Ukraine and the Caucasus countries are caught between two ambitious powers: Russia, which wants to have hegemony in the former Soviet space, and the United States, which wants global hegemony, according to Ronald G. Suny, professor of political science and history and a prolific writer about the history of the Soviet Union and the successor states.
We called him to talk about what impact the crisis in Ukraine may have for the Caucasus region and Georgia.
DFWatch: We have just seen the celebration of 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, where former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev warned against a new cold war. Do you agree that there is such a danger?
Ronald G. Suny: People talk about it, and it’s used as a metaphor. But my own view is that we’re far from a new cold war. The Cold War was a global struggle between two fundamentally different social and economic system: state-run socialism or stalinism or communism, and the capitalist democracies on the other side. We’re not in anything like that. Russia is a state that is already integrated willy-nilly into the western capitalist system. They have a kind of neoliberal point of view about economics. It might be called state capitalism, but they in fact want to be part of the global economy, and they have very serious differences with the West on the issue of Ukraine. So I’m not one of those who argue that we are in danger of a new cold war, but this is a very serious crisis, and it’s an unnecessary crisis, done on the grounds of misunderstanding of intentions on both sides. But now we’re in it, and it’s extraordinarily dangerous.
DFW: What do you think is the main driving force of this crisis?
RGS: At the moment, I think both sides are to blame. I know that most people would say it’s Putin, but my view is that the Russians made clear early on what their interests were in that part of the world, and the West was a bit negligent and cavalier about recognizing that for Russia, a Ukraine integrated in the West was considered a security risk. For better or for worse, that’s their view. The crisis began, and Putin escalated the crisis by panicking and annexing Crimea, and now trying to hold on and support the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. So Putin is being the accelerator in the crisis, but I would say both sides have some degree of blame.
You have a contest between Putin, who wants to be a regional hegemon, and the United States, which has much grander ambitions, which is to be global hegemon and not accept any regional hegemons like Russia in the former Soviet space
DFW: How do you think the war in Ukraine will affect the Caucasus region?
RGS: The big change for the Caucasus was in 2008, when the Russians made it clear that they could not tolerate NATO expansion into Georgia. That’s basically what the Georgia-Russia war was about. People have retreated from that position since then and said we’ll cool it on Georgian integration into NATO and we’ll restrain Ukrainian integration into NATO. But the Russians are very wary. They are actually playing a very weak hand. My guess would be that if it were possible, Putin would prefer stability in the Caucasus, but he has made a number of moves which has made that more difficult, like the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
I’m not one of those people who believe that Putin is seeking to re-establish the Soviet Union or anything like that, but I think as a kind of humiliated great power, as well as a relatively weak state on a global scale, Putin’s Russia is a state that wants to have as much influence, if not outright hegemony, in the former Soviet space. And that’s what they’re planning about. So you have a contest between Putin, who wants to be a regional hegemon, and the United States, which has much grander ambitions, which is to be global hegemon and not accept any regional hegemons like Russia in the former Soviet space.
That puts the Caucasus and Ukraine in a very difficult position, because they’re caught between these two ambitious powers. The Caucasus would probably prefer to go with the richer, more democratic West, but they have Russia as a very serious and threatening neighbor on their frontiers.
Russia is, I would say, in a very difficult position, both relatively weak on the global scale, but relatively strong in its own region, and willing to take risks and willing to use force in a very often brutal way
DFW: The former Ukrainian president Yanukovich wanted to postpone the signing of a so-called association agreement with the European Union, and that was what triggered the crisis in Ukraine. How important are these association agreements, in the context of what you just said?
RGS: One could take an objective or a subjective position. That is, objectively, Ukraine could be associated with the West through the association agreement and also deal with Russia. That seems to be, in some ways, the Ukrainian position, at least the non-Yanukovich people, and maybe people in the West. But Putin and Russia don’t see it that way. They see a much more zero-sum game, and they are fearful. When the association agreement was being negotiated, the Russians asked to be included in those negotiations, and their request was turned down. They were excluded, and therefore became very suspicious, offered their own deal, which ultimately Yanukovich accepted, and then the crisis began, the Euromaidan protests and Yanukovich’s flight to Russia etc. This has been a very sad escalation from small negotiations which could have been finessed and worked out, to now, armed conflict and people dying. Very sad.
DFW: The current government in Georgia has managed to establish some direct trade relations with Russia, and at the same time is very committed to joining NATO and the EU. What have they done different from Yanukovich in Ukraine, and is it possible to balance between East and West?
