The instinctive assumption of the majority of Western policymakers has, at any rate until recently, been that Russia will, however uncertainly, in its own interests seek to follow a path leading to its successful integration into a wider economic and hence rule-based space, with particular emphasis on Europe. It is more or less axiomatic for Westerners to take it as read that it is not only the duty but also the self-interest of their governments to pursue the domestic interests of their peoples as their first concern. Putin was at the outset, and for longer than was justified, seen in the West as a reformer of liberal instincts, understandably anxious to get away from the unpredictable instability of the Yeltsin era. He was regarded as taking serious steps to improve the working of the Russian market. And he was until late 2003 mainly served in government by figures well known from the Yeltsin era for their Western-oriented market economy views. He was favored for the Russian electorate by the contrast between him and Yeltsin. He was young and decisive, and the oil and gas money was pouring in. They could relax with a “strong man” to rule them.
There was however from the beginning a different note in the ends that Putin pursued, at odds with the instinctive assumptions of the West. This strain had deeper roots in Russian history than the liberal belief in governments being answerable to their peoples. This tradition decrees that the principal duty of the leadership is the preservation of the state by whatever means are necessary, and that it is the people who are answerable to their leaders, not the other way around. Putin arrived in office with a lively sense of Russia’s vulnerability. NATO action against Serbia because of Kosovo fed into that, and not only for Putin. So did the shock of the 1998 economic crisis. The initiation of the second Chechen War in August 1999 was a portent. Whoever engineered the bombings in Russia proper which preceded it, and whatever the truth about what the FSB described as an exercise in Ryazan meant to prepare its agents to deal with the threat—and it certainly had plenty of odd features—once Moscow decided to take on Chechnya for the second time, it did so with maximum brutality and with no concern for Russian troops or civilians in the conflict zone. Putin and his Generals did their best to prevent media reporting of what was afoot. There was criticism from the West, and notably the Council of Europe, but little from inside Russia. There was even then the beginning of a sense that at last Moscow was standing up for itself after the disappointments and perceived slights of the 1990s. Past Chechen behavior was seen by many Russians as justifying the harshness of the Russian military campaign, and mitigated its impact on Western opinion. Comfort was also taken by quite a few in the West by Putin’s conciliatory rhetoric about NATO and his confident performance at meetings of the G8.
The stability that Putin promised under the “dictatorship of the law” was nevertheless illusory. Russia has progressed over the past decade and a half from stabilization to top-down control to its present fear-haunted laager. A few dates illustrate the point:
- 2001: The Kremlin’s seizure of control over the television channels ORT (until then managed by Berezovsky) and NTV (Gusinsky), as the first step towards the control and corruption of the Russian media into an instrument of Kremlin propaganda, and the present extension of that effort into the internet.
- 2003: The arrest and sentencing of Khodorkovsky put the Yeltsin era “oligarchs” on notice as to their subordinate role, and reminded Putin’s favorites, if they needed it, of their dependence on him. The role of the state in the Russian economy has steadily mounted.
- 2003: The dismissal of the Kasyanov government.
- 2004: The school siege in Beslan (North Ossetia) was used to justify the final translation of regional governors, and the Council of the Federation in which they sit, into the Kremlin’s direct instruments. The translation of the regions into today’s impoverished fiefdoms whose chiefs answer to Putin not their local populations has continued. The Duma had already been transformed into a place where discussion of Kremlin-proposed legislation was redundant. The emasculation of what under Russia’s Constitution are supposed to be autonomous institutions has continued.
- 2004: The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was seen in the Kremlin as a direct challenge, fomented by the West. Domestic measures designed to counter the potential threat to Russia’s rulers have been built up ever since, and notably so after Putin’s return to office after the period of Medvedev/Putin tandem rule in 2008–12.
- 2007: Putin’s broad ranging and strongly worded attack on U.S. policies at the Munich Security Conference, on February 10.
- 2008: The invasion of Georgia and seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The alleged threat of NATO expansion was answered by a Russia “risen from her knees.”
- 2008: The global financial crisis, bought off in Russia by sustaining existing economic interests. Ideas begin to circulate for a renewed economic reform effort, with the political implications left unspoken.
- 2009–11: The Obama reset leads to a period of calm in U.S./Russia relations but no substantial change in their nature.
- 2011–12: Street protests following Putin’s decision to run for the Presidency again, and fraudulent Duma elections.
- 2012: Putin’s return to the Kremlin, rejection of reform ideas aired under Medvedev in favor of a state-directed attempt to revive Russia’s economy, including a significant increase in military spending, together with the suppression of opposition and independent civil society. Darkening of Russia’s economic prospects.
- 2013–14: Maidan, the flight of Yanukovych, seizure of Crimea, export of anarchy to Eastern Ukraine, further domestic clamp down on opposition figures, Western sanctions, Russian defiance.
