Photo credit: NBC News
Just as the world’s attention was nearly fully and completely drawn into the ISIL/Turkey crisis and the good word that both Nigeria and Senegal are Ebola free, Vladimir Putin had to stick his nose back into world affairs and remind everyone that the mad Russian is still around and has some 5000 nuclear weapons. Trying to ascertain Putin’s foreign policy is akin to attempting to drive cross country blind. However, there are a few historical precedents that we can use to predict possible future outcomes.
There are parallels between modern Russia and its former satellite states and the pre-1941 Japanese empire. They share a similar–though not exact–economic philosophy, both nations worked toward a politically stable region based not solely on politics but also on culture, and each nation was pushed into a corner by aggressive economic policies of Western nations.
Japan burst onto the new world economy in the early 20th Century. The Meiji Era turned Japan into a modern industrialized nation. Unfortunately for Japan, the modern world had already co-opted Asia, specifically China, into powerful spheres of influence which favored Europe and the United States. Early in Japan’s economic growth they experienced a very mercantile system where they provided goods–chiefly textiles–to Asian markets. the primary motive in mercantilism is to better the home state. This mercantilistic nature would eventually mold into the nationalistic identity of Japan pre-WWII where the state ruled and the individual served the state. However, no matter how hard the Japanese leadership tried to integrate into the Asian sphere of influence they found themselves on the outside looking in. To compound their troubles, the Great Depression of the 1930s found the rest of the world insulating themselves and placing economic barriers on Japan in order to protect their colonial markets. So, in the 1930s, a new economic philosophy merged with Japan’s economic liberalism. One that would pit it squarely against the Western world.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the former Soviet Union, Russians were thrust into a world of crass consumer capitalism. They were sheep without a shepherd only to find themselves flocking to the siren call of oligarchs disguised as wolves. As with Japan, Russia found itself surrounded by pro-Western nations whose ambitions lay not with the betterment of a whole but the betterment of themselves. Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin those powerful oligarchs gained both political and economic power in Russia. In light of this and Putin’s own limited experience with capitalism as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Russian economic liberalism still has the individual as its focus, but is skewed from the winners in the system being those who provided the best goods and services to those who are able to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the competition. When you take into context Putin’s “Millennium Message” of December 29, 1999, the individual serves the state and it is those individuals who take the advantage of vulnerabilities who serve the state best.
For both Japan and Russia, economic liberalism had, at it’s heart, the needs of the state and that need would be viewed by Western powers as a threat.
Pan-Asian Society and Russian Hegemony
For both the Meiji and Putin their success was one of their greatest defeats. Both, through widely divergent means, brought about a modern nation that embraced Western culture and “civilization”. A rising middle class began to make demands on a political structure that was uncertain where it should go. For Japan, it meant Pan-Asian brotherhood. For Putin, it means a domestic stability fashioned around concepts from the former Soviet Union.
Faced with restriction on trade, shipping, and immigration, a nationalistic and eventually militaristic view of a Pan-Asian brotherhood–later called hakko ichiu (“eight crown cords, one roof”)—emerged. It was a cry for “Asians for Asians” and would lead to Japan’s invasions of Korea–then a puppet state of China–and Manchuria. The rise of Pan-Asianism is a complicated story, but it has at its roots a conflict of interests between conservative and military elitists and a liberal base comprised of the new middle class who were, for the first time, finding a voice in political discourse. One thing these two groups shared was the idea that there was a distinction between the “civilizations” of Eastern (Asian) and Western (European) societies. The liberals studied the colonialism of Europe in Asia and viewed Japan’s place in Asia through the adaptation of Western practices into a Japanese sphere. Western hegemony would be replaced by a true Asian hegemony with Japan at its head. The militarists saw Pan-Asianism as a means to further a conquest mentality of Asia. But both groups sought to protect Japan’s domestic politics through a form of Asian hegemony. Japan understood that the only way to wrest political and economic power in Asia from Western nations was to control the Asian market and continent.
In April 2005, Putin said that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” While some analysts have viewed this as Putin’s secret longing from his KGB days of a Soviet Union that expanded into the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the northern Middle East, what Putin is lamenting in his statement is quite the opposite. Often, he has chastised the West, and the United States primarily, for violating the sovereignty of the state (for example, his March 2003 condemnation of the UN ruling allowing for force in Iraq). Like the Japanese, Putin–a keen student of history himself–watches as Western hegemony increasingly disrupts the fabric of Russian life and the fragile tapestry of the “civilizations” that border his nation–especially Islamic nations. What countries like the United States saw as a pro-Democracy revolt in the 1990s, Putin knows was a revolution of ethnic, religious, and economic ideals that released an “epidemic of disintegration that spread to Russia itself.” Russian statehood stands to collapse. It was this ideal that drove Russia into Georgia and again into Crimea. While Putin doesn’t have a “Pan-Russianism” in his mind and nor could he since the break-up of the former Soviet Union was strongly along ethnic lines, there is an economic hegemony to his goals. Putin understands that Russia straddles the bridge between Asia and Europe and to control that power controls the much of the world. However, he can only do this if he has his borders under control.
