The New (Eastern) Order: Russia’s out of it

Since Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Presidency, Russia has fought a long, uphill battle to maintain its status as a global heavyweight. Despite their best efforts, they have lost the fear and impression of the states around them…

UPDATE: I wrote this on the late 2000s to reflect the decline of Russian geopolitical supremacy in the East.  What it did not take into account was Vladimir Putin’s successful efforts to reabsorb much of the East back in Russian orbit.  These two related articles are here and here.

“A foolish thing in the Balkans,” Bismarck once predicted where the next Great War would be.He had been keeping a wary on the competing interests of Austria-Hungary and Russia on the Balkans, as it began to become independent.As had always been the case in the region, Serbia was the aggressor.They aggrandized the other states, and they wanted to absorb the Austria-Hungarian province of Bosnia.Eventually, it led to a tragic conflagration in Europe. “A foolish thing in the Balkans.” Decades later, Serbia’s imperialism causes the breakup of Yugoslavia, and a bloody, protracted war with Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other outlying regions.

Serbia pulled Russia to international tensions there too. When then President Clinton launched air strikes against the former in response to its increasing genocidal aggression in Kosovo province, an irate Boris Yeltsin warned, in no uncertain terms, that if the Americans didn’t desist, there would be war. The newsies picked it up as a “new Cold War”, and it lasted for some time.The tension soon fizzled off, and Serbia was left to pick up the pieces after overthrowing Milosevic.

With Kosovo’s independence, Serbia is counting yet again on Russian support for their pressure on the international community, NATO membership be damned. They can’t go in directly—after all, NATO troops still occupy the breakaway province (oops, country). They could wait for the long haul and stake it all on a possible Serbian insurgency within the region, and resist the coalition army there Taliban-style. They could ask for Russia to put pressure in the European states, or even the United Nations to withdraw their support from Kosovo. But, thanks to their own past mistakes, Serbia does not have many “friends” in the region, and may be left out of place in the new Eastern Order. Neither can they rely too much on their ancestral ally, Russia, as it has that same problem.

Since Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Presidency, Russia has fought a long, uphill battle to maintain its status as a global heavyweight. The secession of the other “federated states” from the Russian union left the country economically unstable. Their protracted war with Chechnya, a once-independent region to the south, became reminiscent of the Afghan experience when it sapped the strength of the clearly under trained Russian military. And despite their best efforts, they have lost the fear and impression of the states around them.

To the West is the Eastern European Bloc. Largely to its efforts, Poland has finally begun to rise from the poverty of the majority of its eastern neighbors, and has (surprisingly) begun to encroach on German markets, particularly the real estate. They have had a substantial voice not only in NATO, but the European Union. Uncomfortable with a still-large Russia breathing down their necks, the other states have been all too eager to be absorbed in a political and economic alliance. Russia had before a better alternative: following the United States’ invasion of Iraq, they entered into a diplomatic alliance with France and Germany. These were heavyweights that could clearly move the European Union, NATO, and (with China) the United Nations in opposition with the United States, with them in the helm. This has, however, since changed, following the elections of pro-American Sarkozy in France and Merkel in Germany.

The American occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have not only isolated Iran, but also Russia, from exerting influence in the “oil sheiks” further west. During the Soviet years this would not have been possible; if Bush had invaded Afghanistan they would have met with Russian tanks as much as Taliban fighters. With Iraq, the Soviets might even force their way through the Iranian passes, to the ire of the ayatollahs, as a counteraction. Here, the militant wing of the loose al-Qaeda confederation is strongest, though at best they are a wildcard. Russia once played “the Great Game” with the United States, in the Egypt-Syria-Israel regions, but Syria has been doing well on its own, exerting its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, or in strictly political alliance with Iran (it helps that they have common enemies).

That leaves, quite conveniently, Iran. The Islamic Republic has been so eager on taking the preeminent role in the Middle East. Their one great rival to the west, Iraq, has been subjugated. And nobody really likes American presence. Iran’s agitation for its nuclear development programme is ultra-nationalist in character. If successful, not only will they be a principal pawn in the “New Great Game”, they might even be one of its main players. Bully for Iran. Considering these factors then, clearly it would be in Iran’s best interest to court Russia, right? They are making diplomatic overtures to Russia, but they’re looking for a stronger, more ancient “Silk-Road alliance”.

