Author: David Batashvili, International Relations Analyst
There is a degree of haunting resemblance between the period after 1917 and the one since 1991. The empire built by Russia crumbles. Its core immediately launches an effort to take back the nations that broke away. Specific political formulas of such efforts differ in these two periods, but the essence is the same – prevent them from being truly independent. The newly liberated states resist the former master’s onslaught against their sovereignty. They are hampered by the weakness of their newborn institutions, and by infighting. Sometimes the resisting states are willing and able to help each other, but too often they aren’t. The stakes are very high. Consequences of a potential defeat for the newly restored nations are sickening.
Russia won the fight in 1918-1921, adding occupation of the three Baltic states in 1940 as an epilogue. By the end of World War II, only Finland stood completely free, if not completely whole. What Russia’s neighbors are going through right now is a ‘second round’ of this struggle. And, for all the similarities, there are crucial differences between it and the ‘first round’. The danger in which the restored nations find themselves is grave indeed, but these differences give them a real chance to preserve their freedom this time.
Occupation of the three Baltic States, 1940
A Difference of Timing
One obvious distinction is that under the Bolsheviks Russia managed to re-establish control over most of the lost territories very quickly – it took about four years. Obviously, this time things did not go like that.
The primary reason is the difference between political conditions in Russia in the years after 1917 on the one hand, and the period after 1991 on the other. After the Bolsheviks came to power, they quickly established an effective totalitarian regime. Dissent was crushed and resources directed for strategic purposes in an exceedingly ruthless, bloody, but efficient manner. Moreover, their ideology, powerful as young totalitarianisms usually are, helped the Bolsheviks in control of Russia build huge fifth columns in the nations they targeted for taking over. These factors contributed to their relatively quick recapture of most of the Russian Empire’s former colonies.
Situation after 1991 was very different. There was no strong ideology in Russia to build on (nor is there presently), and the country was weakened by the demise of the artificial Soviet socio-economic system. Moscow did as much damage to the new nations as it could, with Georgia perhaps the most vivid example, if we don’t count Chechnya; yet it was in no position to fully crush their sovereignty in the 1990s.
Entrenchment of the Nation-State Identity
From this reality was born the second crucial distinction between the two rounds of the struggle: this time the re-established states actually had some time for the nation-building. They have been constantly hampered and damaged by Russia in the process, but at least they remained in existence. This allowed their independent identities tied to the national sovereignty become entrenched in ways that were impossible in 1918-1921, with a whole new generation being born and grown up apart from the empire.
Of course, the counter-argument here can be that the Baltic states also got such time in 1918-1940, and it did not save them. But, first of all, it did save Finland. Second, the occupation of the Baltic states happened in the exceptional time when the international system was burning in the fire of World War II, and precisely at the moment when France was falling in June 1940. And third, taking over countries with a fully formed and entrenched nation-state identity is a difficult and messy affair in any case, as demonstrated by the years of the Baltic guerilla resistance movements.
The Empire’s Exhausted Vigor
The third difference lies in the erosion of the fundamental national resource of modern Russia. Prior to World War I, Russia was a rapidly developing country with enormous potential. Similarly to what has been going on in China since the 1980s, the early 20th century Russia was transforming its huge demographic resource into industrial power. It was caught by World War I in the middle of that road. Yet, despite the devastations of the Great War, and then the Russian Civil War, that massive fundamental national resource of Russia was still there. It took waves of social genocide in the 1930s, followed by World War II and the subsequent decades of ugly socio-economic engineering, to critically undermine that potential.
The Bolsheviks mismanaged and squandered Russia’s riches, first of all its human resources, but at least they had a lot to squander. Which means, they had a lot of time to attack the nations that had regained freedom in 1918. Even if the nations that fell in 1918-1921 had managed to keep their independence at that time, they would have trouble doing so later – a point vividly demonstrated during World War II by the occupation of the three Baltic states, vassalization of Poland and determined attack against Finland.
