PUTIN: Eurasia’s Vacuum Cleaner

By S. Frederick Starr

[Ed note: Fred Starr is a world-renowned authority on Central Asian and Russian issues. His 2014 book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, has drawn global attention. He will be the graduation speaker at a Kabul International school this spring.]


When Al Chambers recently asked me what I think is going on in Ukraine and with Mr. Putin I got to musing. I recalled that back in the early 1990s I worked with Putin in Leningrad (soon to become St. Petersburg) when the mayor and Henry Kissinger were trying (unsuccessfully) to turn that city into a banking center.  Putin was short and very feisty.  The only shorter person in the mayor’s office was a diminutive law student, whom Putin treated as his personal valet. That was Dmitri Medvedev, the future President.  Putin himself impressed me as a confirmed collector of gossip and as someone who was absolutely disloyal to his boss. But these ancient recollections get us nowhere. After all, Putin now has the whole FSB (formerly KGB) at his beck and call and has no need to collect gossip himself, while otherwise he is himself the boss, and has no one above him towards whom he can be disloyal.

 "A hundred possible steps between doing next to nothing and war"

Starr: “A hundred possible steps between doing next to nothing and war”

Meanwhile, we are not lacking theories of what makes this man tick. Some suggest that Putin is an ethnic nationalist, a kind of LiliPutin-esque Slavic Hitler, who has found his own Sudetenland. Others see him as a classical revanchist, driven by revenge to seek to regain lost territories. As such, he is the exact opposite of Charles DeGaulle, who signaled to his fellow Frenchmen that there is a better future without the former colony of Algeria, and they followed. Still others stress, adepts of psychology, trace Putin’s aggressiveness to his upbringing as a street fighter in the slums of Leningrad, while yet others see his actions as the inevitable behavior of a KGB long-termer.

All of these probably contain a kernel of truth. But so what? The question that should concern us most is not about Putin’s motives but whether a leader intent on territorial acquisition at the expense of his neighbors can succeed in the twenty-first century. Our president and Secretary of State have opined that this shouldn’t be possible….it is so nineteenth century. But what if it is? What do we do then?

“In recent weeks leaders everywhere
have told me of overt and covert actions
directed against their own countries.”

Putin rides the range: Reckless expansionism?

Putin’s aspirations are not limited to Ukraine and Crimea. A Putin apologist recently wrote that oil-rich Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity “is in Russia’s hands.” Georgia is girding for another assault, while Kazakhstan in Central Asia, a close partner of Russia’s, sees Putin’s campaign to federalize and then divide Ukraine as a prelude to the same process in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Worse, the three Baltic States, all members of the EU and NATO, watch as Putin increases Russian troops on their borders and uses his navy to threaten access to their ports.

I know from first hand experience that the fears of leaders and political analysts in the Caucasus and Central Asia are based on solid evidence, not paranoia. Over the past decade and a half I have visited nearly all of these new states at least once or twice a year. In recent weeks leaders everywhere have told me of overt and covert actions directed against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their own countries. None doubt that Putin’s scheme for federalizing Ukraine, with its intent of slicing the country in two, is a kind of dress rehearsal for similar actions elsewhere.

Which, if any of these countries or regions, will be the focus of some future push by Putin, his diplomats, and his expanded and reequipped army?  Of course, we don’t know. But one thing is certain: the absolute precondition for every expansionist move Putin has made or may launch in the future is his perception of a geopolitical vacuum on or near a Russian border which he can fill.  This is what he found in Georgia and why he moved on Ukraine. It is also the key to nearly all Russian expansion dating back half a millennium.  It is what impelled Ivan IV to seize parts of eastern Europe from Poland and Lithuania and Kazan from the Tatars the sixteenth century; it explains why Peter I seized the Baltic region from the Swedes in the early eighteenth century, and why Catherine II moved into Ukraine and the Crimea at the expense of the Turks in the late eighteenth century.  When Alexander I perceived a political vacuum in the Caucasus he seized territory from Iran, and when Alexander II detected weakness in the Central Asian emirates he sent his army to fill the vacuum there.


Click to enlarge map

Some may argue that Russian expansionism has been a response to perceived threats from the outside. But in every case cited above the external enemy either had long since passed its peak of power or was in utter collapse. Russian borders have advanced more out of opportunism than fear.  Even if this were not the case, how can one deal with a government which believes that the only way it can purchase its own security is the price of everyone else’s insecurity?

So far, neither the United States nor Europe has taken serious action. They should have taken notice in 2008 when Putin used his army to steal two provinces from Georgia.  Europe at least responded by conjuring up an Eastern Partnership for east European countries that did not join the EU. This is what the government of Ukraine was eying when Putin moved in, first with a massive bribe and then with his army. The US responded to Putin’s assault on Georgia with Obama’s “reset” with Russia.

“geopolitical and economic vacuums
are the sine qua non to all his territorial pretensions”

The stated reason for our tepid response to Mr. Putin’s aggression is that the US is not prepared to take military action, i.e., for war. Quite so. This is certainly understandable, given the sacrifice and expense involved in the recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the desire of our current leadership to “pivot to Asia.” But between doing next to nothing and war there are a hundred possible steps. The task of diplomacy is prudently to select among these on the basis of their costs and likely effectiveness. This has yet to be done in a serious manner. Unfortunately, mere talk and conferencing does not fill geopolitical vacuums.

Medical friends from among our 1962 classmates have stressed to me that the key to successful prescription and treatment is a stone sober clinical analysis of the problem. Such is also the case in international affairs. The sooner our policymakers and geopolitical analysts stop psychoanalyzing Vladimir Putin and start identifying and addressing the geopolitical and economic vacuums on Russia’s borders that are the sine qua non to all his territorial pretensions, the sooner we will put an end to a reckless expansionism that might yet trigger unforeseen and terrible consequences.

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