With this recent article in the New York Times Victor Sebestyen is the latest in a series of commentators who have downplayed the tempting assessment that the Crimean affair signals the prelude to a new Cold War. In a sense he is right. Indeed, Putin is not offering a universal “Big idea” to counter Western ideology. Indeed, Putin’s cronyism is hardly going to appeal to the masses outside Russia proper and its Russianized fringes. Indeed, it is quite ludicrous to presume that Ché Guevara’s grandson will take up arms to liberate South America in the name of Gazprom. If Putin’s goal were to appeal to this planet’s peoples by promising ‘Russian nationalism and gangster capitalism for all’, then – yes – he would obviously have lost his mind.
Putin has not lost his mind. What he sees quite clearly is that the winning strategy for his form of governance is not to compete by appealing to the people directly, but through their leaders. Instead of offering a universal ideology, Putin has systematically supported non-democratic leaders. Not being bound by scruples over human rights issues, democratic justification, or the defense of free speech, Putin has offered himself as the alternative benefactor for any leader whose style of leadership is, say, not in line with Western affinities. Thus, instead of offering Russian nationalism and Russian gangster capitalism, Putin’s offer to leaders around the world is to help them defend their own brand of these. What Putin is offering is not a Big idea, a univeral ideology, he’s offering a wordwide dictatorship franchise.
We can see this trend emerging in the Middle East. Take a country like Egypt for instance. Following last summer’s supposed (?) coup, the American government understandably acted hesitantly as it weighed the pro’s of holding on to a strategic alliance that has maintained the balance of power in the region for over 30 years and the con’s of supporting an undemocratic regime that has displayed no qualms about using force against its poputation and arresting tens of thousands on mostly trumped up charges. Russia, on the other hand, has used the occassion to take back its place as the rightful patron of Egypt, which it lost during the reign of Sadat. It has offered supported to replace that which would be lost under the Americans, it has invited Egypt’s new strongman to Moscow and it has started sending military envoys to Cairo on a regular basis. At the same time, the Egyptian military has used a (to some extent) similar form of nationalism to cement its control, while its deeper motives for wanting to hold on to power are quite probably related to the gangster capitalism that fueled Putin’s quest for power.
If this style of diplomacy is a trend – and it certainly seems to be – it becomes obvious why Putin doesn’t want to offer an alternative worldview He doesn’t need to. What he offers is an alternative way of running countries. What he supports is a destructive, morally inferior form of governance, but it is a form of governance nonetheless and one that will appeal to many in less-than-stable regions around the world. While we may not be witnessing the resumption of an ideology-laden Cold War, we may be on the verge of its post-modern baby sister.