Advances and setbacks in geopolitics (first part)

Of the four centers of world power, Russia simulates being a compact power, renovated, and aggressive. In reality, it is a rigid and unstable system that in foreign policy bets more on chaos than on international order.


In previous articles, I have identified the four main power centers in the geopolitical panorama of the first half of the 21st century, that is, the North American space, the Chinese space, the European peninsula, and the largest of all, Russia. These four regions have the generic preconditions to generate great powers. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions. In the following articles, I will make a brief analysis of each of them every month, especially highlighting what I consider their strong and weak points. From these analyses, I will try to extract the strategic consequences and their impact over other countries and regions of the planet. I present them to you in an increasing order of power and influence.

The Russian case

I start my analysis in a very porteño-like (i.e. from Buenos Aires) way equating Russian Count Leon Tolstoy with Argentine composer Enrique Cadicamo. The first one wrote, in his novel Anna Karenina, that all happy families look alike, but each unhappy one has its own of dealing with misfortune particular way. On the other side, the composer unknowingly endorsed what the novelist said. In his tango Los Mareados, he composed the following verse: “cada cual tiene sus penas, y nosotros las tenemos” (everyone has their sorrows and we have ours). In other words, it is about a common destiny of challenges and a difference in its resolution.

What is the main problem and challenge facing a world’s power? I would say, maintaining its unity throughout time and despite its rivals, defending its frontiers, being those continuous (a continental power) or punctual and dispersed (a maritime power). However, each power has its own peculiar way of preserving itself with its own socioeconomic model and political formula. The model and the formula change more frequently than the underlying culture and civilization in each power. Let us see one of those trajectories.

Far away and long ago, Russia was the center of a powerful empire: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was the second world power, not only in industrial and military terms, but also as an ideological alternative to the imperialist and liberal capitalism of the west[1]. The latter considered USSR as a contrasting civilization, which was under expansion over the developing world and over part of the developed one as well. This bipolar rivalry was called the Cold War.

The Cold War lasted 45 years and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not an external defeat but rather an internal collapse: a disintegration from the top down of the entire social building with juxtaposed cracks: an ideological disbelief, the sclerosis of an outdated leadership, managerial incapacity and financial bankruptcy[2]. The collapse of this power surprised because of its extension and speed. This brought about a great setback for Russia in industrial power (reverting five decades of forced and monumental industrialization), territorial fragmentation, demographic decline (the Soviet Union had twice the current population of Russia), ideological discredit and material and brain flight as consequences. The military power that it had accumulated could not compensate for the economic and social meltdown.

The spectacular fall of the soviet system[3] gave way to the illusion—widespread in the west—regarding the unreachable superiority of neoliberal capitalism and its strategic corollary: ignoring and marginalizing a beat-up Russia and military and economically advancing over the fragments of its empire. However, such illusion ignored a fundamental geopolitical truth: the rebuilding potential a country has considering its large territory, vast natural resources, respectable industrial infrastructure and great human and cultural capital, especially in the scientific field. The collapse of a model does not imply power insignificance. On the contrary, crisis tends to stimulate the emergence of a new type of power and influence, that is, a reintegration of the social system under different socioeconomic model and political formula. Thus, it is worth studying the characteristics of the successor model to the soviet one to draw more realistic and sober conclusions in terms of strategy.

As well as the process in other power centers during the formation of all states, Russian history oscillated between unity and dispersion. To put it in terms of the initial motto of the United States of America (which appears in the 1782 numismatic seal): an oscillation between “E pluribus unum” y “Ex uno plures” –out of many one, and out of one many. In its own way, each power faces the Unitarian vs. Federal dilemma — “unitarios o federales”. Unlike the United States, that were able to draft a federal and republican constitution for themselves, with power alternation and certain electoral participation, Russian unity has always been Unitarian and autocratic. Time and again under different regimes despotism was the mechanism through which territorial, social, and cultural unification[4] was achieved.  Russian despotism had two variants: reformist or conservative, western or eastern, open or closed, cultivated or illiterate. It had Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Trotsky and Stalin, Gorbachev and Putin, but always despotism. In recent times, the country went from an internationalist and revolutionary fervor to Stalin’s nationalist dictatorship, which afterwards gave way to the rigid and bureaucratic, neo-Stalinist system, which in turn led to the collapse of the union, and from the subsequent anarchy to the restoration of despotism under Vladimir Putin. The greater weight of the state over the economy and society and the personalistic authoritarianism as a political formula have returned over and over again, creating a hard -to -overcome precedent. It is the great continuity that French historian Ferdinand Braudel called the longue durée (the long duration) and we sociologists have called path dependency, which is a methodology to analyze the inertia and the organizational rigidities of a society.

At the beginning of his political career (in 1996), Vladimir Putin declared in a TV interview, “As sad and terrible as it might seem, I believe that in our country a return to the totalitarian past is possible. The danger does not come from the organs of State power such as KGB, MVD, or the army. The danger lays in the mentality of our people, in our nation, our peculiar mentality. We all think the same, and I also sometimes think the same: if there were a strong hand to guarantee order, we could all live securely and comfortably, even if such hand could sometimes strangle us[5].” When there is a confession, you need no proof.