RGS: Very difficult to balance between East and West, but it is possible. You do have examples. Finland during the Cold War is one example. In some ways, the Baltic countries are a good example of balancing. It’s an uneasy balance. It’s a balancing act, you might say. But it is possible. But one has to be very careful not to threaten either side. Great powers don’t act like small powers. When Cuba decided to move toward socialism, the United States did everything possible, ignoring their sovereign rights, to influence them and try to overthrow the Castro government, to blockade it, etc. We’ve been doing that for more than half a century. That’s how great powers act. And Russia is, I would say, in a very difficult position, both relatively weak on the global scale, but relatively strong in its own region, and willing to take risks and willing to use force in a very often brutal way. So one has to take all those things into consideration if one wants to find a solution to this problem.
There was a brief period under Yeltsin when Russia was so weak and accommodating to the West that the West didn’t demonize Russia
DFW: Do you think it’s possible for the countries in the Caucasus region to develop closer regional cooperation and their own Caucasus ‘model’?
RGS: I think they need to do that. I think that’s essential. It has certainly happened between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and it can happen between Georgia and Armenia. Between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it’s a very difficult question. Those countries have moved further and further away from each other. They’re in a semi-war position at the moment. That’s very difficult. If they ever got their act together and acted more rationally, then the whole area would prosper in an amazing way, the kind of way we expected when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
DFW: In your introduction to The Cambridge History of Russia, Vol 3, you write about how the West was reading and writing about Russia in the 20th century. How is the West reading Russia today?
RGS: It’s almost as if we do it out of habit. Russia is always available as a villain, as Jews are for anti-semites. There was a brief period under Yeltsin when Russia was so weak and accommodating to the West that the West didn’t demonize Russia. They found instead Arabs and Muslims to demonize. But now they’re back. And Putin plays the role. He’s a strong leader, he’s unwilling to succumb to western views, he wants to be very forceful, he wants Russia to have a very important place in the international sun. All the views of Russia, as this expansionist state, all of those views are now being resurrected and redeployed.
I’m hopeful that some other civic patriotism, a more inclusive nationalism, might develop, but I don’t see a trend in that direction in the former Soviet space at the moment
DFW: Another of your interests has been ethno-nationalism in former Soviet countries. How important is ethno-nationalism in today’s Georgian politics?
RGS: Very, very important. It’s available to be exploited by what I call ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’. Certainly in the Caucasus, different people have used it in different ways. It is the dominant ideology in the Caucasian countries, because the other possible ideologies – liberalism, socialism – have been discredited to some degree. And in Ukraine, nationalism is certainly developing, now that they have this irredentist claim that part of their land, Crimea, was illegally taken away. In Russia, for the same reason, because of Crimea being joined to Russia, nationalism is on the rise. These are dangerous things. Once this nationalist view escapes from its Pandora’s Box, anything is possible. I’m generally very critical of this kind of ethno-nationalism and always hopeful that some other civic patriotism, a more inclusive nationalism, might develop. But I don’t see a trend in that direction in the former Soviet space at the moment.
DFW: Do you think Georgia’s western partners have done a good job in reducing the problems involved with this form of nationalism?
RGS: Yes. Both NGOs and western governments and the Americans in particular, and the EU, they have done really wonderful and heroic work trying to make these countries look more democratic, to appeal to international standards of human rights and behavior. I think that’s a very positive influence in the Caucasus.
DFW: What is Georgia’s approach to the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and has the country moved forward toward reconciliation with them, with the help of Europe and America?
RGS: That is a very interesting question. One would have to look into all the details of that. My sense is that they try their best. These are very difficult, almost intractable problems. From the outside one might be critical and say, they could have done more. Having talked to some of those people and seen how they work, I can tell you that it is extraordinarily difficult to move the governments, as long as the governments themselves are so influenced by this pernicious ethno-nationalism.
DFW: Is Georgia European or Asian?
RGS: There is no such thing as European or Asian. That’s a discursive formation which basically makes Asia inferior to Europe. It’s a kind of late, pernicious orientalism. There are countries in the world. Some are more developed, more democratic, more capitalistic, more socialistic, and they vary. Is Japan Asian or Europe? It looks much more like Europe than some parts of Europe do. So I would stay away from that. That’s a way of denigrating countries to the east and making countries to the west feel superior.
Ronald Grigor Suny is the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History and the director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan. He is also professor emeritus of political science and history at the University of Chicago and Senior Researcher at National Research University, Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Suny is the author of The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (Oxford) and is currently writing a biography of the young Stalin.