The collapse of communism in the 1990s was followed by what is commonly referred to as the “unfreezing” of numerous conflicts that had been “frozen” by structural confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, which at that time represented the East and the West. The external limits for activities of states and societies were dictated by the Soviet Union (strictly) and by the United States (somewhat milder), and sometimes by both of them, for example, when they imposed a nuclear nonproliferation policy, acting hand in hand.
Yugoslavia was the first to explode. Then a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a conflict started in Transdniestria, and Chechnya blew up.
The former Yugoslavia was finally forcefully suppressed by westerners. Russia fought in Chechnya for almost a decade and imposed peace in Transdniestria. Some of the conflicts were “frozen” again (Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict) by joint efforts.
Other instances of that first “unfreezing,” which occurred on the periphery of global politics, are less known. Russia, afflicted by its post-revolutionary weakness, and the West, enthralled by the ostensible victory in the Cold War, oversaw the creation of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, which restarted their further proliferation that had been put on hold until then. In sub-equatorial Africa, former colonial powers did not notice the Hutu and Tutsi genocide that claimed millions of lives. This would not have happened during the Cold War for fear that it might make the “adversary” stronger.
Fortunately, not everything “unfroze.” There are many explanations why the Soviet Union did not follow the standard suit of other empires that had disintegrated through civil war and bloodshed. All these explanations are unconvincing. So I will dare give one that has not been mentioned by political scientists so far: God forgave Russia the sin of communism and saved it. Or it was mere luck.
Central and East European countries, where nationalism and mutual suspicious were very strong, were lucky too. They were quickly accepted and tightly embraced and taken under control by NATO and the European Union.
One could have given a sigh of relief, but in the middle of the 2000s there happened something I would call a “second unfreezing,” which was in fact a distant echo of the bipolar world’s collapse. The second “unfreezing” was a result of not only and not so much of the collapse of the bipolar world order as of the weakening of the Old West.
The first-ever real globalization benefitted the West at first but then led to explosive growth in peripheral Asian regions that had been controlled by the West and Cold War rules and institutions and/or wretched a miserable life in poverty and weakness for about 200 years.
The rise of a new Asia had predictably spurred the rise of nation states with their interests and phobias, and led to the return of their own geopolitics as opposed to the one imposed or offered by external forces.
The process was tremendously augmented by the staggering failure of the West that had dominated the world for nearly 500 years. It began with logically unexplainable escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan, which stripped the it of the mantle of victor; and continued with structural economic problems in the USA and the EU, which were brought to the fore by the crisis of 2008, and, most importantly, with the increasingly obvious inability of Western democracy to solve severe structural problems in its humane-liberal semi-socialist form it had assumed by the beginning of the 21st century.
Europe is almost gone from the world geopolitics and there is virtually no evidence of its presence in East Asia where it once used to be a dominating player. And yet it tries to prove otherwise – through purely symbolic “civil presence”, or engaging in rearguard action (such as in Libya) or welcoming “Arab democratic revolutions” that essentially bring catastrophic consequences for it.
The USA, which has preserved a considerable part of its might but has lost the ability to use it because of structural economic problems, the split among its elites and two defeats, is trying to contain China, but merely symbolically, too. Old alliances such as PATO, ANZUS, CENTO and the like has crumbled away or losing their vitality. India has calmly rejected an alliance offered almost humbly by Washington.
Meanwhile, the region is being swept by military-political passions over reefs that were hitherto unknown. Countries are bringing back old claims against each other but mostly against Japan, and everyone is afraid of China that remains quite peaceable for the time being. Suspected by everyone as it is, Beijing is beginning to flex its muscles and no longer bothers to hide its might. East and South Asia has got engaged in an arms race, mainly at sea. A dozen of potential conflicts and one very probable one – between India and Pakistan – are beginning to take shape in the region.
Objectively, with no pan-regional security architecture, the departure of the West and the rise of China create a rapidly growing, albeit not catastrophic, security vacuum in the region.
The results of the “second unfreezing” in another part of Asia – the Greater Middle East – appear to be even more alarming. The loosening of control over the region, put in place through tacit cooperation-rivalry between the Soviet Union and America at first and then led by the USA, has created a security vacuum in the region, which looks almost appallingly hopeless.