Autocracy, that is authoritarian personalism, faces once and again this dilemma: how to transfer power without convulsion? It is a structural problem of transition. System consensus is precarious because it is organized based on indoctrination and submission without an escape valve. By contrast, the democratic and republican model offers such valve by establishing an institutional framework that accepts opposition and tolerates power alternation (within a pre-established consensus) with popular and electoral participation even though lit is limited. Thus, it offers the population hope for improvement and of overcoming the arbitrariness in power. Western democracy is more a regulated process than a consolidated regime. In rival regimes, as there is no such institutional framework of alternation within the system, every opposition is seen from the seats of power as an existential threat. A political formula based on “all or nothing” culminates in a change by revolt. However, the fundamental problem is not revolt against some current despotism, rather its repetitive rebuilding, without giving way to another legitimation and organizational formula. Despotism repeats itself time and again as if it were a hologram, like the immutable and ghostlike characters that appear each night in the island imagined by Bioy Casares in the novel La invención de Morel (Morel’s Invention). It is the cycle described as a caricature but also masterfully by George Orwell in his dystopic novel Animal Farm (1945).

Vladimir Putin’s presidency, which is the most recent edition of Russian despotism, was able to integrate society under a rigid aegis of the security apparatus, from where he himself emerged. Putin has suppressed every aspect of a genuine division of powers as well as of a genuine democratic alternation. He tried to obtain consensus through the resurrection of nationalism and of religion. To put it in scholastic terms, the economic model is feudal: a series of “families” of powerful oligarchs[6] whose not-too-distant origin was in the control or direct theft of public goods that previously belonged to the Soviet Union and in particular of natural and energy resources. A serious consequence is the development of a more renter than a productive economy[7]. These “families” fight over profits, having as supreme arbiter the president himself—capo di tutti i capi[8].  At the top, the social contract is as follows: a relative freedom is allowed for accumulating goods and perks in exchange for not trying to share the power, with the obligation of giving the State part of the loot, and the state is in the hands of a clique. The general population does not participate in large decisions and accepts submission in exchange for relative material wellbeing and some national pride, promoted by an effective control of the mass media.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to conceal both the corruption of the elites and the ageing of autocracy, a situation which each day is getting closer to two everlasting problems: consensus depletion and power succession. On the one hand, consensus depletion is shown in the frequency and magnitude of street demonstrations of protest. However, these do not find echo either in the dominant elites (integrated in an oligarchic pyramid of complicities and corruption) or in autonomous institutions, which are practically inexistent, or in a civil society, which is closely monitored and harassed.

On the other hand, the succession issue places the president before three or four unpleasant options,.  One is to remain in place as a king or a pope until death. In such case, the precedent of Stalin’s death is not very promising[9]. It would then give way to a collegiate system neither very dynamic nor very stable. Another possibility is relinquishing his post in favor of an heir and remaining as a power behind the throne. This (already tested) perspective presents the risk of marginalization and an eventual displacement of Putin in favor of another strong character[10]. A third possibility would be to launch a proto-democratic reform within certain limits— a cleverer and more successful version of Gorbachev’s perestroika. For such alternative, the main obstacles are the temperament of the president and the low civic quality of his allies and probable successors. As it frequently happens in these cases, the best alternative is the most unlikely one.

If this diagnosis is correct, in regard to the external projection of Russian power—which is what counts in geopolitics—a clear and long-term strategy is not expected to emerge in Russia, which would allow for its sustained ascent. Instead, we should expect a series of opportunistic advances, profiting from the mistakes and difficulties of its rivals, particularly by the United States and by Europe as well. Today, Russia places its bets more on chaos than on an international order.

For the longer term and regarding Western Europe, a new Russian pro-European strategic perspective could be very interesting provided that the Russian leadership succeeding Putin has the will and lucidity of designing a rapprochement that is mutually beneficial and thus strengthens both the Russians as well as the Europeans, thus increasing their capacity of vying with the Americans and the Chinese. For now, Putin’s regime seems to lean towards acting as a balancing pivot between China and Europe. This game seems illusory to me, as China is capable of jumping over Russia and offering the Europeans attractive deals to bail them out of certain problems albeit at a considerable and unpleasant price. Instead, another different perspective of a more Euro-Asian Europe and a more European Russia should please someone other than the person who is writing these lines from a merely academic perch.

If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English Edition.

[1] . Here, there is an important difference between being an empire (Russia, China) and having an empire (USA).

[2] . An important sociological analysis of the Soviet model in its final stages is presented by Victor Zaslavsky, The Neo-Stalinist State: Class, Ethnicity and Consensus in Soviet Society, New York: M.E. Sharpe 1982 and 1994.

[3] . It was a rapid and spectacular fall but with very little violence.

[4] . Regarding the cultural base, it is worth reading Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance.  A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Picador, 2003.

[5] . Vladimir Putin, Interview, LentaTV, 1996, quoted in Karen Dawisha, op. cit., pp. 347-348.

[6] . The structural homology between historic feudalism and modern mafia system is based on the extortion and protection contracts that diverse violent groups impose on population. It is a system of organized crimes and made official at a large scale, with foreign branches for money laundry in large financial centers of the west and fiscal havens.

[7] . As an example, I offer these illustrative data: between 2000 and 2011, Russia collected 1.6 trillion dollars in oil earnings. However, the country was incapable of building one single multi-lane highway between cities, especially the most needed one connecting Moscow with eastern territories.  During that same period, China built more than 7,000 kilometers annually of modern highways, capable of cycling the globe twice.

[8] . See Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, in particular the last chapter

[9] .  The film La muerte de Stalin (Stalin’s Death) that we can all watch in Netflix is not just a fantasy:

[10] . The most instructive example is found in Mexico. In that country, at the end of “Maximato” of Plutarco Elias Calles, that undisputable chief chose Lazaro Cardenas as an allegedly manageable successor, but Cardenas displaced him and put an end to his influence (1928-1935).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *