Fifty years ago, on the night of August 20, 1968, the USSR, together with some of its allies, sent troops into socialist Czechoslovakia. Remembering these events today offers us an opportunity to debate the lines that superpowers can or cannot cross in their relations with allies and satellites. There is a reason that allies and satellites are separate categories. An ally is a country that makes a voluntary and rational choice to cooperate without ceding any of its sovereignty, to be guided by the priorities of a senior partner and take them into consideration in its policy. A satellite, on the contrary, voluntarily sacrifices or is forced to cede its sovereignty and interests to a stronger actor. As for a superpower, it has the freedom to decide, depending on the context, whether it needs friends or servants. In today’s world, this question is relevant for all major world powers, including the US, China and Russia.
Back in 1968, the Soviet leaders opted for complete subjugation of their partners in Prague and Bratislava. Perhaps this was a mistake, or perhaps it was inevitable given the historical circumstances. It may well be that the enthusiasm of the Czech and the Slovaks for renewal, combined with skillful Western propaganda, could have paved the way to Czechoslovakia’s gradual withdrawal from the Moscow-led socialist bloc. Had this process continued, the consequences could have been much more dire and bloody, since it would have compromised the strategic standing of the USSR in a crucial military theater: Czechoslovakia was literally perched above Bavaria, a key territory for NATO. In addition, the Czechoslovak secret services were proactive and effective, so the country’s neutrality would have substantially constrained the capabilities of the USSR. On top of that, even the theoretical possibility of independent reforms and liberalization would have served as a bad example.
For these reasons, the decision to invade Czechoslovakia was inevitable, even though there were repercussions in the long run. Suffice to say that the next Soviet invasion, this time of Afghanistan, was fatal for an increasingly sclerotic Soviet Union. All this was attributable to the fact that instead of allies, the USSR had chosen voiceless satellites. This was the only model the Soviet Union could imagine for itself, considering its overwhelming superiority over its junior partners in military, political and economic terms. In fact, the only real ally the USSR ever had was China before the Sino-Soviet split in late 1950s. It has to be said, however, that pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia had a wealth of experience in forming situational alliances, although not all of them served Russia well.
Just like Russia, China lacks any experience in allied relations. This is primarily attributable to the historical concept of the “Middle Kingdom,” treating nearby and faraway countries not as equals but as tributaries that owed the Celestial Empire their fealty. This tradition could substantially limit Beijing’s reach in today’s world, including its ambitious Belt and Road initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Beijing is already being accused of neocolonialism essentially – a sentiment the US artificially stokes.
Against this backdrop, China has found itself in extremely complex geopolitical surroundings, since its Eurasian partners are represented by one superpower and one great power: Russia and India. So far, the Chinese leadership has acted with great wisdom. Only three or four years ago, there wasn’t a single expert on China who believed that Beijing would agree to cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) across the board. But it happened and opened up new horizons for international cooperation within Greater Eurasia. This cooperation shocked the US and has the potential to completely reshape the region’s geostrategic map.
As for the US, it has always been much better at promoting international partnerships. This was primarily due to the fact the US was always far ahead of the USSR in terms of the number and international weight of countries willing to work with it. Still, the US was always much stronger than its allies and provided them direct economic aid, while pretending to be on equal terms. Relations of this kind have always been a great asset in terms of propaganda. The USSR was unable to bring home the message that the relations within NATO and the G7 were that of a hegemon with junior partners. This is as true today as it was then. It is obvious that precisely this model made it impossible for Russia to join the main Western institution after the Cold War.
The US is now changing its policy. President Trump took a hard line on Europe from the very beginning, and he accomplished quite a bit in just a year. In 2017, European leaders called for greater EU independence in dealing with the US, only to back down when faced with the threat of a trade war in July 2018. In doing so, Trump created an incentive for Europeans to make overtures to Russia and even China. In a way this makes sense. Competing against major powers like China and Russia would be hard without sorting things out at home. For this reason, the US had to start by making satellites out of its European allies. But was that actually possible and to what extent? It is obvious that capitulating when faced with the threat of a trade war means irreversible subordination in the future.
After the Cold War, the Europeans have gone to great lengths to become more independent in their relations with the US. Their boldest step was the introduction of the euro as a way to counterbalance the US dollar on the global financial marketplace. However, Europe has failed when it comes to forging a common foreign and defense policy, which became all but impossible after the decision to expand the EU to the east and the decision to accept some of Russia’s neighboring countries into its fold. For Baltic countries and Poland it is their eastern neighbor that is the determining factor in their foreign and defense policy. It is the inertia of runaway eastern expansion that led Europe to make the fatal mistake of entering into conflict with Russia, something that will be very hard to rectify. This conflict left Europeans with very little room for maneuver and very few options.
This is the central factor that sets an ally apart from a satellite. Allies have a choice. They have the freedom to choose how they want to work together, instead of being coerced. “They have nowhere else to go” may be quite a dangerous way of framing relations with allies. What if they do find somewhere else to go? There is no question that after the calamity of the Second World War and the 1956 Suez disaster, Great Britain and France, let alone occupied Germany, had very little maneuvering space. They lived in the shadow of the powerful USSR to the east, while also having to face powerful leftist forces on the home front. However, the great General Charles de Gaulle of France found at least a partial solution. Leveraging France’s nuclear deterrent, relatively developed military and independent economy tightly controlled by the state, Paris was able to change the rules of the game in significant ways. One can even go as far as to suggest that it was France that gave a truly allied nature to relations within the West, whose core has been the G7 since the 1970s. This framework existed until recently.
Of course, the eastward expansion was a huge blow to the relative equality among its members. For objective reasons, most of the new NATO members could not and did not want to be anything other than satellites, not allies. This, together with the overwhelming superiority of the US, reinforced its propensity to view all of its allies as satellites. When Trump came to power as a captain of capitalist economic liberalism, this became the dominant rule. It remains to be seen what damage the unity of the West will suffer in the long run.
This reasoning is in some way at odds with the realist tradition in international relations to which I subscribe. However, the world today is so complex and filled with so many new opportunities, both situational and strategic, that simple solutions can work only in the short run. This fully applies to the relations between Russia and its neighbors and friends within the former USSR.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear heated debates in Russia on whether and to what extent Moscow’s partners are loyal allies of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Belarus as a member of a Union State with Russia bears the brunt of the reproaches. Misgivings over the fact that allies do not always offer Moscow unconditional support are often heard. But this is not only inevitable given the abundance of choices in today’s world, it is how things should be. I will go as far as to suggest that what Russia needs right now are not servants that do nothing but dream of a new master, but allies with a rational understanding of the beneficial nature of the relationship instead of thinking it inevitable.
Eurasian economic integration has succeeded as the first ever project of voluntary enhanced economic cooperation and a single economic space created by a group of sovereign nations across Eurasia. Under the strategy for the EAEU’s future development, participating countries will adapt to new external challenges to their development and sovereignty, with EAEU institutions and priorities helping to facilitate this process at the national level. The EAEU strives to strengthen the national sovereignty of its member countries by enabling them to formulate collective responses to common internal and external challenges to the union. Allied relations of this kind are much more important to Russia than having however many servants to look after and occasionally invade.