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Unrealpolitik in Russia and China

Published: January 10, 2014 (Issue # 1792)


In her recent book on the origins of World War I, The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan concludes that the only thing one can say with certainty about its causes is that leadership matters. No one really wanted war, but no one knew how to oppose it, because great statesmen like Germany's Otto von Bismarck, whose self-restraint preserved peace in Europe for decades, were missing in Europe in 1914. A similar leadership void has become palpable in recent behavior by Russia and China.

In the run-up to World War I, political and military leaders failed to grasp how industrial production and mass transportation had altered the character of warfare. The American Civil War should have served as a warning for Europeans. But a Europe that considered itself the center of the world, exporting its rivalries to Africa and Asia in the name of a "civilizing mission," was utterly incapable of paying attention to the harsh lessons of the New World.

Today, neither President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping seem to have learned those lessons, either. In Ukraine, Russia must choose what kind of relationship it wants to have with Europe. If Ukraine returns to the Kremlin's orbit, whether through direct reintegration or some kind of "Finlandization," Russia will end up reenacting an old European problem: like France from 1643 to 1815 and Wilhelmine Germany, it will be both "too much" for its neighbors and "not enough" for its ambitions.

Leaving aside why Russia should want to pay so much money to sustain a Ukrainian regime that is even more corrupt and dysfunctional than its own, Ukraine, with a territory greater than France and a population of 45 million, is the de facto linchpin of Europe's geopolitical equilibrium. Unlike Poland three times in the 18th century, there can be no question of partition, with western Ukraine joining Europe and the country's east returning to Russia. As a result, Ukraine's civilizational choice — between a democratic European Union and an autocratic Russia — will necessarily have major strategic consequences for the entire European continent.

The problem that China faces in the South China Sea — and now in its airspace — is of a similar nature. Is China, too, losing the sense of restraint that characterized its foreign policy until recently?

The Chinese seem now to be displaying an impatience that is contrary to their country's long-term interests. China's heightened global status is obvious and recognized by all. But where is the serenity of a great power so confident in the superiority of its civilization, and so secure in its future, that it bides its time?

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Sunday, Apr. 20


Celebrate Easter at Pavlovsk during the Easter Fair that begins today and continues through next Sunday. Visitors will have the chance to paint Easter eggs and children can take part in games as well as help decorate a tree in honor of Christianity’s holiest day.


Today is one of the final days to see the exhibit Cacti — Children of the Sun at the Peter the Great Botanical Garden. Starting Apr. 17, budding botanists will marvel at the variety and beauty of the desert’s most iconic plant.


Monday, Apr. 21


Improve your grasp of Neruda, Bolano and Marquez at TrueDA’s Beginners Spanish Lesson this evening at their location on the Petrograd Side. An experienced teacher will be on hand to help all attendees better understand the intricacies of the language and improve their accent.


Tuesday, Apr. 22


SPIBA’s Breakfast with the Director event series continues as the association welcomes Andrei Barannikov, general director of SPN Communications, to the Anna Pavlova Hall of the Angleterre Hotel this morning at 9 a.m. Attendees must confirm their participation by Apr. 21.


The AmCham Environment, Health and Safety Committee Meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. this morning in the their St. Petersburg office.