Presently time works against Russia: it is a deeply undermined country demographically, socially and politically, and the trend it towards worse, not better. Putin’s or his successors’ regime won’t get the decades that the Communists had. Unlike Stalin’s USSR in 1939 as compared to the early Bolsheviks, today’s Russia is not going to be more powerful 20 years later. This time, its neighbors defending their sovereignty are facing not a barely stoppable road roller, but a giant with feet of clay. That giant is very dangerous, but also very compromised.
A Different West
The fourth important factor that is different this time is the West. In the last year and immediate aftermath of World War I, the priority of the victorious powers was dealing with Germany. There was general understanding that the Bolshevik regime in Russia was unacceptable and dangerous, but there was not enough political will to confront it in a manner that actually would make a difference. All moves against the Bolsheviks were feeble and half-hearted. Even when in 1920 the Red Russian armies were at the doors of Warsaw – in the center of Europe – the Poles had to defeat that onslaught themselves. No Entente forces came to help them keep the re-expanding Russia in check. Besides, there were no permanent structures that would keep the victors in a single alliance after the war.
Now the West is different. True, it has a great number of apparently deteriorating problems, and its elements still have serious issues with generating political will to confront Russian expansionism. But it is incomparably more united than it was after World War I, and this unity has strong institutional forms.
With Germany this time being part of the solution, instead of the problem, Europe has no bigger geopolitical problem than aggressive Russia. After years of efforts, Vladimir Putin finally managed to sufficiently concentrate the Western minds with his invasion of Ukraine. The notion that Moscow’s imperial ambitions need to be confronted ceased being considered alarmist, and transferred into the mainstream.
The Western efforts to stop Russian aggression and help its hard-pressed neighbors are often insufficient in those neighbors’ eyes, and perhaps justly so. Yet these efforts do exist, and are coming as a coherent policy, which gets political boost with each new aggressive Russian move. This reality makes it much riskier and more complicated for Moscow to conduct foreign aggression, than it was for the Soviet Russia in 1918-1921.
Last, but emphatically not least, there is the difference between the life expectancy of the Kremlin regimes now and a century ago. The Bolsheviks were a classical totalitarianism – a system that works hard to control not only its subjects’ actions, but also their genuine thoughts. It is also mostly effective in ruthless destruction of those individuals whose minds it cannot digest. These features make it quite resilient, and extremely difficult to overthrow through internal resistance alone. Totalitarian regimes either are destroyed through external military defeat, or slowly wither over many decades before falling or transforming. Due to the nature of the political regime established by the Bolsheviks, it was unrealistic to expect their quick fall.
Putin’s Russia is no totalitarianism. But nor is it a democracy. The latter type of political regime has a resilience of its own, because when people really hate their government in a democracy, they expect an opportunity to change it through elections, and thus feel no necessity to rebel, with the country remaining stable as a result. Russia is authoritarian, and does not hold real elections anymore. Consequently, the mechanism that helps democratic states remain stable does not exist there. The only source of popular legitimacy for the ruling regime is its success – geostrategic prowess and economic benefits for the population. Once that success dwindles, the steam of discontent begins to build up, without the discharge of democratic elections. History, including very recent one, has numerous examples of how this kind of story ultimately ends.
We – Russia’s neighbors targeted by its expansionism – are in grave danger, there is no question about that. Complacency on our part, or on the part of our partners, would be a grave mistake. Yet our chance to win, or at least survive the struggle is realistic this time. We have no influence on the processes within Russia that can, at some point, result in the end of its offensive against the neighbors’ sovereignty; but we do have control over our own capability to resist this offensive until the time when Moscow is no longer capable of keeping it up. We need to ‘dig in’, incessantly pushing back the fifth columns in our countries that Russia keeps bolstering, improving our military capabilities, and developing productive partnership with both our Western partners and each other. Then we can prevail this time around. It may not be easy, but it is very much doable.