August 14, 2011 10:42 pm

Russia must forget its imperial aims

A work containing illuminating details, but few illusions, argues that Moscow must modernise to avoid being marginalised

Post Imperium: A Eurasion Story , by Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Endowment (RRP$19.95, e-book $16)

An army officer in the service of the Soviet imperium, Dmitri Trenin was nevertheless glad when it collapsed. “I took,” he writes, “the demise of the USSR as a liberation” – adding, though, that he had also hoped that “Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reconfigure the USSR [was] a chance to build a genuine union, even if only on a loose confederal basis.”

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Trenin was, and is, a liberal-minded man, but also a Soviet – whose grasp of geopolitical strategy was honed in the 1970s. His career has been one of strong contrasts, including spells as a Soviet military intellectual in liaison and teaching posts up to and beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early to mid-1990s he was attached to the Nato Defense College and to the Institute of Europe, a Moscow-based think-tank. He is now director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, which has for 20 years been a hub of free discussion and research.

This unique experience gives him a useful double vision, able to see and understand the positions not just of Russia and the US – still the former’s main foreign policy preoccupation – but also the conflicting stances taken by the other 14 former republics of the Soviet Union; by the former members of the Warsaw Pact; by the old imperial powers of the UK and France, as well as Germany, China and the European Union. The result is a book of great clarity and illuminating detail. It is the work of one who has closely observed the meaning and the likely trajectory of the momentous events through which he has lived.

Glad that empire has gone, regretful that a confederation could not be built, he is certain that empire of any kind will not be back. Russia has 2 per cent of the world’s population and 2 per cent of its gross national product – and its demographic crisis means its population is shrinking rapidly. It is not a neo-imperial power, but a post-imperial one where the necessary will to expand and command is gone.

Still, a Georgian – recalling that in 2008 Russian tanks streamed over what is still the country’s recognised international border, brushed aside the Georgian army that had been trying to recapture the country’s break­away province of South Ossetia and advanced to within striking distance of Tibilisi, the country’s capital – might say: really? To that, Trenin responds that the tanks stopped and pulled back; and that the hostility ended with Russia’s de facto recognition of South Ossetia and the other breakaway, Abkhazia, as independent states being made explicit.

Post Imperium thus pitches itself directly against such theses as that in Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War , which highlights Russia’s often bellicose pronouncements, its suppression of civil rights and of free expression, its looming menaces to the Baltic statelets as well as to Georgia, and its habitually zero-sum view of international relations. To Lucas, this denotes “an explicit rejection by the Russian regime of western values such as political freedom, the rule of law, the separation of powers, a free press and individual rights”.

Trenin gives assent to much of this – especially the zero-sum approach – but his is a glass-half-full argument. Russia has mounted “one of the most stunning demilitarisations in history”, he argues, and has come to “a basic realisation of all neighbouring states as geopolitical realities”. It lauded, but ignored, the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s call for a “reorganised Russia”, taking back Belarus, Northern Kazakhstan and Ukraine to Mother Russia. Compared with such imperial hangovers as the messy and murderous withdrawing roars of France, Portugal and the UK, Russia got out of empire “unbelievably well”.

Still, this is no glad endorsement of the new Russia. Trenin presents himself as unillusioned about his country and his fellow citizens, arguing that “the state is too corrupt to inspire national consciousness” and that it presents “an atomised society beholden to personalised power”. The surrounding former Soviet republics are held to it by ties, not of affection, but need – for energy. Yet they are pulled in various directions – towards Europe, China, Turkey and the Muslim world.

The largest charge Trenin makes is that the state has balked at modernisation of almost every kind. It needs to project soft power to its neighbours, but it prefers the old method of showing its claws. Its constitution claims a republican form of government, but the res publica is not ample enough to give its citizens real freedoms. Its economy is a one-trick pony, liable to stumble at every lurch in energy prices. It has nothing to offer the world in the way of innovation, creativity or even decent low-cost products. Though it cannot be of the EU, it could be of Europe, and create a common European space – but it will not. It is not a threat to the world, yet neither is it a boon, least of all to itself.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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