Op-Ed: The long reach of Putinismo

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow.
(Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press)

Tell me your Ukraine and I will tell you who you are. The Ukrainian crisis is a political Rorschach test, not just for individuals but also for states. What it reveals is not encouraging for the West.

It turns out that Vladimir Putin has more admirers around the world than you might expect for someone using a neo-Soviet combination of violence and the big lie to dismember a neighboring sovereign state. Russia’s strongman garners tacit support, and even some quiet plaudits, from some of the world’s most important emerging powers, starting with China and India.

During a recent visit to China, I kept being asked what was going on in Ukraine, and I kept asking in return about the Chinese attitude to it. Didn’t a country that has so consistently defended the principle of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states (be it former Yugoslavia or Iraq), and that has a couple of prospective Crimeas (Tibet, Xinjiang), feel uneasy about Russia simply grabbing a chunk of a neighboring country?

Well, came the reply, that was a slight concern, but Ukraine was a long way away and, frankly speaking, the positives of the crisis outweighed the negatives for China. The United States would have another strategic distraction (after Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq) to hinder its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region and divert its attention from China. Cold-shouldered by the West, Russia would be more dependent on a good relationship with Beijing. Ukraine sells China higher-grade military equipment than Russia has been willing to share with its great Asian ally, but the new Ukrainian authorities have quietly assured the Chinese that Beijing’s failure to condemn the annexation of Crimea would not affect their future relations. What’s not to like in all that?


Beside this realpolitik, I was told, there is also an emotional component. Chinese leaders such as Xi Jinping, who grew up under Chairman Mao, still instinctively warm to the idea of another non-Western leader standing up to the capitalist and imperialist West. “Xi likes Putin’s Russia,” said one well-informed observer.

Chinese commentary has become more cautious since Putin moved on from Crimea to stirring the pot in eastern Ukraine. The nationalist Global Times, which last month spoke of “Crimea’s return to Russia,” now warns that “Ukraine’s eastern region is different from the Crimea. Secession of the region from Ukraine strikes a direct blow to territorial integrity guaranteed by international law.” (But then, Putin is not aiming at outright secession, just a neutral country with a version of “federalism” so far-reaching that the eastern regions would become Bosnia-style entities within a Russian sphere of influence.)

However, this growing concern did not apparently cool the warmth of the welcome given to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Beijing on Tuesday. Xi said that relations between China and Russia “are at their best” and have played “an irreplaceable role in maintaining world peace and stability.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry pronounced China-Russia ties to be the “major-country relationship that boasts the richest contents, the highest level and the greatest strategic significance.” Cry your eyes out, USA.

It is not just China. A friend has just returned from India. He notes that, with the likely electoral success of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the growth of India’s own “crony capitalism,” liberal Indian friends fear that the world’s largest democracy might be getting its own version of Putinismo. In any case, India has so far effectively sided with Russia over Ukraine.

Last month, Putin thanked India for its “restrained and objective” stance on Crimea. India’s postcolonial obsession with sovereignty, and resentment of any hint of Western liberal imperialism, plays out — rather illogically — in support for a country that has just dramatically violated its neighbor’s sovereignty. Oh, and by the way, India gets a lot of its arms from Russia.

And there are others. Russia’s two other partners in the so-called BRICS group, Brazil and South Africa, both abstained on the U.N. General Assembly resolution criticizing the Crimea referendum. They also joined Russia in expressing “concern” at the Australian foreign minister’s suggestion that Putin might be barred from attending a Group of 20 summit in November.

What the West faces here is the uncoiling of two giant springs. One is the coiled spring of Mother Russia’s resentment at the way her empire has shrunk over the last 25 years.

The other is the coiled spring of resentment at centuries of Western colonial domination. This takes very different forms in different BRICS countries and members of the G-20. They certainly don’t all have China’s monolithic, relentless narrative of national humiliation since Britain’s Opium Wars. But they do share a strong and prickly concern for their own sovereignty, a resistance to North Americans and Europeans telling them what is good for them, and a certain instinctive glee, or schadenfreude, at seeing Uncle Sam (not to mention little John Bull) being poked in the eye by that pugnacious Russian. Viva Putinismo!


Obviously this is not the immediate issue on the ground in Ukraine, but it is another big vista opened up by the East European crisis. In this broader, geopolitical sense, take note: As we go deeper into the 21st century, there will be more Ukraines.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to Opinion. His latest book is “Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name.”