The current edition of Foreign Affairs has an excellent seven part series of essays on Russia. Together they provide an outstanding overview of Putin’s Russia in the 21st century. Most people don’t subscribe to Foreign Affairs and even five of the seven essays is too much for extensive quotations, but every good public library has copies I and really urge people to go and take a lunch hour, or two, to read and consider the series.
The lead essay is Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics ~ Putin Returns to the Historical Pattern For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass. By 1900, it was the world’s fourth- or fifth-largest industrial power and the largest agricultural producer in Europe. But its per capita GDP reached only 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s and 40 percent of Germany’s. Imperial Russia’s average life span at birth was just 30 years—higher than British India’s (23) but the same as Qing China’s and far below the United Kingdom’s (52), Japan’s (51), and Germany’s (49). Russian literacy in the early twentieth century remained below 33 percent—lower than that of Great Britain in the eighteenth century. These comparisons were all well known by the Russian political establishment, because its members traveled to Europe frequently and measured their country against the world’s leaders (something that is true today, as well).”
He goes on to suggest that Russia “has no natural borders, except the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean (the latter of which is now becoming a contested space, too). Buffeted throughout its history by often turbulent developments in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Russia has felt perennially vulnerable and has often displayed a kind of defensive aggressiveness. Whatever the original causes behind early Russian expansionism—much of which was unplanned—many in the country’s political class came to believe over time that only further expansion could secure the earlier acquisitions. Russian security has thus traditionally been partly predicated on moving outward, in the name of preempting external attack … [and] … Today, too, smaller countries on Russia’s borders are viewed less as potential friends than as potential beachheads for enemies. In fact, this sentiment was strengthened by the Soviet collapse. Unlike Stalin, Putin does not recognize the existence of a Ukrainian nation separate from a Russian one. But like Stalin, he views all nominally independent borderland states, now including Ukraine, as weapons in the hands of Western powers intent on wielding them against Russia.“
Professor Kotkin concludes that “patient resolve is the key. It is not clear how long Russia can play its weak hand in opposition to the United States and the EU, frightening its neighbors, alienating its most important trading partners, ravaging its own business climate, and hemorrhaging talent. At some point, feelers will be put out for some sort of rapprochement, just as sanctions fatigue will eventually kick in, creating the possibility for some sort of deal. That said, it is also possible that the present standoff might not end anytime soon, since Russia’s pursuit of a Eurasian sphere of influence is a matter of national identity not readily susceptible to material cost-benefit calculations … [and] … The trick will be to hold a firm line when necessary—such as refusing to recognize a privileged Russian sphere even when Moscow is able to enact one militarily—while offering negotiations only from a position of strength and avoiding stumbling into unnecessary and counterproductive confrontations on most other issues. Someday, Russia’s leaders may come to terms with the glaring limits of standing up to the West and seeking to dominate Eurasia. Until then, Russia will remain not another necessary crusade to be won but a problem to be managed.“
The second essay is by Russian political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky and it is entitled Russian Politics Under Putin ~ The System Will Outlast the Master. He discusses the issue that Russia = Putin and Putin = Russia but he concludes that “The reality, as attested by the past two years of chaos, is that despite his image as an all-powerful tsar, Putin has never managed to build a bureaucratically successful authoritarian state. Instead, he has merely crafted his own version of sistema, a complex practice of decision-making and power management that has long defined Russian politics and society and that will outlast Putin himself. Putin has mastered sistema, but he has not replaced it with “Putinism” or a “Putin system.” Someday, Putin will go. But sistema will stay.“
The nature of Putin’s sistema, he explains, is that it “relies on indirection and interpretation rather than command and control. Approval for any particular proposal takes the form ofotmashka, which can be translated as “go-ahead,” implying not so much an order as a license to act in a desired direction. Otmashka is granted to projects that the Kremlin deems priemlemo, an increasingly common term that means “acceptable” rather than, say, “satisfactory” or “excellent”—a word choice meant to imply a certain indifference to details … [and] … Kremlin critics complain about a “Moscow autocracy,” but how can minions do their jobs when it is not clear what the autocrat really wants? The bottom and middle of Putin’s power vertical are always in search of the top, like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author. That is why today, significant actions on Russia’s part rarely stem from Kremlin directives but rather result from a sort of contest among Kremlin-related groups, each seeking to prove its loyalty.“
