Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Bullying of Ukraine Undermines Putin’s Neo-Imperial Projects -- and Harms Russia as Well

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 27 – By bullying Kyiv to put off signing an EU association agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have won a battle but he has lost the war, commentators say, because his actions now will make it far less likely that other former Soviet republics will be attracted to one or another of his neo-imperial projects.

At the same time, however, as Putin’s approach to Kyiv shows, some of these countries or at least their political elites can be bullied effectively, and that means that the Kremlin is likely to engage in more such efforts in the future even though that will further alienate these nations from Russia and undermine their governments in the eyes of their own populations.

Three Russian commentaries this week are especially noteworthy in this regard. In an essay on the “Osobaya bukva”site on Mondy, Roman Popkov argues that “empires, federations, coalitions and other large geopolitical spaces are not built as Mister Putin is trying to build them” (

Long ago, under conditions of late feudalism, Popkov continues, it was possible to build empires by force and bribes, “but now successful geopolitical projects are not established in this way.”  One can always bribe elites or use economic or military pressure if one has them, but they do not work for very long because they destabilize and alienate those one hopes to attract.

The elites in these countries inevitably “change. Purchased elites can give way to those that are not and that are not corrupt.” What is necessary to build an empire is an attractive system, one that others want to emulate and be a part of. The Americans have understood that, and even the Soviets recognized until near the end the same.

            But at the end of the Soviet period, they forgot that or could not exploit an attractive model because it was obvious they didn’t have one.  All that was left was force economic or military.  As Popkov points out, Putin is very much “a man of the late USSR” and acts accordingly with all “the mutations, genetic defects and shortcomings” of that time.

            Had Russia spent the last decade making itself an attractive alternative to the European Union, it might have attracted Ukraine and the others to its side, Popkov continues, but instead, Moscow focused on enriching its elites and assumed that it could get its way by threats, force, and bribes alone.

            That may delay Ukraine’s entrance into Europe a year or eighteen months, but it won’t prevent it, whatever Putin thinks.  Indeed, by re-igniting the Maidan spirit, Putin and his collaborator Yanukovich have made it more likely that Ukraine and other countries will move in that direction quickly.  Don’t KGB officers understand that? Popkov asks rhetorically.

            In a second commentary, this one on the portal, Yevgeny Ikhlov says that the Euro-Maidan in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities is “the main indicator of the collapse of the Russian great-power idea,” a collapse which he suggests reflects tectonic shifts and one with far-reaching consequences (

            Despite Yanukovich’s about face as a result of Putin’s pressure, “European integration and independence from Moscow” reman “the foundation of the Ukrainian national idea,” and that in turn is “the gravedigger of Russian great power-ness” because “Moscow cannot oppose it with anything excep vulgar economic blackmail.”

            Ikhlov notes that 70 years ago, the Nazis used anti-Semitism as their last defense of opposition to Western democracy and that today, Moscow is shouting “gay, gay, gay” in much the same way.  It didn’t have to be this way, he suggests. Russia could have made itself more attractive and even presented itself as having a special link with Ukraine.

            But in recent weeks, Moscow said nothing about the spiritual ties between Russians and Ukrainians and did not speak “intelligentsia to intelligentsia” or even “worker to worker” as it might have earlier. Instead, it behaved like a wealthy lord dealing with “a half-naked provincial lass.”  That is “the complete bankruptcy of ‘Great Russia.’”

            Moreover, this shortcoming reflects a broader problem: “the complete exhaustion of the adaptive potential of Russian culture,” of its current inability to absorb others or even attract them.  Instead, the Russian powers that be “have shown that they are capable of restraining peoples only by fear and to attract them only by bribery.”

            Finally, on the portal and on his own webpage, Aleksey Shiropayev, a leading Russian regionalist, argues that the recent events between Russia and Ukraine and within the Russian Federation show that Russia remains imperial, a “diminished” edition of the USSR organizationally and intellectually ( and

            Although Boris Yeltsin initially tried to change that, Shiropayev says, the events of 1993 and the Russian Constitution that emerged then confirmed that “Russia had remained in its former imperial historical paradigm.” Unlike many former Soviet republics, Russia did not become “a new country,” one that could attract its own people and those of its neighbors.

            As a result, it is alienating not only the latter as Ukrainian events show but the former as well.

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