Thursday, March 27, 2014

Imperial Lessons: Russian and British Experiences

****UPDATE****** September 29, 2014********

For a quick comparison of the divergent directions of the UK and Russia in terms of their imperial past, consider the response to the desire for a referendum on independence in Scotland.  The UK allowed it and then engaged in open and peaceful debate.  In Crimea this year, Russia engaged covert forces and made use of plans that likely had been laid years before to push for an illegal referendum on independence in order to regain imperial territory (originally gained from the Tatars).  The UK was willing to give up a piece of territory without violence.  Russia utilized violence and the threat of violence in order to regain part of its empire.

An argument may be made that Russia was acting from a position of strength and the UK from a position of weakness.  That is, however, a very imperial type of argument.


Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, underwent a complex transition as a nation.  As the inheritor of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was one of the last great empires to fall.  Other nations have been forced to deal with the loss of empires, empires that largely defined those nations—the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and others.  Each of those has gone from positions of dominance across the globe to regional powers at best.

Under the dynamic and forceful leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia is struggling with the concept of lost empire and influence.  The Russian/Soviet Empire was able to hold on for a bit longer than the others for some reason, even expanding when most were collapsing or had collapsed.   Perhaps the reason why it lasted so long, and the reason why it has been so difficult to let go, is because the empire was located in the near abroad rather than being strung out across the globe. 

Empires may be considered worth maintaining for a number of reasons.  Two of the most important are national and economic security.  Over the past few centuries, however, Russia missed out on the most important developments and lessons associated with an empire.  These developments directly impact national and economic security.

The impact of an imperial past, when comparing Russia to the Great Britain, is largely affected by geography.  Great Britain is an island nation with limited natural resources.  Development and control of natural resources for the purpose of trade and national defense was a necessity.  Since these resources could not be developed to a sufficient degree at home, they did it abroad.  The pursuit of wealth and security created the largest economic empire in the world.  Within the global and complex British Empire, capitalism and a market economy developed and eventually flourished.  As colonists and subjects enriched the empire they demanded and received greater political participation.  British political society, liberal democracy, is the result. 

Russia is a vast landmass with substantial natural resources.  It grew primarily in response to external threats.  Each piece was added to enhance national security.  While natural resources were harvested, utilized, and traded from vassal states and subjects, economic development was a secondary concern.  The command economy of the Soviet Union, while different in its focus on technological advancement as compared to that of the Russian Empire, was not an unfamiliar model to many Russians.  Economic and political power was the concentrated in the hands of a very few.  In response to internal and external threats, Russian political society was harsh and centrally controlled.  The general populace was not encouraged to participate in the economic or political system beyond the basic expectations that they work and comply with the will of the authorities.

Capitalism demanded the development of codified rules and expectations.  Law and order were essential to the participants in order to make risk taking in the development of wealth a worthwhile venture.  The command economy, combined with the strong central control, of the Russian and Soviet empires had the opposite effect.  Those in power felt free to exercise their will as they saw fit.  Rules and laws were not meant to bind the state, but to bind the subjects.

The collapse of empires, therefore, brought different results.

Many of the former colonies of the British Empire gained, along with their independence, a system of government and economics based on law and order and a market economy.  These former colonies, with some struggles, were able to move effectively into independence.  Some of Great Britain’s former colonies are now among their greatest trade partners and strong participants in the global economy—the United States, Canada, Australia, and India.  While the citizens of the United Kingdom no longer control a global empire, they do have in place a stable and secure society.

Many states and nations formerly controlled by the Russian and Soviet Empires, those who had limited history of independence, have struggled to develop stable economies and viable governments that maintain law and order.  The Central Asian states and Belarus have struggled to break free of the rule of totalitarian dictatorships.  Ukraine, despite efforts at the development of democracy and capitalism, has repeatedly elected officials who disregard law, order, and the needs of the nation in favor of enriching themselves and their families.  Economic growth remains stunted because of the lack of law and order. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians felt they made a good faith effort to embrace capitalism and democracy.  Rising and forward thinking Russian leaders implemented the tenets of the painful Washington Consensus in an effort to rip the economy out of a spiral and put it on the upward trajectory of capitalism.  The strict fiscal policies brought real fiscal pain to the average Russian people but were softened with the promise that things would get better.

