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History Repeating Itself in Russia

As the Soviet Union and Germany attacked the post-Versailles order, Russia and China today seek to topple U.S. hegemony.

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(Natalia Sheinkin/Shutterstock)

“Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I.”

These words are said to be written on the resting place of the ancient ruler Tamerlane in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Stalin supposedly ordered the tomb to be opened two days before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, fulfilling the prophecy and unleashing with it the tectonic shifts in geopolitical order that followed.

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It’s a good legend, whether there is any truth to it or not.

Samarkand is once again the symbol of a rapidly changing world. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its annual summit on September 15-16 in the Central Asian city. That meeting's developments can be summarized as follows: Russia and China, two unnatural allies, are committed to a reconfiguration of the current system of international relations. The partnership will serve as the fulcrum of a geopolitical counterweight to the U.S.-led transatlantic alliance. 

The Russo-Ukrainian war is not slowing down. I have been wrong on this point in the past; I underestimated the West's commitment to risk worldwide conflagration before sacrificing its belief in the manifest destiny of global liberal empire. It seems the West would rather the world disappear entirely than accept a march of history that doesn’t end with the Kremlin lit up by rainbow flood lights and Pussy Riot playing at the Navalny swearing-in ceremony. Putin, likewise, would also see the world disappear before such a fate befalls his nation. We are at an impasse. 

And China has not backed off from its support of Russia. Predictions that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party would step away from Moscow when the situation turned dour have also proven to be unfounded. What cannot be doubted, however, is that Beijing always acts in its own national interest. Pragmatic actors that they are, Chinese leadership has apparently reached the conclusion that accepting a Russian defeat would be worse than global war. Whatever means Putin may now be ready to employ to secure his gains in Ukraine have been tacitly (or explicitly) accepted by China. 

If the United States does not agree to this outcome and continues to push Zelensky to attempt to recapture the Donbas or Crimea, full-scale mobilization is highly likely. If Clausewitz was right and war is politics by other means, the primary goal of Washington in the present conflict is the downfall of the Putin regime. Anything less is failure. As a result world war looms in a way it hasn’t since the interwar years in Europe. Beijing understands as much. It doesn't support Moscow just because it enjoys accessing cheap Russian gas or seeing the West drain its resources. A return to the economic status quo and freezing the conflict in Ukraine are all but impossible. The current conflict seems likely either to end with Putin falling from power or the West realizing that the post-Cold War order is over.

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We’re entering novel territory for the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean that there are no past examples to which to look. Few periods in modern history have seen the bottom fall out on the existing geopolitical order in a way comparable to our present situation, but the end of the First World War provides such an example. The single-minded focus on punishing Germany and degrading its people became the overriding policy goal of not only the Treaty of Versailles in particular, but of the embryonic transatlantic alliance's broader post-war agenda.

The 1917 Bolshevik's simultaneous seizure of power in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) created an ideological inflection point for the system. Lenin and his puritanical Marxist cadre challenged the accepted understanding of what constituted legitimate government. The Bolsheviks openly stated their intention to destroy “the balance of power” as the operating principle in international relations, as it corresponded to an outdated understanding of human nature and its forms of association. It would supposedly wither away as the exploitative classes of Europe were overthrown and the working peoples of the world became conscious of their common struggle. The Soviet regime made the facilitation of this process the central tenet of its foreign policy towards the capitalist countries. Not since the march of Napoleon across the continent was there such a threat of upending the normal operations of interstate affairs.

The nascent Bolshevik government was naturally made an international pariah. Its leadership took as fact that the world’s first socialist state could not long survive without accompanying revolutions in the industrialized countries of Europe. The linchpin to the victory of socialism would be the rise of a Marxist government in Germany. From there, world revolution would be propagated throughout the developed states of the continent. 

