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