of homosexuals are unfit for use in life-saving medical situations.
Kiselev was recently appointed by Putin to head the state-run media operation, Russia Today.
This paranoia has also manifested itself in the proliferation of conspiracy theorizing about the cause of the Malaysian airline flight shot down near the Russian border in Ukraine. According to one theory, the plane is actually the missing MH370 aircraft. Other outlets have surmised that the Ukrainian military attempted to shoot down what it thought was Putin’s plane.
In other words, Russian expansionism and military growth is the result of two interrelated motivations. In order to retain his good standing with the oligarchic class — who run the Russian bureaucracy, economy, and media — Putin must coerce his neighbors to maintain their economic and energy linkages to Russia.
Likewise, in order to demonstrate his ethno-nationalist bona fides to the Russian masses, he must occasionally use force to come to the rescue of Russians who lie outside the Federation’s post-Soviet borders.
Putin advertised this combination of military aggrandizement and nativist chauvinism when he removed former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov from office in 2013 in part because Serdyukov preferred to import military equipment from countries like France and Israel rather than improve previous Soviet models and award military contracts to domestic suppliers.
Russia’s current course by which it uses its petrodollars to upgrade and deploy its military in ways that defend its economic and energy interests — a vicious or virtuous cycle depending on one’s point of view — is not a sustainable one.
However, with Putin enjoying record approval ratings at home and with Russia’s neighbors slowly pivoting to other suppliers to sate their energy needs, it is difficult to foretell when Russian expansionism will begin to see diminishing returns.
While it would be an overstatement to claim that Russia and China possess identical goals and interests — Russia is focused on its western frontier with Europe while China has its sights set on the South China Sea off its eastern coastline — the two regional powers have struck harmony on some matters of mutual importance.
China has signed a major natural gas deal with the energy behemoth and has largely succeeded at maintaining better diplomatic relations with Russia than it has with Japan.
Moreover, both countries have ratified several boundary disputes in the 1990s and 2000s, freeing Russia to devote its land-based military resources to the west and permitting China to hastily develop its naval capabilities. Also, since 2012, Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises on several occasions — most recently in May 2014 when President Putin and President Xi Xinping oversaw war games simulations in the East China Sea, just off Japan’s southwest coast.
China’s military enhancements — which parallel Russia’s military modernization plan — have come with a cost of nearly $200 billion a year to the annual defense budget.
In recent years, China has become a belligerent and aggressive force, claiming (absent any recognized legal justification) “absolute sovereignty” over roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea. Its infamous map of the region, which features 9 red dashes in the shape of a tongue, includes the much contested Spratly and Paracel Island groups, as well as other shipping lanes, reefs, and locations rich in fish, oil, and natural gas.
China has used bold and strong-arm tactics to secure some of these disputed territories, including the deployment of what Major General Zhang Zhaozhong calls the “cabbage strategy,” which involves gradually forming protective layers of vessels around contested territories until they fall under Chinese control.
In 2012, Chinese vessels surrounded and laid claim to the Scarborough Shoal using this strategy, blocking Filipino ships from entering the reef that has served as a fertile fishing location and a site for cooperative international environmental research. When the U.S. intervened in June 2012 to negotiate a de-escalation, the Filipino ships backed down, but the Chinese ships did not.
This occupation set a precedent for future territory-grabs, including its expulsion of Filipino ships from the Second Thomas Shoal in March 2014.
China has also escalated tensions with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which have been under Japanese control since the U.S. returned them to Japan in 1972. Hostilities nearly broke out in February 2013 when a Chinese warship locked its radar on a Japanese self-defense destroyer.
Chinese military leaders have been especially bellicose in their attitudes toward Japan and, by extension, the United States, given America’s security pact with Japan since the end of World War II.
Air Force Colonel Dai Xu, for instance, has called for a short and decisive war against Japan, and other Chinese military leaders agree that the U.S. would “run like a rabbit” if China does attack Japanese territory.