In 1899, the United States issued the “Open Door Notes” which outlined the U.S.’s economic and political agenda in China. Through these, the U.S. sought to protect trade in China gained after the Spanish-American War. Though the policy intended to protect China’s political structure, the United States would only tacitly act upon the ideals set for in the notes. This was especially true after Japan levied their 21 Demands on China in 1915. The U.S. gave into Japanese “special interests” in Chinese Manchuria, Mongolia and Shandong. As the Japanese continued to expand–militaristically after the 1931 invasion of Manchuria–the U.S. adopted a policy of economic sanctions and verbal rebukes of Japanese territorial gains. The sanctions had little impact on Japan’s desire to grow its Pan-Asian “civilization”, and as the U.S. continued to place embargoes on Japan and then ignore its own sanctions, Japan realized that the only thing stopping them from achieving their goals was the United States and they were showing a weak hand. Coupled with the coups in the mid-30s that brought the hardline military back into power, the liberal cabinet groups and the Prime Minister had to walk a delicate balance of moderate political-economic reform with a growing tide of militaristic nationalism. That the United States hardly aided China when Japan invaded province after province only served to bolster Japan’s motivation. While the economic embargoes and lack of military aid to China may not have wholly brought on World War II, the decisions made by the United States during these years were a decisive factor.
And now, the United States has resorted to imposing economic sanctions on a nation once again. It is possible that these sanctions will either back Russia into a corner that it cannot, without losing face, retreat from or illustrate a general weakness in the United States’ ideal of “global leadership.” Either way, Russia and Putin will continue to operate as a regional hegemon. But why?
One of Putin’s greatest skills is that he is a man of history. Both Soviet history and the history of the world. He knows the past. And he is watching it being played out all over again on his doorstep. No matter how hard Ukraine’s President Poroshenko lobbies for stronger economic sanctions against Russia, the West has been reluctant to impose further sanctions, and in the case of Germany grudgingly to do so in the first place. Ukraine is today’s China of the 1930s. A nation toyed with by the West, but when push comes to shove will be left to deal with Russia on its own. And Putin is counting on this politically learned behavior. If Putin can discredit the West’s actions he could force the Ukraine into a closer relationship thus securing a Russian hegemony in an Eastern European space.
Beyond any sanctions, Putin also knows how the West tacitly allowed Japan into Manchuria in 1915 and again in the 1930s. Putin’s Manchuria was the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. When the dust settled the United States never sent direct military aid to Georgia and George Bush imposed limited economic sanctions which would eventually be lifted by President Obama in 2012. Germany remained an intermediary never taking sides. Italy actually sided with Russia in its territorial gains. The West could not allow relations with Russia to be undermined by a conflict in “tiny and insignificant Georgia.”
As both nations, Japan and Russia, stepped up their need to protect their state, both politically and economically, the United States levied what they viewed as the strongest sanctions upon each nation: Oil embargoes. On July 26th, 1941, four months ahead of the Pearl Harbor attacks, FDR, in reaction to the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China, froze all Japanese assets in America and forced Japan to lose 88 percent of all its oil imports. The hope was to cripple Japan into submission. Though Japan had a three year reserve, Japanese leadership realized war with the United States was inevitable. The militaristic leadership in Japan had been pushed into a corner. Instead of backing down, Japan just reached out for more territory and eventually attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.
Putin and his close associate Igor Sechin–head of Rosneft
The Obama Administration is trying the exact same policy. In March 2014, the U.S. froze the assets of a number of Russian businessmen who are believed to have close ties to Putin. Recently, the United States brought to bear additional pressures on the two largest banks in Russia by not allowing them raise long-term loans. Bank Rossiya is widely considered the “personal bank” for major Russian officials who are also closely tied to Putin. Also, the United States, along with the EU, placed export restrictions on oil from Russia’s Gazprom (the EU also placed restrictions on Rosneft and Transneft). However, there were no restrictions placed on natural gas output. All this in the hope that Putin will back down from his firm Ukraine stance. All the U.S. and the EU got in return was an import ban from Russia on fresh fruit, meat, vegetables, and dairy products. Food exporters are already facing large losses.
The Future Viewed From The Past
While these restrictions may hurt Russia in the short-term, a devaluation of the Rubble to dirt status is inevitable, Russia–and its people– can weather this storm. Russia will still have trade partners with China. Oil will still get to market. Gas is still getting to market. EU nations like Germany depend on Russian oil and gas. A large portion of Germany’s exports go into Russia, especially luxury goods. The EU’s trade with Russia is worth nearly 300 billion euros. There will come a breaking point, and I’m not sure that Russia will break. Putin knows that no European nation will come to the Ukraine’s defense at the risk of an economic blackout. The United States has shown that it is nearly indifferent to giving direct aid to the Ukraine, not unlike we did with Georgia and with China.
In the end, history has taught us that economic sanctions may weaken the Russian economy at the cost of many Western industries, but it will only strengthen Putin’s resolve to expand Russia’s political and economical hegemony. Will Russia unleash another “Pearl Harbor”? Unlikely. But will Putin back down? Also, unlikely.