After McDonald's arrived in Moscow, Russia had little to send the West in kind. Photo: Wikimedia Commonns

In President Vladimir Putin’s world-vision, Russia has been humiliated, is surrounded and has nowhere to retreat to. He might well be right.

The Soviet Union was the ultimate expression of the Russian expansionism. On paper it was a “union.” In reality it was an empire, ruled from Moscow by an essentially Russian political establishment. The cement of the empire was the Soviet Communist Party, which in its quintessence was Russian. Granted Lenin had warned against “great Russian chauvinism,” but the admonition fell on deaf ears.

The aftermath of World War II saw the Empire expand its hold on Eastern Europe, an expansion that was instrumental in fueling a Cold War confrontation between the Empire and its Western counterpart led by the United States.

The Cold War was an exercise in equilibrium. It provided a frame that the parties were not to overstep, and as such brought a degree of predictability and hence of stability to international relations.

The collapse of the Soviet Union massively relaxed the constraints under which the United States had been operating until then. Granted there were some pockets of resistance such as North Korea, Afghanistan or Iran, but ultimately the 21st century started off as an American century.

From globalization to the power of the dollar, to Google, GPS, the Internet, what stood for the rule of law, technical innovation and the like ensured that the world now would be an American world.

Granted with few restraints to consider, Washington could unleash all its fury on Saddam Hussein or bring to its knees the Swiss banking system and the secrecy of the bank accounts that it harbored. But these were minor impingements that in no way affected the individual liberties or daily lives of those who dwelt under the umbrella of America’s global hegemony.

How the two main proponents of “socialism” reacted to the fall of the Soviet Union is a lesson of  survival. Confronted with the collapse of what had been its Marxist model, the Communist Party of China reinvented itself. Though retaining its original name, it re-emerged as a one-party imperial endeavor in the hands of a ruling class whose essential motivation has been to retain power and that has enlisted development to ensure that it does so.

Conversely, while the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to rebrand itself as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, it did not, for all practical purposes, survive the state that it had generated. This left Russia for all practical purposes on its knees.

While Putin can be credited with having put the Russian state back on is feet, the country under his rule has stagnated. Reduced to a population of some 150 million, it dwindled to the dimension of a mid-level power with a weak production facility and an economy that relied in essence on the export of raw materials such as energy and grain.

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a McDonald’s open in Moscow. It was an instant success, and Muscovites queued up to gain access. Conversely, there was no Russian equivalent of McDonald’s opening in New York. What followed were all the trappings of a consumer society marching into Russia. It was to prove a one-way street, with Russia having nothing comparable to offer.

For someone like Putin, what occurred over the past 30 years was not so much an economic stagnation as the erosion of the Russian soul by a Western system of values that was not his and to which he could not relate. Thus, ultimately, the enemy was not NATO; it was McDonald’s, Vuitton, Google, not to say Mercedes, and the societies that had generated them.

This was an enemy from which nuclear weapons offered no protection. The only protection would have been the emergence of a new Russian society offering a level of attraction based on creativity, innovation, freedom of ideas, and with few restrictions on the expression of a diversity of opinions; a level of attractiveness that would offer a credible alternative to the one offered by the West.

But from a Vladimir Putin, as the product of a defunct system that knew no other way of managing diversity than to squash it, this was too much to ask.

The war in Ukraine is the logical development of Putin’s vision for Russia: using brute force rather than excellence to face down humiliation, with one additional caveat: force against what?

More than a country-to-country war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a generational conflict. Practically all the Ukrainians who are taking up arms have no recollection of the Soviet Union. Theirs is a national struggle against an enemy who might be a distant relative but to whom they don’t relate. And if they look toward the West, it is if anything because Russia, for them, has nothing to offer.

The marginalization of Russia started with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though the Russian state survived, its marginalization endured because of the system’s inability to reinvent itself. Ukraine proved the apex of this malfunction.

Politically, Putin’s Ukrainian gamble has invigorated those he sees as his enemies. Militarily it has shown Russia to be far weaker than suspected. Ultimately what Putin seems to have neglected to consider is that his problem is not Ukraine. His problem is Russia. Thus, whatever the outcome of his Ukrainian venture, by failing to deal with the core of Russia’s inability to project itself in a post-Soviet world, Putin has already failed.

Granted, it might not be the last nail in Russia’s coffin. But it will not make resurrection any easier.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.