After Lt. Gen. John Wissler, an American military commander stationed in Okinawa, renewed America’s promise to join Japan in repelling a Chinese invasion of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in April 2014, a retired Chinese military commander writing for the Communist Party-controlled Global Times brusquely responded:
It has never happened in recent years that a US commander based in the Pacific division has made such presumptuous statements and implicitly declared China’s PLA to be an enemy. […]
[T]he Chinese army is familiar with the military geography and the environment of the Diaoyu Islands. Once the islands become a battlefield, no defenders can survive there.
We hold the same view as Wissler that we wouldn’t “even necessarily have to put somebody on that island until you had eliminated the threat.” Please pass on this message to Japan that it should not act rashly.
Please do not make war threats at will and show respect to the Chinese army that once defeated the U.S. during the Korean War (1950-53).
Similarly, Chinese military leaders have threatened the U.S. if it intervenes on behalf of Taiwan, with which that United States also has strong diplomatic and military relations. Major General Zhu Chenghu has vowed to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons if it comes to Taiwan’s aid.
What explains this outbreak of aggressive Chinese expansionism?
One explanation lies in China’s rapid economic and social development, in which a resource-hungry China is outgrowing its borders the same way a voracious adolescent teenager outgrows his old t-shirts.
Since 2010, China has been the greatest producer and consumer of energy — energy it needs to fuel a burgeoning economy and a restless population: when President George W. Bush asked former Chinese leader Hu Jintao what kept him awake at night, Hu replied, “creating 25 million jobs a year.”
Perhaps the most popular expression of this expansionism was articulated by Senior Colonel and National Defense University professor Lui Mingfu, whose 2010 book, titled The China Dream, has become a slogan of sorts for President Xi.
Colonel Lui anticipates that China will one day match America’s gross domestic product and even attain the same income per capita. He warns that the U.S. will try to contain China’s ascendance and argues that a strong military is a prerequisite for China’s flourishing. He believes that while China may pursue a “peaceful rise,” there may be a “conflictual rise” as well.
Lui strikes a more chauvinistic and hegemonic tone when he concludes, “To save itself, to save the world, China must prepare to become the (world’s) helmsman.”
This statement reveals a nationalistic fervor similar to that which animates Russian public and foreign policy.
Through its history, Chinese officials have referred its country as the Middle Kingdom — a name rooted in the ancient belief that China stands in the center of the world and reflects a sometimes dormant, sometimes active air of cultural superiority and civilizational excellence (not unlike the concept of American exceptionalism).
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger coined the phrase “Middle Kingdom Syndrome” to designate this ethnocentric attitude.
In their aggression toward other countries and cultures, Chinese authorities have found support among some nationalistic youth. Just as Putin derives support from the Kremlin-supported, nationalistic youth group Nashi (“Ours!”), some fen qing (“angry youth”) defend the heavy-handedness of the Chinese state, such as by creating patriotic videos endorsing the government’s violent and “civilizing” campaign against Tibetan independence.
Chinese and Russian expansionism are certainly frustrating President Obama’s diplomatic approach to global instability.
Despite getting Putin’s support in removing Assad’s chemical weapons from Syria, the State Department’s “Russia reset” has not succeeded in getting Russia to help bring an end to the civil war in Syria, nor has this ploy convinced Putin that he can get what he wants through soft power. It is unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do to halt Putin’s lawless behavior.
Likewise, the increased attention to the Pacific region, including the “pivot to Asia,” has resulted in diplomatic niceties and low-level successes, but has not calmed the tensions in the South China Sea, and China has not heeded the administration’s call for the free navigation of these waters.
China, in a sharp rebuke to the administration’s own “charm offensive” in Asia — and undeterred by America’s promise of an increased navy presence in the region — defiantly planted an oil rig in contested waters just off Vietnam’s coast shortly before a regional ASEAN summit meeting in May 2014.
While the causes of Russian and Chinese expansionism may be relatively simple to decipher, knowing how to manage Asia’s rise is far from clear.