Putin’s Wars: The Rise of new-imperialism

Book Reviews | Sevinj Huseynova | 29-07-2017, 10:05

Putin’s Wars: The Rise of new-imperialismMarcel H. Van Herpen, the director of the Cicero Foundation, a pro-EU and pro-Atlantic think tank, based in Maastricht and Paris, tries to shed light on the current Russian foreign policy in his recent book named “Putin’s wars.” The main hypothesis of the author is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost its influence as an empire and returned to the pre-imperial stage. At first glance, this book could appear to be one more in addition to the pile of Western works regarding Putin’s foreign policy. The author uses content analysis as the main methodology in his research. In this regard, the main advantage of this research is that it refers to Russian sources, therefore it can’t be accused in totally biased perception of reality. However, there is a methodological gap as the author relies more on the historical context and logic underlying present Russian foreign policy, but less in regard with theoretical critique. 

Thus, in the first section of the book Van Herpen explains current events as the consequence of the influence of the complicated heritage that empire has on the current Russian foreign policy towards its “near abroad”. By this the author establishes the precedent of Russian expansionism and imperialism since the tsarist period. But if the author explains Russia’s historical expansionism through pan-Slavism and the role of Orthodox Church he fails to provide the ideological explanation of the “new imperialism”. What is the imperialism itself? The author fails to answer this question. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term ‘imperialism’ is defined as “state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas”. The current Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis the post-Soviet states could be explained by classical realism paradigm, i.e. the right claimed by the strong to rule and dominate the weak just because he is stronger. However, the author doesn’t test this theory in his research.  It should be mentioned also that Russia holds its foreign policy cards close to its chest while playing a game in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus, destabilizing the neighborhood. Destabilization itself is used as a key to re-establish itself as a dominant power of the region. 

Then other questions arise: what is “new” about this term? What are the grounds and bedrock? These issues were not reflected in the book either. The realities of the modern international relations give to the states new instruments, such as political and economic institutions, for implementing their foreign policy goals. Russia in its turn tries to use these tools toward its neighbors. However, this factor dropped out of the vision of the author’s analysis. Even though he mentions the establishment of such organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) he fails to explain the main dimension of these institutions, which is to exert Russia’s influence over its neighbors. Another drawback of this research is that he doesn’t use theoretical approach in order to explain Russia’s actions within these organizations. The Hegemonic Stability theory (HST) could be a strong tool in this regard. It explains that dominant powers use the institutions as well, but they rather use them as means, not ends: these institutions are another tool for imposing and expanding the hegemon’s influence. The peak point of institutionalization of coercive hegemony of Russia has become Putin’s Eurasian Union. Here Van Herpen using the analysis of historical background of Russian-Ukrainian relations during Putin’s administration rightly emphasizes the fact that the membership of Ukraine is one of Russia’s goals in establishing the Union in order to prevent the second largest country of CIS to take a pro-Western orientation in its foreign policy. (p. 243) That was the incentive for Putin to pressure Yanukovich and offer reduced prices for gas as well as billions of dollars in loans. With these measures Moscow tried to pull Kiev closer, to gain Ukrainian support to the Eurasian Union and not sign the Association Agreement with the European Union.

In his research the author also studies the dominance of the Russian elite within the state through issues such as fraud between the political parties. Thus, the author claims that the pluralism in Russia is fake and is used as a democratic façade. (p. 97) Van Herpen finds out that during Putin’s rule in early 2000s several parties such as Patrioty Rossii (Patriots of Russia) or Pravoe Delo (Right Cause) popped up and even were not represented in Duma for the first period. The author uses content analysis in this part of his research, by studying the interviews of leaders of this parties as well as political analysts in newspapers and journals. Thus, he cites Dmitry Oreshkin, who is an independent political analyst, saying about such kind of parties that “they are on the periphery, marginalized… they have no access to the media. They are not allowed to register as candidates or even as players in the electoral process. They exist outside the system that is called politics”. (p. 98) This factor confirms the author’s claim that domestically Putin and the ruling elite managed to form solid ground for their foreign actions through eliminating any attempts to create an alternative political view.

