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The new tri-polar world: why Russia can do whatever it likes

The United States is effectively powerless in the empire-building of Russia. There’s three sherifs in the world right now, and America might not even be the most influential.

United States political leaders bluster, but Russia continues to be unmoved by their protestations over its annexation of Crimea and the massing of troops along Ukraine’s border. Long having believed itself the world’s only superpower, the US is now being delivered a lesson in real politik, if not humility.

Estonia, which has a large Russian population, has hit back against Russia, saying the West should freeze all Russian bank accounts … for what little that would appear to do. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that what is most threatening about Russia’s behaviour is that “the old rules don’t apply”. Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he says, it has been clear that Putin would ignore guarantees of territorial sovereignty that conflicted with Russia’s sense of national interest.

Despite US President Barack Obama claiming that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness rather than strength, US commentators, such as Stratfor’s George Friedman, believe the US is now headed towards direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive Russia. Assuming the US continues to believe that it is the world’s remaining superpower, and not one that has to negotiate, this may be correct.

There are now real concerns that, having established the precedent of “protecting” Russian speakers in former Soviet satellite states, it may move to annex further regions. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely Putin’s doing, in fact it represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.

To illustrate, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, bluntly says that the south-east of Ukraine be re-incorporated into Russia. Yet Zhirinovsky is the head of the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, rather than Putin’s United Russia Party.

Within Russia, there is strong support for asserting Russia’s “return to greatness”. According to Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of the Duma’s security committee: “Any person whatsoever who criticises the policies of the Russian authorities in Crimea becomes thereby an enemy of the fatherland.”

Criticism of Msocow’s policies or Putin himself is no longer tolerated. Leading Moscow academic Professor Andrei Zubov was recently sacked from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations for comparing Moscow’s actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In a parallel move, a number of critical websites have also been closed.

As if to illustrate the parallels between Russia’s former and current oligarchies, and the shift from one strong leader to another, Russia’s Orthodox Church Press has recently released its 2014 calendar featuring none other than the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst noted: “As Stalin would say ‘this is not mere chance, Comrades’.”

In large part, what appears to be missing from the West’s expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s perceived expansionism is that they are not presenting the world as it is, but rather as they would like it to be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a moment of deep reflection for Russia, but the West’s triumphalism did not mean that Russia had disappeared. It many respects, it remains powerful, perhaps almost as much as it has earlier been.

Similarly, the rise of China as an economic and strategic power — and the US’ Asia “pivot” recognising that — has added a third key player to the global balance of power. With the US economically and strategically weakened, perceptions of its pre-eminence and ability to shift global events are increasingly doubtful.

The Cold War era was characterised by two superpowers, and the post-Cold War era by just one. But, in the wake of the US’ ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world increasingly appears as tri-polar. No one now seriously questions that China is a global player and that Russia can act, more or less, with impunity in areas it claims to be in its sphere of influence, tends to confirm this fundamental global strategic shift.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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  • 1
    Iskandar
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    The fact that there have been no comments so far on this clear-eyed and sober appraisal of geopolitical realities suggests that the truth is not welcome in “The West”. Compared the torrent of indignant hyperventilations and distorted analyses that pass for commentary in the corporate media this is indeed a breath of fresh air.

    There are many things missing from “The West’s” expressions of moral outrage, including its role in provoking Russia by assuming her weakness, and then going ahead with certain notions of “full-spectrum domination” by amongst other things expanding NATO, an anti-Russian military alliance, right up to Russia’s borders. Not to mention the role of US-based “Big Oil” interests in setting up corrupt but compliant regimes in ex-Soviet states occupying the corridors to the Caspian Basin.

    Ukraine/Crimea may well prove to be a sort of latter-day Stalingrad. Hopefully “The West” will pull back with dignity instead of more provocation.

  • 2
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Friday, 28 March 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Never mind Russia; “we” need to recognise just how weak “we” have become.

    A continuing Western economic and social crisis has been greatly worsened by criminal Imperial adventurism.

    Maintaining the growth obsession means crisis then collapse as forced demand exponentially exceeds supply, meaning a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction. Third World economies will stay Third World, due not only to increasing resource pressures, but also to being asset- and income-stripped by globalisation. ‘Economic growth’ would not in any case alleviate the problem of global poverty; not having done so in the centuries prior to the Great Recession it certainly won’t now given peak oil, peak water, peak minerals, climate change, and peak food.

    That our system is hitting its limits is shown in each crisis being worse than the last. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote recently: “The evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”

    In the waging of a war of aggression against Iraq, war criminals and mass murderers George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard did not merely commit crimes against peace. They also bankrupted the US economy, triggered Peak Oil, lengthened the occupation of Afghanistan, and triggered the global financial crisis.

    Those Imperial wars assisted a divide between richest and poorest in America that is worse than in nearly all Europe and Asia but about that of Rwanda and Serbia. Inequality is worse in the United States today than in any advanced industrial country for which there are data. Worse, the gap is widening.

    Imperial power plays were once simply part of the First World’s waste. As those Imperial wars and human rights violations abroad have led to erosions in civil liberties and falling living standards at home, we are now also victims of our tolerance of ruling class violence.

    Media spin, denial, and trivialisation of important issues and exploitation of trivial ones therefore remains a serious problem, especially given the power of the Murdock media machine. Note the utter silence over the Noalition’s gleeful destruction of the car industry. Indeed, it is strongly supporting Abbott et al to impose Austerity here.

  • 3
    Dan B
    Posted Saturday, 29 March 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Professor, Iskandar, R. Ambrose Raven - excellent. All of you. Thanks.

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