Russia’s other great rival has been China. While it was still the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic started to grow very vocal about the “failings” of Soviet leadership. Chinese delegates challenged them in the Communist International Conventions, Chinese military entered into a shooting war with them over Mongolia, and Chinese policy-makers eventually broke from the mainstream Soviet sphere. It was clearly all politics; they wanted to take world leadership. That hasn’t changed. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, China has successfully courted the Central Asian proto-states—called the Stans—in a closer, economic and political friendship. Collectively, some speculate that they are the “next oil sheiks”, largely untapped and, if we are to believe the Kazakh boasts, has even larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia or any of the other oil sheiks to the West. They don’t even have to worry about Russian “strongmanship”; they’re backed militarily by the Americans and politically by the Chinese.

The People’s Republic has also taken the helm among the surviving Communist states, as well as those “terrorist” states not recognized by the Americans. Their close relationship with Iran even came to a point when an idea was floated of putting a “Chinese base” in Iranian territory. Whether it was just rhetoric aimed at Saudi Arabia and the Americans, or real political “closeness”, it clearly showed who the powerbrokers in the new Middle East were: the Americans, the Europeans, and the Chinese. And the Russians remain sulking in the corner.

Russia could try to rekindle old friendships, like the ones in North Korea and Cuba (every other Communist or ex-Communist state is running to China or America). But Kim Jong-Il has acted as a lone wolf in his region, and besides which, Russia isn’t even Communist anymore. Geographically, China is the obvious ally and patron. Beyond the Dear Leader, it is Chinese leaders, not Russian, who will influence North Korean thought.

The Russia-Cuba relationship is tragic, at best. There have been dramatic episodes (the Cuban missile crisis, for one), and much heartbreak. Fidel Castro has had to deal with a slew of different Soviet chairmans, from Khruschev to Gorbachev. Certainly, Russia could maintain some sort of economic ties with Cuba, going beyond ideology—Cuba can even earn a “Serbia-type friendship status” with Russia.One problem, though: Cuba is no longer at the helm of Latin American politics.Hugo Chavez, and Venezuela, in his active opposition with the United States, is slowly filling Castro’s shoes.

For what it’s worth, Fidel Castro, through all of Russia’s pressures, has stayed loyal up to the end. Of the Soviet Union (maybe beyond). But could his successor maintain the same devotion? Unlikely.

What is somehow working is their economic pressure on their immediate neighbors and former provinces—Belarus and Ukraine. Both are pro-Western, but both (especially Ukraine), are dependent on Russia for immediate source of resources. Perhaps, the nearest Eastern countries like Poland, maybe representing the EU, might help pull Belarus out of the Russian orbit. Ukraine is the bigger problem. Romania and Bulgaria are still weak economies, and will not help the country. Possibly, they could construct an economic pipeline via the Caucasus through the Middle East, connecting even to Iran, Syria or some other willing “oil sheik”. And, of course, America is willing to lend any assistance it can offer.

Indeed, Russia, since shedding its terrifying Soviet role, has little to no place in the new Eastern Order. The Ukrainians are working hard to be absorbed in the European Union’s economic network, and away from Russian intimidation. Most of Europe, and Asia is probably looking forward to a time when Russia would be no more as some “Eurasian mass of blob and embarrassment”, as much of the world is looking forward to an America-free diplomacy. Certainly, now, Russia still has a seat among the Big Powers, and veto privilege in the United Nations. It is still respected, as part of a world coalition. Maybe even a “scale-tipper”.

Yet somehow, Serbia will find itself a little alone. Russia can ill-afford to send troops. They’ll only get pressure via the United Nations with China’s help. The two countries can try to play Cold War games—pop culture still eats up that kind of sensational news—but what else can Serbia do? It’s a new Eastern Order. And Russia’s out of the mix.

Update: Check out this Newsweek article.