Since their seizure of power, Lenin and the Soviet leadership had been forced to strike a balance between inciting revolution abroad and ensuring the survival of the regime at home. The two were understood to be inextricably linked. But with the White Armies still not completely defeated and the possibility of revolution in Germany decidedly passed (aptly summarized by Rosa Luxemberg’s waterlogged body in Berlin’s Landwehr canal), attention was turned back to the home front. 

After abrogating the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a failed attempt to incite revolution in Warsaw at the conclusion of the 1918-1921 Polish-Soviet War, and internal upheaval best exemplified by the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, the immediacy of the situation was now beyond doubt: the regime could only be made secure, if at all, by improvements in the domestic situation. While not without dispute, leadership eventually decided that it could no longer put off moving away from the exacting economic and disciplinary hardship of the civil-war years (known as “war communism”). The New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in 1921, maintaining the nationalization of large industry while allowing some market reform and a small amount of profit.

The introduction of the NEP seemed to present the Communist state in a more moderate light, even engendering the sentiment in some that the Bolsheviks were finally acclimating to the political-economic realities of running a country in the 20th century. British prime minister Lloyd George had also planned the Genoa Economic and Financial Conference in 1922, calling the leaders of Europe together—controversially, including Russia and Germany—to resolve outstanding questions of international relations and revise the conditions set by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Unsurprisingly, the meeting came to little. A fundamental inability to understand the nature of revolutionary regimes and the changing dynamics of international relations continued to obstruct the West. 

But while the Genoa conference was underway, the Russians and Germans took the opportunity to slip down the Italian shoreline to the small coastal town of Rapallo. The two international pariahs had begun coordinating militarily in 1919, and were able to formalize and expand their cooperation in the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo. Versailles had banned the production of war technologies in Germany and limited its officer corps to 4,000 men. Regardless, its leadership sought the ability to develop and expand the equipment, tactics, and maneuvers of modern war, and saw opportunity in the Soviet Union. 

The latter, swallowing its revulsion to German militarism, likewise accepted Berlin’s expertise and technical know-how to build the facilities, infrastructure, and industrial capacity, as well as provide the training, necessary for an efficient 20th-century fighting force. All the while, the two nations remained ideological antitheses. An alliance of the two most incompatible nation-states—as much in terms of geopolitical competition for physical territory and limited natural resources, as in ideological antagonism—was forged in the crucible of international upheaval. 

The present Sino-Russian partnership is far from a one-to-one relationship with the Soviet-German covert alliance in the interwar years. China is too intertwined in the world economy to be an international pariah. Russia, likewise, has been able to partner with neutral and developing countries around the world to soften the economic blow of divesting itself from the West. The motivation behind the upheaval, however, is comparable to the historical example provided: the desire to break down the ideological framework that currently dictates the realm of possibilities, social and political, and the will to chart one’s own national course unlimited by the horizon of Western liberalism. 

Both Russia and China seek to topple the system of U.S. hegemony that has dominated international relations since the end of the Cold War. The same was true with the Soviets and Germans in their attack on the post-Versailles order. No friend to Berlin’s Social Democrats let alone the movement that would come to replace them, Bolsheviks were happy to assist in the resurgence of German militarism if it meant upheaval to that very order. War between capitalist countries was an ideal outcome, from which Marxism would blossom. Those who would rise to power in post-Weimar Germany were equally eager to abrogate the Treaty of Versailles and scramble the anti-German order that it had begotten. That did not mean that they planned on accepting any Bolshevik illusions of world revolution—only that they understood practically that the same yoke sat upon both of their shoulders. Throwing it off would require each side to do their share of the lifting. 

The West today is historically unconscious. That is not the case in Moscow and Beijing. Both have recognized that we are at an inflection point, and the future of the global order is on the line. Tamerlane’s body was said to have been returned to its tomb in December 1942. A month later, the battle of Stalingrad initiated a German retreat that has continued ever since. We in the West have no mystical means of reversing the demise of our world vision. I don’t think that this is a bad thing. But let us hope it doesn’t cost a world war.

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