Review: Post-Imperium

Post-Imperium by Dmitri Trenin is a signifiant study in International Relations, uncovering the ramifications and effects of perhaps the most consequential event of the past 30 years: the break up of the USSR. And while the book does have its share of flaws, they nevertheless do not diminish the importance of the book.

The early chapters of the book offer an explanation as to why the breakup of the Soviet Union occurred, but Trenin does not dwell too long on this and seeks to delve into the consequences, popular attitudes toward this event, and Russia’s relationship with its former Soviet constituent parts.

Trenin’s book really shines in the scope of its analysis. The book is divided into six chapters: Introduction, Imperial Exit/Post-imperial Condition, Geopolitics, Economics, Demographics, Culture, in that order. Together, these sections form a rare bird’s-eye view of the Russian political and social landscapes during the last 20 years of turmoil. As to be expected, the picture is often not pretty. According to Trenin, Russia is struggling to adjust to its status as a post-imperial power. In the Geopolitics section, he argues that although Russia retains its scepter and orb – its nuclear arsenal, permanent seat at the UN Security Council and vast supply of oil and LNG – it lacks soft power. In addition to possessing a long and complicated cultural history, present-day Russia also possesses multiple voices and a variety of beliefs, many pilling in different directions or competing with one another. Russia’s cultural greatness is also “under attack”: its contributions to the arts and literature are being perceived as foreign, increasingly neglected in the former Soviet Republics, which have in turn invented their own nationalist mythologies in a new form of self assertiveness. Interestingly, Trenin cites the national mythology engineered in Ukraine as that which has caused the most unease in Russia, an issue that remains very relevant today. In the study of demographics, the acute population decline, known as the Russian Cross, is examined, along with the rather strange way Eastern Orthodoxy, despite being resurgent, is fragmenting along nationalist lines, with a separate Ukrainian Orthodoxy emerging, and the possibility of such a separate Belarussian entity to yet emerge.

But perhaps the most important part of Trenin’s argument comes in his discussion of Russia’s relationship with the West. He underscores a point which most in the West do not seem to understand: that a restoration of the Soviet Union is not in the cards for the Russians. This is not being seriously considered, Trenin argues, because Russians are exhausted by the conflict with the West, internal civil war, and strife. In the last 200 years Russia has been invaded seven times by Western countries – starting with the invasion by the French Empire in 1812, followed by several invasions by the British and the Germans, two revolutions, a civil war, and the Cold War, the collapse in 1991, and the following collapse of the economy of 1998. In short, Russians are tired and just want peace and security, whatever the dubious definition of the latter is. His assertions are well backed up with evidence, and one can definitely agree with his conclusion.

Trenin suspects that the West, while rhetorically supporting the new Russian democracy, wasn’t much help after the Soviet collapse – see, for example, Bill Clinton’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s borders and subsequent Bush’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s “front yard” despite protests from the homeowner. The “shock-therapy” of the early 90s devised by the Russian “liberal economists” with the patronage of Western institutions was a disaster and destroyed the last remains of the safety net Russian citizens enjoyed. I admit that I am going onto more speculative grounds here, but it is possible that anyone who tries to impose the “once-size-fits-all” formula in Russia is doomed to create havoc. That type of utopian thinking unites the Russian “liberal” politicians who believe that “rational” plans may be imposed on a society by the government with their Western brethren: the internal arrangements of a society appear not as a manner of political behavior rooted in history and tradition, but as pieces of machinery to be transported about the world, indiscriminately.

While I may be sounding a little like an ideologue here, Trenin, thankfully, does not. He has an eye and disposition of a practitioner. His critique of the Russian government is reasonable, and it boils down to this: the Russian Grand Strategy is not working. The elites are over-confident, and often don’t have the “Plan B”, as perfectly illustrated by the “Gas wars” fiasco. The Russian State tries to do too much in the areas where it shouldn’t intervene at all. Russia needs a new Grand Strategy for development, or it risks becoming increasingly marginalized in world affairs. And while some may argue over whether what Trenin says is true, I have no problem with it. For me, Trenin’s discourse is a nice departure from the slogans of the “irreconcilable” opposition (who were at the time of this book’s publication gathered around figures such as Boris Nemtsov) – a weird combination of liberals practicing non-liberal methods, radical bloggers, and nationalistic “bomb-throwers” united by the vision that the solutions to intrinsic Russian problems could be found in the blueprints envisioned by the unemployed bloggers or could be found inside the minutes of the U.S. think-tanks. Trenin is able to see Russia’s faults and troubles with clear eyes, report them in a balanced manner, and propose realistic solutions to alleviate some of the pain for all sides. We need more analyses of Russia like Post-Imperium.

Despite the glowing review received above, the book does have its weaknesses, the first of which is the lack of discussion of what Russia’s long-term policy vis-a-vis the U.S. should be. The United States is certainly not a remote concern to Russia – its presence in Korea, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, or via NATO allies in Eastern Europe makes it a country which virtually surrounds Russia. Though I acknowledge that Post-Imperium was written in 2011 and could not possibly have foreseen the current tensions between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine and the Middle East, I still feel that it wouldn’t have done any harm to include even a short analysis of the Kremlin’s opinion on the role of the U.S. in its ‘sphere of influence’.

Secondly, Trenin’s analysis is somewhat devoid of international context. There is plenty of analysis of how Russia is faring as compared to its former Soviet constituent parts, but how does it compare to the rest of the world? What are the major trends? When viewed alongside Western Europe, Africa, China or South America, does Russia appear to be ahead or behind in its development? One cannot devise a Grand strategy for a country like Russia without answering these questions first. In the end, Russia’s future depends on its survival in the international environment, doesn’t it?

Even though the aforementioned weaknesses of Post-Imperium are evident, I don’t think they detract much from an otherwise solid and significant work on Russia. The post Soviet world is not adequately understood among Western foreign policy circles, although it most certainly should be. Despite its obvious age, Dmitri Trenin’s book is a broad, yet detailed, study of the Post Soviet Eurasian world, and is essential reading for any students of international relations or laymen interested in post-Soviet Russia.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Post-Imperium by Dmitri Trenin. Pub. 2011 by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paperback, 279 pages. ISBN13: 9780870032486




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