In the sanctions against Russia announced this week by the U.S. and the European Union we begin to see the outline of a titanic struggle. It is one between imperialism and globalization. The Western states have been reminded that imperialism is alive and well, even rampant, and threatens the vision for a more global world economy.
“Russia can be an empire with Ukraine,” said a senior Russian banker earlier this month in an off-the-record briefing. “Without it, it cannot. Simple.” Having Ukraine does not mean possessing it. It is enough for Ukraine to be closely linked to Russia, run by leaders who understand and acquiesce in that necessity. The large failure underlying Russia President Vladimir Putin’s great success in seizing Crimea is that he has propelled much of the rest of Ukraine away from Russia and guaranteed instability; or worse.
The targeting through sanctions of the Russian political and financial elite, including their favored bank, Bank Rossiya, described by a Russian fund manager as “a pocket bank and special purpose vehicle” for the Kremlin elite, has one goal in mind. That is, to drive a wedge between Putin’s imperial strategy and the Russian political and financial aristocracy who have homes in France, yachts moored off Tuscany, children in British private schools and businesses that depend on global markets.
A talk on Wednesday with Sergei Guriev, Russia’s leading free market economist, revealed both Russia’s vulnerability and the huge dangers that Putin brings upon himself, his country and the world. Guriev left Moscow and his post as rector of the New Economic School last year, fearful that his support for the anti-Kremlin campaigner Alexei Navalny would lead to his imprisonment. He now lives and teaches in Paris.
Guriev does not see Putin as a monster. In Putin’s early years he instituted reforms that benefited the economy, repaid the large foreign debt and built up a large reserve fund. He also had good luck. He came to presidential office in 2000 as oil prices were going up and as high unemployment and low output had produced many workers willing to work for low wages. The reconstruction of companies that had been privatized during the 1990s produced more efficient working practices.