Moscow’s Empire of Dust

For all Russia’s imperial ambitions, its thuggish political system is totally unattractive.

Dmitry Medvedev and Hugo Chavez

Nyet! Nyet!” That’s what a Russian bodyguard told a reporter for McClatchy newspapers when the latter asked the former to comment on an incident that took place on the Admiral Chabanenko, a Russian destroyer carrying Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which had docked off the Venezuelan coast last week. Following the pomp, circumstance, and 21-gun salute that are mandatory at such meetings, there had, it seems, been a bit of a misunderstanding. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez boarded the vessel, his beefy bodyguards had tried to follow him up the gangplank. They were stopped, however, by their equally beefy Russian counterparts. The Venezuelans, who presumably spoke no Russian, tried to push their way through. The Russians, who presumably spoke no Spanish, fought back.

It was all over quickly. “Everything is fine,” said a Russian official afterward. And indeed it was. The rest of Medvedev’s visit to Latin America proceeded smoothly. During his trip to Venezuela, Medvedev reportedly added a couple of passenger planes to the $4.4 billion worth of military hardware Russia has sold to Venezuela since 2005. In Cuba, Medvedev met the ailing Fidel Castro and went sightseeing with his brother Raúl. On Dec. 1, Russian ships began exercising in the Caribbean. But there were more than weapons and armies at stake in this visit. As Chávez himself said in September, the whole show was designed to send “a message to the empire”: Russia is back, and it can play the imperial game just as well as the United States.

And yet—the lingering image of those thuggish bodyguards, shouting at one another in mutually incomprehensible slang, remains weirdly appropriate. For the truth is that Medvedev was in Cuba and Venezuela last week in part because he wouldn’t get that warm a welcome in Tblisi or Kiev, let alone Warsaw or Prague—and also because Russian foreign policy, at the moment, is based on a strange paradox. On the one hand, the Russians have returned to the language, the iconography, and even the historiography of imperialism. With every passing year, the anniversary of the end of World War II—and the moment of the Soviet Union’s greatest imperial triumph—is celebrated more elaborately. Soviet songs and symbols are back; threats to deploy nuclear missiles are frequent; and Russian leaders pointedly refer to themselves as “global players.”

But at the same time, the Russian political system is uniquely unattractive in the one sphere of influence that the Russians have always cared about most: Europe. There are, it is true, Russian-speaking minorities across the eastern half of the Continent that rely on Russia for financing and political support. There are also extremely powerful business lobbies across the Continent, notably in Italy and Germany, that can be counted on to praise Russia’s leaders, whatever they do. But the Russian political system—based on crony capitalism, democratic rituals without democracy itself, heavy media controls, omnipresent criminality—isn’t itself of interest to anyone, and the Russians have trouble creating an empire around it. During the Cold War, there really were European (and American) Communists who really did admire the Soviet Union and whose support really could be manipulated for Soviet ends. By contrast, I’m not aware of a single popular movement in any European country—east or west—that is currently calling for a greater economic role for a Russian-style oligarchy or more Russian thugs of the sort who were lurking on the gangplank of the Admiral Chabanenko last week.

Some dictatorships to the east are more amenable, of course: Many of the regimes of central Asia do indeed operate on something like a Russian model, some without the elaborate democratic facade. But influence in those countries doesn’t give the Russian ruling class the sense of importance it craves, nor the domestic legitimacy it needs to survive. Hence Medvedev’s need to travel somewhat farther afield. Venezuela and Cuba may not be as significant as Germany or Georgia from the Russian point of view, but the image of Russians in Cuba evokes a certain nostalgia. At the very least, it proves that Medevedev, like his Soviet predecessors, can play games in America’s own backyard.

One only hopes President Obama will have the good sense to ignore the whole affair, as President Bush has apparently done. In fact, the best way for the United States to deal with this particular Russian escapade is to treat it like the public relations exercise that it was designed to be. Let Russian ships practice all they want in the Caribbean; let Russian and Venezuelan thugs fight it out at the top of the gangplank; let Medvedev spend as much time with Chávez and the Castros as he desires. Their friendship will last only as long as the high oil price holds out, anyway. A Russian visit to Venezuela isn’t a Cuban missile crisis, even if it’s supposed to remind us of one—just as Medvedev isn’t Khrushchev and Castro isn’t quite what he was 50 years ago. History repeats itself, as Marx himself once said—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.