Staunton, June 4 – Speaking as “a former citizen of the former Soviet Union,” Vladimir Putin says that “the problem of empires” is that “they are so powerful that they can allow themselves” to act with virtual impunity toward others for a long time but eventually a moment comes when they can’t.
That is what happened to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin leader says; and now, the same thing is happening with the United States (tass.ru/politika/11575803). Not surprisingly, Putin’s provocative statement has attracted a great deal of attention in Russia and abroad, but it is important only as indication of the shortcomings of his thinking.
As he has throughout his own career, Putin ignores in both cases the internal dynamics of the two countries. The USSR did not fall apart just because of foreign actions but because of the actions of its peoples, Russian and non-Russian alike. Had it been unified at home, it would not collapsed when it did.
Moreover, the USSR did not fall apart when it was increasing its projection of power abroad but when it was pulling back. Putin himself has pointed to Gorbachev’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and even more to his unwillingness to defend the Soviet bloc as primary causes for the demise of the USSR.
And finally, Putin ignores the fundamental differences between the USSR and the US, with the one using “hard” power to spread influence abroad while the latter has relied far more often on “soft” power and with the former ruled by a party that claimed to represent the people but didn’t while the latter has been governed by parties chosen by the people.
These three things are critical, but there is a fourth which may be even more so. Putin clearly does not want to recognize that the Russian Federation itself is an empire when in fact it continues to be so. If he did and if he believed that overreach abroad could threaten it, he would be pursuing a very different foreign policy than the one he is.
Indeed, it could be argued, Putin’s approach as the ruler of the Russian Federation recalls the situation of the former USSR more precisely than that of Washington in the case of the United States and is more likely to lead to the disintegration of his country than anything he may be fantasizing about in the United States will lead to that country’s end.