Russia’s unique Eurasian identity

Tags: Op-ed
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, some western intellectuals thought that liberal democracy and liberal market economy had won the battle against other political and economic systems and theories for good. Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history as there was nothing better anymore to be achieved after the complete victory of these noble western values.

However, history did not turn out as had been predicted from the comfort of a study in a prestigious American university campus. Soon enough 9/11 put an end to the illusion that the world had entered a state of eternal peace where people were happy to work under the benevolent conditions of a market economy. Since then we have had first a massive revival of history with the emergence of a globally active Islamist fundamentalism. The then American president, George W Bush, of course did never adhere to the school of thought of an end of history, but rather saw himself as the champion of a global fight against the “empire of evil”, in which the only relevant question was: “are you with us or against us?”

At present, the world has reached another turning point. The post-cold war order that had had a more or less precarious existence since the early 1990s has come to a spectacular end. When the Soviet Union broke up and huge chunks of territory seceded, shrinking the landmass under Moscow’s rule from 21 million square kilometres to 17 million square kilometres, it was surprising how relatively peaceful this process was. We know from history that the break-up of huge empires usually is accompanied by massive convulsions, extended wars of succession or even civil strife. Remarkably, the once mighty Soviet Union quietly took leave from history. We should not forget that as late as in the 1970s and in the early 1980s Washington was seriously concerned that the Soviet navy would reach a predominant status in the Pacific.

The peaceful disappearance of the Soviet Union was all the more remarkable, since Moscow possessed and continues to possess the second largest arsenal of modern nuclear weapons. With Russia obviously in phase of decline, the world got fascinated by the rapid rise of China. Suddenly, the Middle Kingdom was the second largest economy in the world and many observers believe that within the next decade it might even overtake the US. Many strategists think that the world of G-8 and G-7 is over and will soon be replaced by the world of G-2 (the US and China).

When Europe was divided by the “Iron Curtain” many believed and feared that the next world war would be launched on the European continent, namely in Germany which was divided. With the Soviet Union also the Soviet Block disappeared. Soon enough central and east European countries, amongst them also former Soviet Republics, joined the European Union and the frontline of Nato moved ever closer towards the Russian Federation. Once again, it was remarkable that all these massive tectonic shifts did not cause a major earthquake.

Now, however, with Ukraine at the core of a new east-west struggle, things have changed. The move of the Ukraine towards the EU and eventually towards Nato was obviously in Moscow’s view, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Today, the situation is complicated and a complete deadlock. There is a high potential of conflict and many observers deem it to be the biggest crisis in Europe since the end of World War II. Some consider it an ominous sign that coming August exactly 100 years ago, the world tumbled into the Great War. World War I brought untold damage and pain over the world and ended effectively the predominance of European powers in the world.

At the root of the crisis in Ukraine lies a serious lack of understanding on the side of the western powers for the specific situation Russia finds itself in. First of all, the Russian Federation is not anymore the equal of the US as was the case during the cold war between Washington and Moscow. However, Russia is not an average European power, just much larger and with a bigger population than Germany or France. Moscow sees itself in the role of the “third Rome”, after Rome and Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) the third “centre of the civilised world”. Furthermore, Russia sees itself as a Eurasian power, historically, geographically and ethnically rooted both in the European continent and in Asia.

Of course, the Russian Federation is overwhelmingly a Christian country and since Peter the Great, it had opened itself up to Europe, culturally and economically. On the other hand, in the eyes of many arrogant Europeans, Russia is nothing but a “bully on the fringes of civilisation”, “an Asiatic threat to the west”. It is exactly this mixture of European distrust, fear and arrogance that has traditionally been hurting the Russians and created the basis for a strong nationalism with a particular sense of mission. One should not underestimate the support Russian president Vladimir Putin has amongst the Russian people when he stands up to European threats and overreach, as is now manifest in his handling of the Ukrainian crisis.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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