Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Eurasian Dream and MH17

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

July 28, 2014

As I write this today, half-mast flags fly in the homes of the Dutch for the victims of the fallen Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The Russian-supported rebels in eastern Ukraine are deep into it now, notwithstanding the inconclusive finger pointing for who pulled the trigger, and they might take Putin with them. For Putin, there is no backing down, partly because of the myth of Russia’s rising, and partly because he’s built that myth on populist, anti-Western conservatism. He is trapped in an iron cage of his own making.

Keith Gessen at Foreign Affairs tells a story of flying from Moscow to New York with a drunk man talking loudly of geopolitics beside him. Gessen recalls that the man “was thrilled that Russia had seized Crimea, if only because in doing so, it had extended a big middle finger to the West.” Oh, we’ll lose, he recounted, “but what a lot of laughs there’ll be along the way!” What has gone so wrong that this kind of jarring jingoism persists and thrives? Why, Gessen asks, “despite two decades of optimistic predictions that [Russia] was on a path to becoming, or was on the verge of becoming, a ‘normal’ country, had it never become one? Why couldn’t it be more like Germany, another country that used to invade other countries but now focuses on making quality automobiles and protecting the health of the euro?”

At least part of the trouble, he argues, is that Russians have no special consensus on what “normal” is, perhaps because consensus itself has not played a large role in Russia’s authoritarian political history. This is especially troubling for a country that is anxious to (re)claim a position of balance and power in global politics, one that is a center of civilization, commerce, and industry. This is the Eurasian Dream-- a new commonwealth of civilization that challenges both the first Roman and second Byzantine commonwealths in scale and wealth. A third Rome, in words written to the Grand Duke Vasili III in 1510, to stand forever: “two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!”

While this sounds very ambitious, it does not suggest just what this fledgling commonwealth is for. We can, for example, talk about an American Commonwealth, or American-led Globalization, or an American Empire, if we want to nudge things a bit more controversially. But regardless of how we feel about the (admittedly confused and often paradoxical) content and extent of that system, we know it has definite content such as free markets, human rights, and democracy.

Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, seems to stand for giving “a big middle finger to the West,” a pretty negative, highly reactionary, and extremely dangerous stance. Sergey Utkin, head of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences, argues, “People are still supportive of the government, and they buy into this picture created by Russian TV of a fascist government in Kiev trying to destroy the population of the southeast [of Ukraine], of Novorossiya… It’s a myth that’s dear to Russian conservatives, and we have quite a lot of Russian conservatives these days – call them revanchists if you like.” He adds, “I’m afraid we can’t hope that this conflict will end soon. Most probably, it will escalate.” 

Putin’s political machinery has worked so well that he is now under domestic pressure to support the rebels. The more the West sanctions his policies, the more his domestic machinery goes to work fomenting nationalist opposition. Indeed, Putin’s ominous remarks after the Security Council meeting sounded like an arms race with NATO: “NATO is demonstratively reinforcing its grouping on the territory of East European states, including in the areas of the Black and Baltic Seas,” Putin said. “Because of this, we need to implement all planned measures to boost the country’s defense capabilities fully and in time, naturally including Crimea and Sevastopol.”

Unfortunately, the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 might further internationalize the conflict in eastern Ukraine, not coalesce the will to end it. Putin’s posture yields him no room for retreat and puts him and his Eurasian dream on a dangerous path. Commonwealths are at the height of their power when their moral and political coercion is enough to compel. When boots get on the ground, commonwealths begin to crumble. By that measure, the Eurasian dream of the Third Roman commonwealth as a center of civility and industry has ever appeared the fabled Potemkin village. If the brutal invasions of Chechnya, Georgia, then Ukraine were not enough to unmask it, MH17 has. There may yet be a Eurasian dream or a Russian commonwealth, but it won’t be at the heel of a Russian boot, and it will have to mean more than giving a big middle finger to the West. That could be a Russian commonwealth, but that almost certainly is also a Russia without Putin.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”