Friday, 4 April 2014

Russian and Chinese Revanchism and the Risk of General War

We are nowhere near the end of the Ukrainian crisis. The headlines change daily.  What seems clear at this point is that the Russian government is not willing to accept a Ukrainian government that desires closer links to the European Union and, perhaps, eventually NATO. That is unthinkable to Russia, because its major naval base on the Black Sea, since before the days of the Crimean War, is in the Crimea, at Sevastopol. There is simply no good alternative on Russian soil for its naval base in the Ukraine.

Russia's recent annexation of Crimea bears some obvious similarities to Germany's 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland. These are, a country with one ethnic identity (Ukrainian or Czechoslovak) with a disaffected region (Crimea, Sudetenland) in which another ethnic identity predominates (Russian, German). An external power claims that the ethnic minority is being persecuted and claims the right to speak and act in its defence. Finally, it incorporates the disputed land, "reuniting" it to the motherland (or fatherland) of the minority.

The less obvious similarities are more disturbing for what they promise in the future. Like Germany in 1938, Russia has a government that is bitter about its nation's territorial and strategic losses and and is determined to rectify them. The term for such governments, generously provided by the French, is revanchist, which comes from the word revancher,  to avenge. The specific forms of revenge that are sought are the restoration of the nation's prestige and status, the imposition of the government's foreign policy goals on nations that would otherwise oppose them, and the reincorporation of lost territory. The word that expresses this last goal, irredentism, comes from the Italian phrase Italia irredenta meaning "the unredeemed (portions of) Italy."

Germany's losses after World War I were designed to cripple the country through economic ruin, territorial loss, and military weakness. Arguably, looking at events since 1989, a Russian could perceive the same principles at work. The defensive ring of buffer states that insulated the Soviet Union from the West, the Warsaw Pact, collapsed. Contrary to assurances made to the Soviet Union, NATO militarized the former East German territory after Germany was unified. Many Warsaw Pact members joined Western economic and military institutions--the European Union and NATO--explicitly to prevent Russia from re-establishing its sphere of influence. Parts of the Soviet Union broke away, forming new, independent countries. As the Soviet Union ended, along with its economic system and its system of government, its successor nation entered a long and severe economic depression that dragged the Russian military down with it. The Russian Federation's humiliating loss against a guerilla army in the First Chechen War of 1994-1996 was proof enough of this.

Vladimir Putin, during his fourteen years in power, has tried to restore Russia to its former status as a great power, as significant as the United States. The economy is growing, largely through gas sales to Europe. The military is re-equipping. The Chechen state was reincorporated into Russia in the Second Chechen War. A Russian-speaking enclave has been torn off Moldova. Two more were ripped out of Georgia. A Russian-speaking segment of the Ukraine has been reincorporated into Russia. Western inaction on Syria has been maintained, partly through Russian statecraft. A "Eurasian" economic union under Russian control has been set up as a counterweight to the European Union. A sphere of influence has been defined by Russia in which it would use all its tools, economic and military, to keep the EU and NATO out. Russia clearly sees both Georgia and the Ukraine within the Russian sphere.

In a sense, Russia is killing a dream the West has nurtured since the fall of the Soviet Union, in which Europe was at peace, its nations' borders were secure, and Russia was a partner to Western nations. Following that dream, Germany set up pipelines to import Russian gas as the majority of its imported energy. Following that dream, the European Space Agency started launching Russian Soyuz rockets from its Guiana Space Centre. Following that dream, Western European nations have reduced their military spending year after year.

A similar dream is equally under threat in Asia from Chinese revanchism and irridentism. The Chinese government likes to tout that it is reversing "a hundred years of humiliation." It is considering the institution of two new public holidays, both of which are intended to worsen relations with Japan: one commemorating the Rape of Nanjing and the other, Japan's defeat in World War II. China is claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea, including islands that, according to UN rules, belong to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei. Its ships and planes are jousting with Japanese ones over another set of islands. It is refusing to participate in multi-party discussions to resolve these disputes. It refuses to participate in a UN deliberation to resolve the contested claims between it and the Philippines. Perhaps most disturbingly, one of its warships almost rammed an American warship.

Chinese irredentism is nothing new. It was behind the 1952 invasion of Tibet and the negotiated acquisistions of Hong Kong and Macao. It is behind China's long-standing claim to Taiwan, which it would prefer to acquire peacefully but is willing, according to government pronouncements, to take by force. What is new is that China is under new leadership that no longer follows Deng Xiaoping's idea of "peaceful rise" with anything like clarity or whole-heartedness. As a result, the world is at a greater risk of widespread war between near-peer powers than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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