Anthony Julius, writing on the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” blog:
As President Obama contemplates his foreign policy inheritance, it is likely that he will ponder most deeply two topics – the continuing threat posed by al-Qaida, and Russia, or what has become known as the war on terror and what was once known as the cold war. What he is unlikely to do, however, is to identify any connection between the two threats. But that would be unfortunate, not least because the men who lead them, notwithstanding the many differences between them, have identical perspectives on one specific issue.
What is that issue? Bin Laden’s and Putin’s imperialist ambitions are novel because they are driven not by a desire to create something new, but to recapture something that has past. It is now appropriate to consider an additional age of empire, namely the age of attempted restoration.
For Osama bin Laden, it is the Arab-Islamic empire of the mid-seventh century. Bin Laden has romanticised this period in Arab history and sees himself as heir apparent to the earthly caliphate established (briefly) by the warrior prophet Muhammad. When justifying his attacks on western targets, he frequently makes reference to the crusaders and Jews who have thwarted the return of the Arab-Islamic empire.
Putin is also driven by a desire to revive a lost empire, the Soviet Union. In Ukraine and Georgia, Putin has shown that he is not reconciled to its dissolution. He tolerates the independence of the former Soviet states only when such independence is superficial. True acts of independence (such as asserting territorial integrity or attempting to negotiate the terms of an ostensibly commercial contract) are met with forceful demonstrations of Russian strength.
While both figures are motivated by the same impulse (a sense of grievance at an empire lost), their methods and prospects of success differ dramatically. Bin Laden’s method is terrorism and his dream of a caliphate that covers the Middle East and a vast swathe of Europe is delusional.
By contrast, the threat of Russian imperialism is real, and the armoury at Putin’s disposal formidable. In an age where the ability to deny access to natural resources is as powerful a threat as military action, Russia’s dominance over the former eastern bloc is being re-established with ease. Putin is a master tactician – able to deploy the right weapon at the right time. In Ukraine, Putin has demonstrated his might by refusing to supply gas until Kiev agrees to a humiliating 40% price increase.
In Georgia, he has adopted a gradualist policy that began with influence and ends with annexation. In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has artificially increased the number of “Russians” by handing out Russian passports: national identity is surrendered in exchange for access to better-paid jobs in Russia and to benefits such as pensions.
Russian businesses have also been encouraged to collude with state and state-security entities in order to expand Russian influence in the region. The Russian mobile telecoms company Megafon has operated in South Ossetia since 2004, and Aquafon (Megafon’s subsidiary) has been in Abkhazia since 2003. Megafon does not have a licence to operate in either region. On the day that fighting broke out in August last year, the company extended its coverage further into Georgian territory.
Predictably, in August last year, Putin seized the opportunity to complete his program of expansion. The final stage: the expulsion and murder of elements in the subject population. The burning of ethnic Georgian villages and the forced ejection or murder of their Georgian inhabitants by paramilitary irregulars, armed by Russia, suggests a systematic project of altering the ethnic composition of the regions in Russia’s favour. It defines a moment in which Putin’s imperial dreams became a reality. “Forward to Tbilisi” declared a sign in Russian painted on the gates of a destroyed home in a Georgian village.
To the earliest historians, it was empires that made sense of what would otherwise be a shapeless continuum. Their rise and fall, their leaders, and their conflicts with each other – this was how the past was best interpreted, and present times best understood. It was taken for granted that the largest political units were the ones that had the greatest influence on the world’s course. It was also taken for granted that when they declined, they were gone for good. One great empire succeeded another, and there was no looking back. The trajectory was linear; history paid no second visits.
But, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are called on to revise this model. Historians will be invited in due course to write something new: not an account of an emergent empire, or of a shrinking, embattled one, but instead, an account of former empires striving to realise themselves in history once again.
The 20th century marked the destruction of the imperial system, either through brutal overreach (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union) or relatively peaceful decolonisation (France, Britain, etc). Will the 21st century come to be regarded as the period when the empire struck back – in bin Laden’s case, farcically but murderously, in Putin’s case, efficiently and oppressively?