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4 August 2021

Why we are entering a new Great Game

As neoliberalism collapses, national elites around the world are reviving mythical visions of empire.

By Paul Mason

When megalomaniacs write history, there’s always a ‘tell’ – something that indicates their own sense of omniscient power, and history’s ultimate malleability to it. With Vladimir Putin’s essay on Ukraine, published on the Kremlin’s website on 12 July, the telling passage was: “When working on this article, I relied on open-source documents that contain well-known facts rather than on some secret records.”

The subtext of this point is that even with information gathered from Wikipedia, Putin could somehow discern a recurrent pattern in history which his opponents refuse to acknowledge. The pattern he has apparently seen is that whenever Russia’s opponents have tried to dismember the country, they have used Ukraine – its separate language and unique geostrategic location on the Black Sea – as a weapon against the motherland. For Putin, Ukraine and Russia are, in fact, artificial states separating a single people. Indeed, Russia’s president thinks that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians are all descendants of a single people, with a single Orthodox faith. He claims that the story of how “language differentiation” led to the creation of today’s separate states was driven by foreign intervention and Bolshevism. 

[See also: Why Russians still choose Vladimir Putin’s stability over Alexei Navalny’s revolution]

In Putin’s version of history, from the wars of early modernity, Russia’s enemies, such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, always tried to detach their Russian subjects from their language and their Orthodox Christianity, creating a patchwork of disputed borders and imported populations. The Bolsheviks then finished the job in 1922, when they created the USSR as a union of national republics, including Belarus and Ukraine. The extraordinary claim at the heart of this view of history is that, historically, “people both in the western and eastern Russian lands spoke the same language. Their faith was Orthodox.”

Eminent Russian historians have described Putin’s essay as deranged. Medieval Russia was both multi-lingual and contained multiple ethnicities and faiths, including those of my Jewish ancestors who spoke Yiddish and fled to New York City in the 1880s, during a wave of pogroms inspired by this imperialist, monocultural view of Russia.

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The Bolsheviks created the Ukrainian SSR because Ukrainian nationalism was just as strong as the other nationalisms within the crumbling Russian Empire. When the Soviet bureaucracy abolished itself in 1991, the USSR disintegrated because there were competing national bureaucracies, each determined to enrich themselves in the process of building capitalist states.

Putin’s foray into history is no mere academic exercise. He has already dismembered the legal entity of Ukraine by force, illegally annexing Crimea in 2014 and waging low-level war via the two rebel republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. This year Putin mobilised tens of thousands of troops, tanks and armoured vehicles in show of force against Ukraine, and allegedly fired warning shots against a British frigate that sailed into Ukrainian waters off Crimea.

Putin’s essay is not a direct threat to conquer Ukraine. But it is an attempt to bargain with the Ukrainian people: act in a way acceptable to me, my Great Russian chauvinism, and accept my version of history – or face interminable and unpredictable consequences.

One example of such consequences came on 3 August, when Vitaly Shishov, the leader of a Belarusian exile group in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was found hanged in a woods, his face covered in marks. His group, who assist people who have fled Belarus, had been warned repeatedly that they faced the threat of assassination. If it turns out that Shishov was murder rather than suicide, the Belarus KGB, Putin’s allies, are the most obvious suspects.

The problem is, Putin is not the only modern leader rewriting history to justify an essentially imperialist outlook. In a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping signalled 2049 as the date by which he expects the PRC to “peacefully reunify” with Taiwan. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “Blue Homeland” doctrine, an irredentist concept coined by Turkish military leaders in 2006, has designated large parts of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean as historically belonging to Turkey. Erdogan’s expanded navy is forcefully laying claim to gas deposits that lie legally within maritime borders of Greece and Turkey.

The United States, meanwhile, has returned to the forceful management of its own “near abroad”, allegedly backing interventions by the far right to topple elected governments in Bolivia (November 2019) and Venezuela (January 2019), and also reportedly trying to install a friendly president in Haiti and exploit unrest in Cuba.

[See also: Will Covid-19 mean another lost decade for Latin America?]

It was logical that, once neoliberal globalisation began to fall apart after the 2008 crisis, and China began to emerge as a superpower that would be at least equal to the US by the mid-21st century, national elites around the world would return to the ideologies of empire. 

Such ideologies have to rest on monocultural myths: that’s why Xi is busy repressing not just Uighur Muslims and their religion, but the Mongolian language and, of course, the remnants of democratic culture in Hong Kong. It is why Putin is forced to claim that Ukraine and Russia have always occupied “the same historical and spiritual space”. It is why Erdogan, whose guiding ideology was once simply Islam, borrowed an ethnic irredentist ideology from a bunch of secular generals and staked his future on it. And it is why Narendra Modi has initiated the first law in post-independence history designed to exclude Muslims from Indian citizenship.

The world order is, in short, not only fragmenting: it is creating ipso facto forms of nationalism that can only be expressed as the desire for ethnic monocultures.

If you survey the rest of the world, there’s an obvious problem. The surviving major democracies are, in order of stability: Japan, which looks pretty beleaguered in the Chinese century; Canada; the European Union, which has no unifying or guiding ideology, let alone an ethnicist or monocultural one; and the US, which carries the non-negligible danger of collapsing into civil war, or at the very least political paralysis and existential cultural conflict.

Putin’s anti-factual diatribe against Ukraine looks, to the globalist political elite, like the outpouring of a crank – but in his own way he has grasped the essentials of 21st-century statecraft. Create a myth, assemble fragmentary historical facts to support it, and then create new facts on the ground that sustain the myth. Erdogan, Xi and Modi are all engaged in the same basic operation.

Both the US, the EU, and its member states, are unable to perform the same kind of historico-mythical engineering. President Macron’s France, at war with Islamist terror in North Africa, and at verbal war with Islam at home; Viktor Orban’s Hungary, greedily fusing the state, civil society and the elite’s bank accounts; post-Merkel Germany, signed up to Russian client status via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – none of it adds up to a geopolitically cohesive project, no matter how much the European Commission speaks of “strategic autonomy”.

As for the UK, we at least have our own fact-twister when it comes to the writing of history. Boris Johnson’s 2014 biography of Winston Churchill revolves around a view of history in which one man can embody the destiny of a nation, and that nation’s destiny is to “civilise” the world even at the cost of building a structurally racist empire. “You can criticise Churchill for being an imperialist and a Zionist”, Johnson writes, “but a fair-minded person would have to admit that he supported both these projects because he conceived that they entailed the advance of civilisation.” If he advocated eugenics against the British working-class, that too was all in the name of progress.

But in the new Great Game, the Britain Boris Johnson leads is not even a player. We stand, within a generation, to see an independent Scotland and a united Ireland. We have built two aircraft carriers to give our nation’s armed forces global reach, but we have scant global influence. Instead, global influence works in the reverse direction, as Russian money flows via donations into the campaign accounts of ministers, and London’s public affairs industry are hard at work on behalf of Saudi princes and Russian billionaires.

Putin’s 5,000 word essay is a lesson both in the dangers of the coming century and the pointlessness of “Global Britain”. The globe onto which Britain is trying to project power is full of real rivals, real dangers, demanding real allies and alliances, and significant diplomatic clout. But we have ripped ourselves out of the one alliance that really worked – the EU – and are now, over the Northern Ireland issue, systematically alienating every remaining country that believes in the international rule of law.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” fantasy cannot disguise the UK’s decline]

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