- 2014: Malaysian Airways Flight MH 17 shot down near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Direct military action by Russian forces in August to frustrate the potential success of Ukrainian armed forces in restoring Kiev’s control over Donetsk and Luhansk.
This is a story among other things of a Russia in search of satisfying meaning, and meaning as a major power in the world in particular.
Putin and his circle have consistently described Russia as the center of a unique civilization. That is a traditional perception and typical of claims that other nations have paralleled in an effort to compensate for perceptions of weakness in comparison with others. But the emphasis given to it in the recent past has become stronger and stronger. The proposition that Russia is separate from the rest of Europe and with its own set of values to champion and defend has gone hand in hand with the belief of the Kremlin that it is surrounded by enemies. Putin and his cohorts now claim that their values are conservative. They seem to me to reflect fear rather than confidence. Even though the United States, and the West in general, in this optic, are said to be in long-term decline, debilitated by moral liberalism and relativism, as witnessed for example by its attitude to homosexuality, the West is nonetheless seen as malevolent in intent and determined and effective in frustrating Russia’s justified ambitions. The claim to a special Russian path includes the comforting belief that it has its deep-seated spiritual compass. The Russian Orthodox Church has been reinstated under Putin as an essential element of this civilization, both as a pillar and as a willing instrument of the present regime.
Russian Values are enshrined in an approved version of Russian history, and of its 20th-century history in particular. Questioning it is regarded as extremism, and in some cases as punishable. Asking whether it had been necessary to keep the civil population of Leningrad in the city during the Nazi blockade was enough to emasculate the independent-minded TV station Dozhd. The “Great Fatherland War” is recorded as a sacralized event, commemorated by ever more militarized and extensive parades every May 9. Patriotism is a necessary Russian Value—meaning official and exaggeratedly demonstrative Russian patriotism of course, not the kind that sees value in learning from objective studies of the past.
Second, there has been a reversion to the Soviet idea of the collective not the individual being the dominant force in the country’s development. One illustration of this has been the restoration of Soviet symbols and the approved account of the Stalin era set out in the history text Russian schools are now bound to use (and now those in Crimea too). According to this, Stalin’s terror was “the price of the great achievements of the Soviet Union” with “the utmost efficiency of the ruling elite” resulting from it. The purges shaped “the new managerial class which was adequate to the tasks of modernization. . . . This class was unconditionally loyal to those in power. Its executive discipline was irreproachable.” (Quoted in Alexander Etkind’s Warped Mourning—Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied )
And third, Russian Values are not just superior to those of the West but need constant protection from the West. Russians’ access to the Internet has come under increasingly restrictive pressure. Travel abroad is being circumscribed for a growing number of Russians. Dual passport holders are now to be identified, under the presumption that this status is somehow suspicious. Pressure on NGOs continues to rise, along with pressure on independent minded academics and journalists. The mass media have been reduced to mendacious and disturbingly effective propaganda instruments.
The fall of Yanukovych and the installation of a Western-oriented government in Kiev gave the lie to the set of values that had come to dominate the thinking of the “Russian World” as espoused by Putin and increasingly imposed by the Kremlin’s supporters in Russia. Putin’s first two terms in office had been blessed by resource-based prosperity. That was over by his return in 2012. The narrative of Russia as a Great Power threatened by a jealous West was given greater prominence in compensation, and as a justification for the tightening of central control in the first two years of Putin’s tenure as Russia’s President, legally due to end in 2018. The conviction that Ukraine was forced out of its natural alignment with Russia by Western conspiracy came naturally to the Kremlin. To see Yanukovych’s fall as the fate of a corrupt authoritarian ruler would have been deeply uncomfortable. Russia insisted on turning the issue of how Ukraine should develop into an East/West issue, not one for the Ukrainians themselves to decide.
Former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar pointed in April 2000 at the Slovene Nova Revija Club to the acceptance of Ukraine as a genuinely independent state as a necessary condition of progress for Russia. The national interest of Russia, for him, was to attain prosperity, not regional hegemony. Shevardnadze, when Soviet Foreign Minister, was surely correct in saying, “It is time to realize that neither socialism, nor friendship, nor good-neighborliness, nor respect, can be produced by bayonets, tanks or blood” (as quoted in the recent obituary in the Economist). Moscow’s policies towards Ukraine have put a serious question mark over the future of Putin’s favored project of a Eurasian Union.