After studying the internal factors Van Herpen furthermore dedicates the next part of his book to the two wars that occurred during Putin’s rule: Second Chechen War and the Georgian War. The author rightly mentions that even though the Chechen war was called “anti-terrorist operation”, the real aim was “to take revenge and punish the Chechen people for the lost first war” (p. 187). Even though this war is assessed rightly as very cruel from the Russian side, the same cannot be said about the Georgian conflict of 2008. Here the author blames Putin’s administration as the initiator of the war. Even though the author tries to establish the chain of events leading to the outbreak of the war, his measurements in this part of the research are not valid: Van Herper studies only Russian-Georgian relationships and doesn’t test the influence of Western “winds” in the region. As Van Herper is the director of pro-EU and pro-Atlantic think tank his biased perception towards Russian actions is fully shown in this part of the book. The author doesn’t mention the wrong signals of the West sent to Georgia regarding the support of the territorial integrity. Moreover, he doesn’t test the influence of domestic politics of Georgia at the time. The Georgian War was lost because of the crucial mistake of its leadership. It was the miscalculations from Saakashvili’s side about the potential help that the West would provide in case of launching war. As a result, the Georgian authorities didn’t calculate the hardest part of the game that it would be a long and bloody way to get back the control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which it lost in 1990s and even more difficult to become a member of NATO. As a result, Russia skillfully used the situation and sent a message to other CIS states regarding priorities in their foreign policy. 

Even though the author fails to explain the war in Georgia adequately it provides a good chain of actions of the foreign policy of Russia. Thus, after studying the Georgian case the author claims that the reaction of Russia towards pro-Western orientation of its neighboring states results in similar outcomes. The author presents the “cherry on the cake” – prediction of the Ukrainian crisis, in the conclusion. Here the author predicts the possible scenario in Ukraine in case of its closer relations with the West. Van Herpen truly emphasize that if Ukraine were prompt to deeper integration with the European Union, it would be likely that the Georgian scenario would repeat there. He predicts that Russia could manipulate the situation and provoke uprisings. As far as lots of Russian passport holders live in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the author emphasizes the fact that Kremlin could justify its need to intervene and “dismember the country” since they would be acting in defense of the “Russians” living there (p. 247). This argument of Van Herpen came true several months after the book was published. The European neighborhood faced a new conflict. The separatist movements in Ukraine resulted in annexation of Crimea; the fighting between the government and militants that were supported by “big brother” in Donetsk and Luhansk resulted in breakup of the sovereignty of the state.  

All in all, in the case of this book its subtitle, i.e. “The Rise of Russian new imperialism”, is of more significance than its title, as explanation of Russia’s new imperialistic motives is the main purpose of the book. This research is quiet incisive: throughout the book the author argues that the Russian Federation is a pre-imperial state again as it lost its previous influence with the collapse of the Soviet Union and tries to re-establish its influence over the neighbors. Even though there is a theoretical gap in the explanation, the author manages to prove his argument through establishing the link of Russian behavior in similar situations, i.e. in the pro-Western orientations of its neighbors. Looking at historical preface of Russian foreign policy can be a reliable method, because as the experience shows Russia’s reaction towards pro-Western orientation of its neighbors cause similar result. However, this method is not valid because such a question should be studied thoroughly within the theoretical framework. Moreover, while in the past Russia built its empire through territorial expansion, its modern imperialism has a new face: Russia tries to institutionalize its influence through such a body like the Eurasian Union. The fact that makes this book so successful is that it proves the central argument, i.e. Russia’s imperialism isn’t something left in the past. It is given as a prospect for the future. The decision of the Ukrainian leadership not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and its outcomes tested and confirmed the central thesis of the book.


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Sevinj Huseynova

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