Many Russian liberals and observers in the West have criticized President Putin’s comment in his April 25 address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation “that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Criticism includes questions like: How can the collapse of the Soviet Union compare to the massive destruction and loss of life during World War II? And don’t Mr. Putin’s comments once again indicate his nostalgia for the Soviet Union and his neo-imperial designs?
While Mr. Putin may well harbor some nostalgia for the Soviet past as repeated statements of his over the years suggest, one can hardly conclude from this statement that he harbors neo-imperial intentions for Russia. If one accepts the premise that he made this statement from the standpoint of a Russian citizen for a Russian audience, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe for Russia not only of the 20th century, but for all of Russia’s modern history. The problem, however, is that the Russian President did not clarify exactly for whom the Soviet collapse was a “geopolitical catastrophe.”
Geopolitics is based on power, influence, and control over territory. It is amoral, and it may very well be anachronistic for today’s world, but let’s set that aside for the moment. The Soviet collapse led to massive loss of territory, and virtually overnight Moscow’s status as a superpower in a bipolar world was reduced to that of struggling regional power in a unipolar world. Approximately 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves living outside of their homeland. And let’s not forget that only two years previous the Soviet Union lost control of its satellite states and the Warsaw Pact. The only comparable event for Russia in the twentieth century was its loss in World War I and the massive territory handed over to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. But most of this territory was recovered in a matter of months when the Germans lost the war to the allies. With the possible exception of Belarus, territory lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union will almost certainly not be recovered. So for Russian geopoliticians, there is no question that the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe.
World War II, on the other hand, marked the greatest geopolitical triumph for Russia during the twentieth century, and, in fact, for all of modern Russian history. As a result of Russia’s victory in the war, the Russian empire, if you include its subjection of the Warsaw Pact states, was larger than at any time in its history. Russia’s status was elevated from a European major power to that of a global superpower with only the United States as its rival. The victory over Nazi Germany was the greatest triumph for Russia during the twentieth century. Soviet propaganda used the triumph to intensively promote the legitimacy of Soviet rule in the decades following virtually up to its collapse.
Among the international leaders coming to Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, virtually nobody except perhaps Mr. Lukashenko of Belarus would agree with Mr. Putin’s claim about the huge geopolitical catastrophe caused by the Soviet collapse. For the West, the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War marked their greatest geopolitical triumph of the twentieth century as the trans-Atlantic community expanded Eastwards. For the new democracies of East-Central Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant liberation from a neo-colonial system that isolated them from Europe and impoverished their people. Their attitude towards World War II is mixed. While certainly pleased that Hitler’s monstrous regime was destroyed, there was no joy about the ensuing subjugation by Stalin’s Soviet Union. For the Baltic States that de facto lost their independence, the Soviet yoke was a particularly bitter blow.
Mr. Putin wants to use the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II to remind the world of Russia’s massive sacrifices and losses in leading the allied efforts to defeat Hitler. Like the defeat of the Mongols in the 14th century and Napoleon in the 19th, Russia made a colossal contribution to the freedom of Europe in World War II, even if the legacy is mixed. Mr. Putin would be well advised to use the opportunity on May 9 to decisively reject the validity of the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact. And while justifiably celebrating the allied defeat of Hitler, he could also denounce the imposition shortly after the conclusion the war of the Soviet-controlled regimes in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Putin also said in his address to the Federal Assembly on April 25th that “Russia has been and will be a major European nation.” But as Robert Cooper has eloquently written in his seminal book The Breaking of Nations, post- modern European nations do not base foreign and security policies according to geopolitical precepts developed by Europeans like Halford MacKinder and Nicholas Spykman 100 years ago. Geopolitics and maintaining a balance of power were features of Europe’s modern industrial age after the Napoleonic wars nearly 200 years ago. Giving up sovereignty in order to enhance security marks post-modern Europe and is a founding principle of the European Union today.
While Mr. Putin may be narrowly correct in describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe for Russia, I would also advise him, presumptuous as that may be, to clarify that geopolitics is an out-dated, inappropriate, and even dangerous framework for the formulation of foreign policy in the 21st century not only for Russia, but for all nation-states.
All too often we still find ourselves guessing as to who the real Mr. Putin is. Does he really think that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe for the world? Does he really think, as he also referred to in his April 25 speech, that the accompanying “ruining of old ideals,” presumably Soviet ideals, was a tragedy for Russians? If so, he may very well be Europe’s last geopolitician and the West should beware of Russian neo-imperialism. If not, then don’t keep us guessing Vladimir Vladimirovich!