The great German Philosopher, Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce”. This seems relevant even today. The mighty power of the past (Russia), in an attempt to reestablish its lost sphere of influence, is resurging again quivering the politico-economic corridors of the entire world. Russia has historically remained an empire, first as Tsarist Russia till 1917, and then as Union of Soviet Socialist Republics till 1991, extending from Central Asia to Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama proposed the concept of the “End of History” prognosticating that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ultimate triumph of Liberalism, there will be the end of conflicts in the 21st century. But the reverse happened. As it is an established principle that dissatisfied powers always wait for the opportunity to reassert their influence on international political and economic order. Russia, a dissatisfied power, refused to toe the line of the US-led world order and with the passage of time started pursuing policies focused on regaining its due place in the international system. Vladimir Putin declared the dismemberment of the Soviet Union as the greatest “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. To resurrect the Russian privileged sphere of influence, Putin came up with the grand project of Eurasian integration to integrate former Soviet territories.
Instruments of Putin’s Grand Strategy
The central theme of Putin’s grand strategy is to reintegrate erstwhile Soviet Republics. Invasion of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and the most recent invasion of Ukraine, all reveal the single-minded focus of Putin in materializing his dream of resurrecting the Russian empire. Russia aims to be recognized as a pole in a multi-polar world and hence, Putin’s grand strategy is entirely geopolitical in its essence. One of the most effective instruments used by Putin in materializing its grand scheme is the control and manipulation of information disseminated by Russian media. Another vital instrument in Putin’s toolkit is the subversion through co-option that involves the deliberate weakening of statehood and installation of pro-Russian forces across the erstwhile Soviet territories. This strategy of subversion ranges from feeding opposition politicians to deeper penetration in government institutions, and to violent campaigns involving bombings and assassinations. Besides these, Moscow also supports opposition forces (as in the case of Georgia in 2008), extremists, and civil society in propelling Putin’s grand scheme. Furthermore, in the case of Ukraine Putin has used its ethnic affiliation as an instrument in the Donbas region of Ukraine since 2014 by fueling rebels against the state of Ukraine. Thus, Moscow appears to be an insecurity provider, rather than a security provider in the region.
Putin’s integration drive is based on ideology and pragmatic considerations. Moscow initially established a Commonwealth of Independent States that facilitated a civilized divorce among the member states, but with the passage of time, this organization proved ineffective in implementing any of its designed policies and thus failed.
After CIS, Central Asian states along with Russia established Eurasian Economic Community with the aim to achieve large-scale economic integration by reducing multiple trade barriers among the member states, but it also proved to be an ineffective drive like CIS. Later on, in 2011, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus established Common Economic Space to deeply integrate their economies. All these integration drives were aimed to re-Sovietize the erstwhile Soviet Republics by extending Moscow’s privileged sphere of influence.
The Collective Security Treaty (CST) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were established with the aim to provide a collective security system to the neighboring states, but these organizations never participated in any conflict in and around Central Asia. Russia only wanted the CSTO to be recognized by the international community as an equal and legitimate partner of NATO. Hence, CSTO never participated in any conflict, neither in Central Asia, nor in the Caucasus, and just maintained an umbrella structure having a mirage of a collective security system, and never came into existence in reality. Russia not at a single point, succeeded in using CSTO to undermine the Western encroachments in the region. Thus, an unequivocal weakness of the CSTO indicates a deep loophole in the grand integration project devised by Mr. Putin.
Is Putin’s Grand Strategy Destined to Fail?
Historical shreds of evidence reveal that once an empire (like Roman Empire, or Ottoman Empire) collapsed it could never resurrect itself with the sole exception of former Tsarist territories under Soviet rule. Putin considers the reintegration of erstwhile Soviet Republics as a process supported by history itself and he viewed himself as history’s helper. Putin’s grand strategy is basically aimed to reintegrate (politico-economically) former Soviet territories and to reestablish Russia’s privileged sphere of influence, and for this purpose, Eurasian Economic Union and Customs Union were introduced. Russia considers the Eurasian region as its strategic backyard and thus expanding NATO’s influence has remained an existential threat to its core geo-strategic interests. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has augmented its membership by encroaching on the eastern European region, thereby confining Russia almost within its own borders.
In order to materialize his grand strategy and bar any other state from joining NATO, Putin launched its full-scale offensive against Ukraine when the West in general, and the United States, in particular, did not categorically refute the possibility of membership of Georgia and Ukraine. However, two years have passed and Putin is still unable to achieve any obvious victory. Ukraine is reestablishing its control on the territories that Russia initially captured.
Putin is no longer going to achieve a decisive victory in its Ukraine gamble and the war is heading toward a hurting stalemate.
Another significant event that took place in recent times is NATO’s extension of membership to Finland. The significant expansion of NATO and the subsequent failure of Putin’s Eurasian Union Project to allure the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union indicate that history is not in favor of Mr. Putin and he can avoid failure and the consequent demise of his grand strategy only by maintaining paramount military force or by relying on entirely new tactics. Experts opine that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will eventually prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Putin’s grand strategy, and circumstances on the ground validate their assertion.