Russia’s Empire Strikes Back

Vladimir Putin’s empire-building has little to do with Russia’s interests. It’s all about what’s good for him and his cronies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

“Right makes might, and not the other way around,” President Obama said in the Rose Garden a few weeks ago. We all know what he meant: In this age of soft power, great countries can win friends not through the use of brute force but through their books and movies, their sophisticated economies, their technological innovations, and, above all, through their attractive and inspiring national ideals. 

Maybe that’s true, some of the time. But for those who find soft power difficult to wield, hard power is still available. Indeed, in the very same week that the American president made his Rose Garden speech, events on the other side of the globe were proving that might certainly can make right. Even while the world’s attention was fixed on Russian-American diplomacy in Syria, back home Russian President Vladimir Putin was pulling off a much quieter but potentially more significant diplomatic coup. After three years of intensive negotiations, Armenia, Russia’s neighbor, had been on the brink of signing an association agreement, including a comprehensive trade agreement, with the European Union. But on Sept. 3—right in the middle of the Syria crisis—the Armenian government abruptly declared that it would drop the whole project. Rather than aligning itself with the world’s largest free-trade zone and some of the world’s most sophisticated democracies, Armenia decided to stick with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and to join the Eurasian Customs Union instead.  

No one pretends that Armenia was attracted by Russia’s soft power. By way of explanation, President Serzh Sargsyan explained that Armenia depends on Russia for it security, and that Armenia has a large diaspora living in Russia. This sounds odd: Most security alliances, NATO included, don’t require their members to join a customs union, and the presence of immigrants in one country doesn’t usually affect trade policy in another. But Armenia has been made anxious in recent weeks by Russian diplomatic overtures toward Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main rival, as well as by anti-immigrant rhetoric from Russian officials. The Armenians took the hint: If they signed the trade deal with Europe, Russia might sell more arms to their rival and expel the Armenians who live in Russia.

The Armenians were no doubt watching Russian moves elsewhere in their immediate neighborhood, where a distinct pattern is emerging. On Sept. 11, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wine, on the grounds that it is a “health hazard.” Ukrainian chocolates have suffered the same fate. Another old tactic, the use of gas pricing and supply as a tool of political influence, is being resurrected in Ukraine as well. In essence—and I’m summarizing here—the Russians have let the Ukrainians understand that if they drop their own negotiations with Europe and join the Eurasian Customs Union, the price of the gas they import from Russia could drop by more than half.

It’s an excellent offer, so much so that—examined objectively—it seems extraordinary that the Ukrainians have not accepted it already. But Ukraine is hesitating, and has been for some time. Even the country’s most Russo-philic politicians know that the decision represents not a short-term financial decision but a long-term civilizational choice, between the relatively open markets and open politics of Europe and the closed world of the former Soviet Union. One Armenian opposition politician explained the consequences of his country’s decision to choose Russia over Europe like this: “Armenia, by choosing the customs union instead of agreements with the EU will remain a country of oligarchs and monopolies just like Russia.”

Yet when examined objectively, it seems extraordinary that the Russians want their neighbors to make that kind of choice, too. Surely it’s in Russia’s own interests to share borders with countries that have broad international contacts, faster economic growth, access to Western markets, and therefore wealthier domestic consumers, who could buy Russian goods. Surely it’s in Russia’s own interests, in the long term, to have similar access to Western markets itself. If Europe did manage to craft association agreements with Armenia, Ukraine, and Moldova, there’s no reason to think that a similar arrangement with Russia would not eventually follow.

The explanation is as straightforward as it is sad: Russia’s ruling elite, led by President Putin, does not act in Russia’s interests. Russian elites act in their own interests. At the moment, they are convinced that economic nationalism and the language of neo-imperialism will win them popular support, and possibly private profits. I wonder how long the rest of the Russians will put up with it.