Russia sees itself as a great power, and great powers demand respect. Deploying large numbers of troops to the Ukrainian border with the threat of war poses a clear challenge to Moscow’s global order.
It is about identity. It is about history. Whereas Ukraine seeks to forge its future and define itself as an independent nation, for Vladimir Putin Ukraine is spiritually, historically and culturally linked to Russia.
He sees himself as the heir to the legacy of Catherine the Great who reclaimed Ukraine as part of Russian lands. Two centuries ago, he demanded other states to recognize Russia’s territorial claims.
It was said that he ordered foreign dignitaries to kiss his hand as a mark of respect.
Putin has sought to reinvent history, Russian Orthodox religion, a Russian identity built around the region, and reclaim greatness.
Russia is a nation hurt by the memory of humiliation. Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Empire the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
It is a flammable mixture. A weak West only increases the risk.
Vladimir Putin gives every sign he is ready to stare at the West. He has done this in the past and encouraged them. They have arguably increased Russian power and influence despite US-led protests and sanctions.
Biggest question: ‘What is Russia?’
Western powers, accustomed to American hegemony and a global liberal democratic system, tend to forget the lessons of great power politics.
Despite all its might, America no longer takes command of the world. Globally, liberal democracy is retreating.
The post-Cold War “end of history” conceit – that liberal democracy had won once and for all in the great battle of ideas – inspired a great Western slumber.
Western leaders of the 1990s believed that they were on the right side of history. He ignored the deep historical memories of rival powers.
What we are seeing in the world today is not the politics of great power of the 20th century, but in the case of Russia, the politics of a great power that reaches back to the 18th century.
Writing in the Foreign Affairs Journal in 1994 in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned the biggest question: What is Russia?
Russia, he said, “can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both”.
He then observed Moscow’s attempt to maintain leverage over former Soviet states. Most ominous, he said, was “Moscow’s economic and military pressure on Kiev”.
Russia, Brzezinski said, saw Ukrainian independence as “an abnormality as well as a threat to Russia’s standing as a global power”.
Nearly three decades later, the question of Ukraine is front and center, and Putin has 100,000 soldiers on the border threatening to invade.
Ukraine is where it all comes together for Putin: identity, region, history. As for Brzezinski’s question – Empire or Democracy? Putin will say empire.
Identity, Status and Two Important Nations
The ghost of superpower politics is hovering in the 21st century. It turns on two issues: identity and status.
Russia and China – two countries that have come close – are important. History tells us that emerging forces seek recognition. If there is a strong prevailing order, they will follow it.
Japan, during the Meiji Restoration, adopted aspects of Western civilization and political structure. Catherine the Great, adopting European knowledge, turned Russia to the west. After the humiliation of the Opium Wars, China briefly turned to Western ideas of science, progress, and democracy.
The defeated Germany and Japan after World War II sought to transform themselves into an image of Western democracy.
But if the international order is weak, emerging powers will try to exploit that weakness, potentially leading to conflict.
In their book, Quest for Status, political scientists Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko use “social identity theory” to ask whether the world can really include Russia and China as great powers.
Social identity theory emphasizes the importance of unique identity. Larsen and Shevchenko state that when a group’s identity is threatened, it follows three strategies: social mobility, social competition, social creativity.
China and Russia have sought status through dynamism and creativity; Hosting major events such as the Olympic Games and gaining access to and influence in global multilateral institutions.
However, China and Russia, he says, “are great challenges to US foreign policy”. Both, he points out, have been more assertive and aggressive with a greater sense of authority in recent times.
Both are civilizations with long-standing visions of their respective greatness. China and Russia, they write, “have a sense of exceptionalism, a hierarchical view of the world, and an obsession with how they are viewed and treated by other major powers”.
Issues such as NATO expansion, the independence of Ukraine or Taiwan quickly become flashpoints – questions of status and identity.
Power transition periods can be disastrous
The world is now in an era of strong social competition. This is the transition period.
Larsen and Shevchenko remind us that we have been here before. In the lead-up to World War I, Germany, seeking equal status with Britain, rapidly expanded its army.
In the 1930s, Japan turned to force to gain recognition of its global power position.
The period of power transition can be disastrous. This is the worst case. It doesn t have to be that way.
China and Russia have in the past shown a desire to be responsible global powers. Leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev or China’s Deng Xiaoping were seen as socially creative, seeking recognition and status through greater engagement with the world.
Although separately, Larsen and Shevchenko point out that both Gorbachev and Deng were “faced with the task of imposing a new identity in foreign policy”.
Both demanded better relations with America. As Larsen and Shevchenko put it: “Both tried to open up their societies to the West while maintaining the distinct identities of their countries.”
Today Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping have been ousted from Deng and Gorbachev. The identities of their nations are expressed more in opposition to the West; Less in engagement and more in strength.
And America is less confident than it was in the 1990s. It is so easy to recognize the position of rival powers from the position of strength. America does not have that privilege today.
US President Joe Biden speaks of American power and seeks to strengthen alliances with democratic states as a dam to creep autocracy. But do his words carry enough weight?
Larsen and Shevchenko argue that it is possible to build a constructive relationship with China and Russia.
With 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border, the stakes are high.
Stan Grant is ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV on Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.