Without the key ingredient of law and order, however, a successful transition to a market economy remained out of reach.  As Russia’s new political leadership, often the same Communist leaders with new political labels, took control, they used the state apparatus to enrich themselves almost beyond belief.  Market and democratic principles could not take hold in such an environment and the promises of something better fell apart drastically.  Newly wealthy and powerful leaders, instead of taking responsibility for their actions, lay the blame on the West and the decadent concept of a free market.

Vladimir Putin came to power as the people faced this second economic collapse.  He expressed the feelings of many Russians—that of sorrow at the passing of what had once been considered a great nation and state.  He desired and called for a return to stability and improvement.  By 1998 Russia was in a desperate situation as many internal institutions failed to perform their basic functions. 

Putin managed, to a noticeable measure, to bring a degree of order back to Russian government and to the economy.  Unfortunately, this change was not based on an increased role of the population.  Civil society in Russia remained largely a hoped for concept.  Central government control was reestablished.  The Russian government, however, was not completely subject to the rule of law and order.  While a form of a market economy and foreign direct investment occurred, economic growth was based on rising energy prices rather than on real economic development.

Today, with a sense of economic security and political control, Vladimir Putin is moving to reestablish Russia at least as a regional power with his eye toward perhaps something bigger.  In order to address the embarrassment of the 1990s and the encroaching threat of NATO and the EU, he has moved decisively to establish Russian willingness and capability to project its will abroad.  Central to his aims is to build a Eurasian Union, envisioned as an economic and security institution that will have considerable impact in the region.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Vladimir Putin has adopted a number of market economy principles, he has failed to learn the most important lessons of collapsed empires.  First, law and order matter.  Significant and sustained economic growth, despite cyclical ups and downs, requires the maintenance and state compliance with law and order.  Without this in Russia or a Eurasian Union, economic growth will be hampered and limited to the prevailing supply and demand of energy resources.  (With the advent of fracking technology, Russian dominance in the region may be nearing its end.)

Second, the use of overt compulsion and threats against neighbors and trade partners will not inspire confidence in potential trade partners who could help improve the Russian situation by opening new opportunities.  Such tactics will force existing trade partners to look for other sources as they become available and affordable.

Third, the invasion and annexation of a non-threatening state is unacceptable.  It sets you apart from the modern, civilized world.  Despite its problems, Georgia and Ukraine did not represent physical, imminent threats to the security of Russia or Russians.  Rather they represented opportunities to convey messages about willingness and intent.  In the case of Ukraine there was also the chance to regain a part of the empire, perhaps with the intent of gaining more.  Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine did, however, highlight Russia’s perception that the principles of liberal democracy from the West are not acceptable.

Which leads to the fourth lesson Vladimir Putin has failed to learn—liberal democracies tend to be more stable, in terms of security and economics, than states that discount and discourage the participation of its populace. 

What are the likely results of Putin’s failure to learn the important lessons of ailed empires?  Russia’s managed democracy and managed economy will fail to keep pace with the West and China.  Once again the leading world economies will prefer not to do business with Russia more than is necessary.  The lack of law and order and uncertainty generated by the control of a few will discourage investment and partnerships.  Russia’s few remaining friends and “vassal” states will have little to contribute or be incapable of contributing.  Russia increasingly will fall further behind those who they will view as threats and competitors. 

The West has not performed overly well in its relations with Russia either.  After the fall of the Soviet Union the West managed to make Russia feel like a failed state.  The eastward expansion of NATO, while understandable based on the historical predilection of Russia to move west, was not done in a way to engender trust.  Perhaps worst of all, the West has failed to understand or countenance Russia’s legitimate national security interests, assuming that Russia would simply fall in line because there was no other choice.

Responsibility for the consequences of Russia’s actions lies largely at the feet of President Putin and his associates in the government.  Without the ability or willingness to act, the Russian people are unable to control events.  The Russian people, however, seem to support President Putin in his actions and intentions.  It appears that President Putin is willing to trade the prospect of long-term economic and national security for greater political control at home.

Please see the additional posts on the Russia-Ukraine issue:
The Limits of Russian Expansion
 Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

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