He concludes that “Putin’s Kremlin team has been extremely skillful at nationalizing private resources and, in a sense, privatizing Russian politics. But they will have no idea how to run Russia when Putin is gone. In all likelihood, it will not matter who climbs to the top: the only way he will be able to rule is through sistema.“
The third essay, Russia’s Constrained Economy ~ How the Kremlin Can Spur Growth is Over the past 25 years, Russia’s economy has alternated between “good” and “not good.” In the 1990s, Russia’s GDP declined by some 40 percent, and in 1998, Russia suffered a major financial meltdown. Then, from 1999 to 2008, Russia’s GDP grew by roughly seven percent per year on average, almost doubling in nine years. In the past few years, however, Russia’s economy has taken a decisive turn for the worse … [and] … In early 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sought to push beyond official projections of four percent annual GDP growth. Yet by later that year, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development had revised Russia’s growth forecast downward to between two and three percent. Now, even projections of two percent growth are considered optimistic. In 2015, Russian GDP actually shrank by close to four percent, and the International Monetary Fund’s January 2016 World Economic Outlook Update projected a further one percent decline in 2016. Meanwhile, in 2015, inflation reached 13 percent, real wages (adjusted for inflation) fell by 9.5 percent, and real incomes dropped by four percent. The ruble’s exchange rate with the dollar is now roughly half of what it was just two years ago …”
He goes on to say that: “Russia will not be able to grow its economy in the long run without deeper structural reforms. These include privatizing state-owned companies, oosening regulations, fighting corruption, and improving the judicial system and law enforcement. Among Russian leaders, there is a broad consensus that such reforms are necessary for growth. In fact, in 2012, on the first day of his third presidential term, Putin signed Presidential Decree no. 596, “On Long-Term National Economic Policy,” which detailed several pro-market reforms to be undertaken during his presidency. These included privatizing many government assets before 2016. Yet four years later, almost none of them have been implemented.“
Professor Guriev concludes that: “the country is constrained by its outdated political and economic institutions. Russia has many of the crucial ingredients for success, including savings and human capital, but to encourage long-lasting growth, it needs to enhance the protection of property rights, strengthen the rule of law, encourage competition, fight corruption, and integrate into the global economy. Other countries have enacted such reforms; there is no good reason for Russia not to join them.”
Despite the gloomy financial outlook, the fourth essay, by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Revival of the Russian Military ~ How Moscow Reloaded, looks at how “Putin ushered inmilitary reforms and a massive increase in defense spending to upgrade Russia’s creaky military. Thanks to that project, Russia has recently evinced a newfound willingness to use force to get what it wants.”
Dr Trenin points out that: “Putin seeks to confirm Russia’s status as a great power, in part by working alongside the United States as a main cosponsor of a diplomatic process to end the war and as a guarantor of the ensuing settlement. Putin’s historic mission, as he sees it, is to keep Russia in one piece and return it to its rightful place among the world’s powers; Russia’s intervention in Syria has demonstrated the importance of military force in reaching that goal. By acting boldly despite its limited resources, Russia has helped shift the strategic balance in Syria and staged a spectacular comeback in a region where its relevance was written off 25 years ago.“
Further, he asks: “Where will the Russian military go next?” He suggests that: “Moscow is looking to the Arctic, where the hastening retreat of sea ice is exposing rich energy deposits and making commercial navigation more viable. The Arctic littoral countries, all of which are NATO members except for Russia, are competing for access to resources there; Russia, for its part, hopes to extend its exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean so that it can lay claim to valuable mineral deposits and protect the Northern Sea Route, a passage for maritime traffic between Europe and Asia that winds along the Siberian coast. To bolster its position in the High North, Russia is reactivating some of the military bases there that were abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also building six new military installations in the region. Tensions in the Arctic remain mild, but that could change if there is a major standoff between NATO and Russia elsewhere or if Finland and Sweden, the two historically neutral Nordic countries, apply for NATO membership.“
Dmitri Trenin concludes that: “Putin and other Russian officials understand that Russia’s future, and their own, depends mostly on how ordinary citizens feel. Just as the annexation of Crimea was an exercise in historic justice for most of the Russian public, high defense spending will be popular so long as Russian citizens believe that it is warranted by their country’s international position. So far, that seems to be the case. The modernization program could become a problem, however, if it demands major cuts to social spending and produces a sharp drop in living standards. The Russian people are famously resilient, but unless the Kremlin finds a way to rebuild the economy and provide better governance in the next four or five years, the social contract at the foundation of the country’s political system could unravel. Public sentiment is not a trivial matter in this respect: Russia is an autocracy, but it is an autocracy with the consent of the governed.“
