“Right makes might, and not the other way around,” President Obama said in the Rose Garden a few weeks ago. We all know what he meant: In this age of soft power, great countries can win friends not through the use of brute force but through their books and movies, their sophisticated economies, their technological innovations and, above all, through their attractive and inspiring national ideals.
Maybe that’s true, some of the time. But for those who find soft power difficult to wield, hard power is still available. Indeed, in the same week that the American president made his Rose Garden speech, events on the other side of the globe were proving that might certainly can make right.
Even while the world’s attention was fixed on Russian-American diplomacy in Syria, back home the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was pulling off a much quieter but potentially more significant diplomatic coup. After three years of intensive negotiations, Armenia, Russia’s neighbor, had been on the brink of signing an association agreement, including a comprehensive trade deal, with the European Union. But on Sept. 3 — right in the middle of the Syria crisis — the Armenian government abruptly declared that it would drop the whole project. Rather than aligning itself with the world’s largest free-trade zone and some of the world’s most sophisticated democracies, Armenia decided to stick with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and opted to join the Eurasian Customs Union.
No one pretends that Armenia was attracted by Russia’s soft power. By way of explanation, President Serzh Sargsyan has said that Armenia depends on Russia for its security and that Armenia has a large diaspora living in Russia. This sounds odd: Most security alliances, NATO included, do not require their members to join a customs union, and the presence of immigrants in one country doesn’t usually affect trade policy in another. But Armenia has been made anxious in recent weeks by Russian diplomatic overtures to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main rival, as well as by anti-immigrant rhetoric from Russian officials. The Armenians took the hint: If they signed the trade deal with Europe, Russia might sell more arms to their rival and expel the Armenians who live in Russia.
The Armenians were no doubt watching Russian moves elsewhere in their immediate neighborhood, where a distinct pattern is emerging. On Sept. 11, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wine on the grounds that it is a “health hazard.” Ukrainian chocolates have suffered the same fate. Another old tactic, the use of gas pricing and supply as a tool of political influence, is being resurrected in Ukraine. In essence — and I’m summarizing here — the Russians have let the Ukrainians understand that if they drop their own negotiations with Europe and join the Eurasian Customs Union, the price of gas they import from Russia could drop by more than half.
It’s an excellent offer, so much so that — examined objectively — it seems extraordinary that the Ukrainians have not accepted it already. But Ukraine is still deliberating and has been for some time. Even its most Russophilic politicians know that the decision represents not a short-term financial decision but a long-term civilizational choice, between the relatively open markets and open politics of Europe and the close world of the former Soviet Union. One Armenian opposition politician explained the consequences of his country’s decision to choose Russia over Europe like this: “Armenia, by choosing the customs union instead of agreements with the E.U., will remain a country of oligarchs and monopolies just like Russia.”
Yet it seems extraordinary that the Russians would want their neighbors to make that kind of choice, too. Surely it is in Russia’s own interests to share borders with countries that have broad international contacts, faster economic growth, access to Western markets and, therefore, wealthier domestic consumers who could buy Russian goods. Surely it is in Russia’s interests, in the long term, to have similar access to Western markets itself. There’s no reason to think that if Europe did manage to craft association agreements with Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova, a similar arrangement with Russia would not eventually follow.
The explanation is as straightforward as it is sad: Russia’s ruling elite, led by Putin, does not act in Russia’s interests. Russian elites act in their own interests. At the moment, they are convinced that economic nationalism and the language of neo-imperialism will win them popular support, and possibly private profits. I wonder how long the rest of the Russians will put up with it.