History may well judge Russia’s leaders harshly

Are we seeing the signs of a new Cold War developing from polarization between the U.S. and Russia?

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

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Does history repeat itself? Are we seeing the signs of a new Cold War developing from polarization between the U.S. and Russia, the heir of the collapsed Soviet Union?

The late English writer Aldous Huxley argued: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

Perhaps this is the prevailing case with Russia as it sets out on a new nationalist course driven by its perceptions of an unjust West, which it believes has sought to undermine its history and reduce its relevance. Certainly, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes he is on the right path because his popularity has soared at home since he annexed Crimea.

Russia’s new political strategy has seen a shift in international relations. It has not hesitated to use its veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member. This includes its support of the Syrian regime, despite widespread international condemnation in the wake of the massacres that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

An opportunity

Russia has used the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its status on the international political scene, and to find some measure of healing from the Soviet Union’s demise. Its dormant imperialistic tendencies has now reemerged in the form of Putin’s Caesar-like dreams, fueled by new economic and international conditions, including Europe’s need for Russian gas.

While many nations continue their quest for an inspirational leader, it seems that the Russians have found theirs

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

In his book “Seize the Moment,” published in 1992, former U.S. President Richard Nixon correctly predicted the rise of Russian imperialism, as “the rise of a new imperial sense based not on communism but on Russian nationalism. History only provides a few examples of one-round success even in noble causes like the 1991 revolution.” Nixon believed that future Russian leaders would exploit a growing radical political stream, as the population stopped supporting moderate positions.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea has now raised the distinct possibility, at least in the minds of some observers, that it would next march onto Kiev, motivated by the fact that the country has a large Russian-speaking population, particularly on its eastern border.

Russian maneuvering

It is important to note that the West has implicitly accepted this Russian maneuvering. Some see this as a humiliating retreat by the West. The ineffective sanctions slapped on Russia signaled that the West would allow the seizure of Crimea, on the condition that it would not attempt to annex Ukraine’s cities in the east.

While many nations continue their quest for an inspirational leader, it seems that the Russians have found theirs. They see Putin as the man to bring the country prestige and glory.

While Nixon believed that most Russians want democracy, he argued that there was also a desire to take commands from above. This seems to be borne out by the fact that the populace kept Putin in power, even though he manipulated the constitution. To get around the provision that he could not serve as prime minister for more than two terms, Putin appointed a loyalist, Dmitry Medvedev, in the position, and then ran for president. In the end, the Russian people voted for Putin, as if they wanted a powerful and supreme authority to run their lives.

Mixed messages

Russia has sent mixed messages to the world over the past few years. While it has advocated for openness, freedom and justice, it has gone the opposite way in its handling of the Syrian crisis. It may argue that it has interests to protect, but this should surely not come at the expense of humanity’s shared responsibilities.

The Soviet Union had a history of intervening in other countries’ affairs, in the Hungary revolution of 1956, in Warsaw in 1967, and in its crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, to name a few. After the end of the Cold War, many expected this meddling to cease. The Crimean incident shows just how fragile the geopolitical system is.

Russia, with its rich natural resources, and formidable military with nuclear capability, must surely be considered a world superpower. If this is the case, it has a duty to present itself as an advocate for human rights, a free market, and the right of people to choose their leaders. On the political front, it has failed. Many have lost respect for it, and also the faith that it would help create a world that could take multilateral decisions for the greater good.

Much like the U.S., Russia’s position has been tarnished, and the hopeful dream it had once encapsulated has been deferred. History may well judge Russia’s leaders harshly. There is good reason to believe that it has forgotten the past, and is now doomed to repeat it.

This article was first published in Arab News on April 16, 2014.


Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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