The fifth essay, Putin’s Foreign Policy ~ The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place the overall [Russo-American] relationship, which remains troubled. Even as it worked with Russia on the truce, the United States continued to enforce the sanctions it had placed on Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and a high-level U.S. Treasury official recently accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personal corruption … [and] … The era of bipolar confrontation ended a long time ago. But the unipolar moment of U.S. dominance that began in 1991 is gone, too. A new, multipolar world has brought more uncertainty into international affairs. Both Russia and the United States are struggling to define their proper roles in the world. But one thing that each side feels certain about is that the other side has overstepped. The tension between them stems not merely from events in Syria and Ukraine but also from a continuing disagreement about what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant for the world order. For Americans and other Westerners, the legacy of the Soviet downfall is simple: the United States won the Cold War and has taken its rightful place as the world’s sole superpower, whereas post-Soviet Russia has failed to integrate itself as a regional power in the Washington-led postwar liberal international order. Russians, of course, see things differently. In their view, Russia’s subordinate position is the illegitimate result of a never-ending U.S. campaign to keep Russia down and prevent it from regaining its proper status.“
He goes on discus Russia’s extreme disappointment in US (Western) arrogance at the end of the “cold war,” and he says: “As the United States flexed its muscles and NATO became a more formidable organization, Russia found itself in a strange position. It was the successor to a superpower, with almost all of the Soviet Union’s formal attributes, but at the same time, it had to overcome a systemic decline while depending on the mercy (and financial support) of its former foes. For the first dozen or so years of the post-Soviet era, Western leaders assumed that Russia would respond to its predicament by becoming part of what can be referred to as “wider Europe”: a theoretical space that featured the EU and NATO at its core but that also incorporated countries that were not members of those organizations by encouraging them to voluntarily adopt the norms and regulations associated with membership. In other words, Russia was offered a limited niche inside Europe’s expanding architecture. Unlike Gorbachev’s concept of a common European home where the Soviet Union would be a co-designer of a new world order, Moscow instead had to give up its global aspirations and agree to obey rules it had played no part in devising. European Commission President Romano Prodi expressed this formula best in 2002: Russia would share with the EU “everything but institutions.” In plain terms, this meant that Russia would adopt EU rules and regulations but would not be able to influence their development … [and] … For quite a while, Moscow essentially accepted this proposition, making only minimal efforts to expand its global role. But neither Russian elites nor ordinary Russians ever accepted the image of their country as a mere regional power. And the early years of the Putin era saw the recovery of the Russian economy—driven to a great extent by rising energy prices but also by Putin’s success in reestablishing a functioning state—with a consequent increase in Russia’s international influence. Suddenly, Russia was no longer a supplicant; it was a critical emerging market and an engine of global growth … [but] … it became difficult to accept the Western project of building a liberal order as a benign phenomenon when a series of so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet space, cheered on (at the very least) by Washington, undermined governments that had roots in the Soviet era and reasonably good relations with Moscow. In Russia’s opinion, the United States and its allies had convinced themselves that they had the right, as moral and political victors, to change not only the world order but also the internal orders of individual countries however they saw fit. The concepts of “democracy promotion” and “transformational diplomacy” pursued by the George W. Bush administration conditioned interstate relations on altering any system of government that did not match Washington’s understanding of democracy.”
Fyodor Lukyanov concludes by saying that, ““Russia is not angry; it is focusing.” So goes a frequently repeated Russian aphorism, coined in 1856 by the foreign minister of the Russian empire, Alexander Gorchakov, after Russia had lowered its international profile in the wake of its defeat in the Crimean War. The situation today is in some ways the opposite: Russia has regained Crimea, has enhanced its international status, and feels confident when it comes to foreign affairs. But the need to focus is no less urgent—this time on economic development. Merely getting angry will accomplish little.“
The final two essays deal with how Putin crushes dissent in Russia and why and how Putin gambled and won in Crimea. They are not strategic in nature and I will not discuss them, interesting though they are, in this survey.
The five essays, all by experts, paint a grim picture. Russia is no longer “great,” if it ever was, but it wants to be. Russia has a long and understandable tradition of “defensive aggressiveness,” which makes it very possible that, under Putin’s sistema, one of his henchmen could launch “defensive” military operations that could lead us, fairly quickly, into an all our war with Russia. Russia cannot win that war, but in the process of losing it might inflict serious damage on the US led West and open a strategic door for China.