Having occurred at the time of democratization and successive fall of one secular dictatorship after another, the loosening of external control has brought about old and new suspicions, religious disagreements and hate for the outside, primarily Western, including Christian, world that had piled up over the years of its dominance in this part of the globe. The region has entered a period of wars, social degradation and rise of religious and national fanaticism.
There may as well be a second-and-a-half “unfreezing”.
Spurred by enormous demand for natural resources and food in the new Asia, long-forgotten Africa has been growing rapidly over the past 5-6 years. Affected by the first “unfreezing” and with weak regional structures and virtually artificial borders throughout the continent, Africa will almost inevitably face a new wave of conflicts provoked by competition for resources. But there will be no one to quench them: China won’t want to, nor will India and the USA, let alone Russia, hopefully. In fact, the old colonial powers are growing palpably weaker, and no problem can be solved nowadays by a company of paratroopers or a gang of mercenaries. States are beginning to split up across the continent.
And yet Africa remains on the edge of world politics.
Truly horrible for the world and Russia would be a “third unfreezing” – the collapse of the European Union that was created by outstanding Europeans in a bid to bury the history of European state nationalism, which had triggered hundreds of wars, brought into existence two totalitarian systems, communist and Nazi, and caused two world wars. Another strong motive for the development of the European Union was the fear of communism. Now that it is gone its founders have allowed themselves to relax.
Amazingly much has been done. A prototype of a humane world order has been created. Europe, a place of main threats to itself and the rest of the world over the past several centuries, has become a strong outpost of peace. We Russians, with our history of wars with Europe and in Europe, should be particularly grateful to the fathers of European integration.
However, the descendants of the founding fathers – J.Monnet and M.Schuman of France, W.Churchill of Great Britain, K.Adenauer of Germany, P.-A.Spaak of Belgium and their allies – preferred to rest on their laurels after success and failed to notice, except for the Germans, Swedes and some other Nordic nations, competitive challenges in the new world. They had also forgotten that the underlying motive in the European project was politics, not economy. They rushed into enlargement and set unrealistic goals. Now they have to pay for that by overhauling the European Union and the euro zone. And yet an even bigger transformation is inevitably in store (actually, the time for it has already come): Europe will have to give up many things in the social welfare realm in order to become competitive again. This will inevitably necessitate changes in political institutions from the present-day nearly limitless semi-socialist liberal democracy to something stricter. After all, current European democracies stand in striking contrast to those of the 1930s or 1950s, which, by modern standards, were aristocratic, based mainly on agreement between top elites, and more authoritarian. I know that politically correct Europeans will not like this statement (but it is almost trivial, though).
Europeans have been revamping their euro zone and the very edifice of European integration quite successfully so far, albeit not very decisively. It will have two or three classes of people. But the majority of countries do not want to notice the looming challenge of internal political radicalization because of the impending decline in the living standards. They keep saying “more democracy.” As a man who remembers the Soviet “more socialism” slogan of the late 1980s, this actually makes me shudder with fear.
In fact, it is not only the edifice of European integration that has to be repaired but also more deep-lying structures in order to move away from the current semi-socialist and leaderless democracy.
Russia is vitally and existentially interested in the success of inescapable European reforms and would not want to see the edifice of European integration tumbling down so as to avoid a third “unfreezing” and a situation where, in addition to the increasingly dangerous South and restless East, we would be confronted with an unstable and potentially hostile West again. In fact, complications in Europe have already enfeebled modernization impulses for the development of the Russian state and society, which traditionally came from there.
We have to think about how to help Europe deal with its indecisiveness and inclination to shy away from problems by offering advice, money or criticism. We have to keep proposing a Union of Europe – a common economic, energy and human space covering Russia, countries close to it and the EU. Such a union could provide a way out of the systemic European crisis.
Lastly, we should stop rejoicing foolishly at the weakening of the West as it will lead to greater chaos and hazards. If the European bell starts tolling, it will toll for us, too.
The first “unfreezing” did occur. The second one, fraught with scores of challenges and threats, is only unfolding and needs to be kept under control. A third one must be warded off by all means.