The search for Russian Values and a Russian Way ends in dangerously empty banality. The pursuit of Russia’s revival as a Great Power is in the end an emotional project, not a blueprint for prosperity, nor even for establishing or protecting the wealth and culture needed to sustain its pretensions. Its leitmotif amounts to no more than the ancient and amoral claim that might is right. Putin’s seizure of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine have rallied many Russians around his flag, for now at least. But he has sold them a false bill of goods. The costs of Crimea, let alone Donbass, are and will remain burdensome. Even Putin cannot forever deny the reality of Russian military body bags returning from Ukraine. The gangland outlook he has promoted has its satisfying side, not least the appeal, as witness the late and unlamented Hugo Chavez, of holding the United States and the West in general as responsible for all one’s own shortcomings. That can of course be true in some instances and from time to time, but it is dangerously distorting as well, and particularly so in a country like Russia, where to raise questions means to risk being labeled as an extremist, a fifth columnist, or a traitor.
Questioning and criticism are however essential for the health and development of any political system, even an authoritarian one like Russia’s. Without that, the leadership cannot have any real idea of what the country’s subjects are thinking. Without an effective dialogue, new ideas cannot properly emerge or be tested, and old suppositions cannot easily be retired. To read for instance the Secretary of the Security Council’s October 15 interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta is to contemplate some of the more darkly absurd workings of the mind of a senior and powerful member of the Putin cabal. Does Patrushev really believe that the West has for years worked toward a consistent and integrated plan to dismember first the Soviet Union and now Russia? Is the United States really just using Ukraine as an excuse to further these wicked ambitions? Maybe Patrushev and his colleagues indeed believe in such fantasies, at least in part. Putin spoke at this year’s Valdai Club meeting in a similarly wild fashion of American ambitions for world domination. Such talk at the top encourages the ambitious lower down the scale to keep ahead of the game by assuming that the way to please the boss is to feed him the most threatening scenario that fits into his stated prejudices. That was dangerous enough when Andropov was tasking the KGB to be on the lookout for indications that the United States was about to launch a pre-emptive strike, but at least the USSR then had a fully articulated and well-understood chain of command.
Putin’s refusal to follow the road of market-oriented change in 2012 in favor of state-directed management has not worked. Instead it has produced a Russia still more dependent on informal understandings between individual operators, with opaque laws and inevitable corruption. There was even before the advent of the Ukraine crisis a degree of reliance on sanctioned but deniable use of force by individuals to punish or intimidate persons with unwelcome views. That has long been a habit in the North Caucasus, but extended to environmentalists, journalists, and others in Russia proper. It became Russian state policy in Ukraine. Local criminals like the present “Prime Minister” of Crimea, and a series of transient leaders in East Ukraine have been used by the Kremlin as willing tools in provoking violence. The risk of such practices getting out of effective control, in Russia too, is quite evident. No state profits for long by becoming brutalized. The FSB and other such organs are already too divided and in too advanced a state of decay successfully to drive any system dependent on centralized and consistent discipline emanating from the Kremlin. National chauvinism is a heady drug made for inconsistent decisions, and all the more so given the discouraging prospects of the Russian economy.
Implications for the West
The Putin regime surely cannot now transform itself so as to revive the promise of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Putin himself can neither groom a successor nor leave office voluntarily and safely in 2018, as he might have done in 2008. He remains critical to the functioning of the system, but his decisions and the reasoning behind them are obscure to his cohorts. His grasp of the financial realities is uncertain at best. It is as reasonable to imagine that he will one way or another be made to pay for his mistakes within two years as to suppose that his system will last for another decade. Volodin, the deputy head of the Kremlin’s Administration has said, “No Putin, No Russia.” He may in some sense be right. Putin’s eventual departure will certainly bring change. Even if those are well grounded who warn, as their predecessors did on Stalin’s behalf, that we should hold fast to the Putin we know because his successor will be worse, the next person or persons will want to forge their own way, and will find that planning is one thing, but achieving what you hope for something different.
Russia’s creative potential has been reduced over the past decade. Putin is in effect protecting Russia from the risks inherent in change. In the end, that is an impossible remit. Russia is living beyond its means. The Russians have not lost their long standing and well justified mistrust of their government and its agents, and the division between the Putin-led administration and wider Russian society remains—more hidden than it was in 2011–12, but there nonetheless. The Kremlin’s fear of Maidan showed that it was well aware of that.
It behooves Western decision makers therefore to distinguish clearly in their minds between the interests of Russia’s ruling group and the wider interests of the Russian people, and insofar as they are able to do that, to make it clear that they do so. Communicating with the wider public will not be easy, but will be as necessary as it was in Soviet times.
The West should not accept the Russian paradigm of tensions between Russia and themselves as East/West, Cold War, and so on. It is Russia that the Western powers, whether separately or together, are dealing with, not a Russian bloc. And it should be particular issues that should be managed, not the perceived interests of protecting or furthering an overall relationship. The primary issues in the Ukraine crisis for instance are how Ukraine should govern itself, and what the legitimate and accepted role of Russia should be in the former Soviet space (and by extension the wider world), not whether Ukraine should be the property of Russia or the West.
The basic premise of Russian foreign policies is that might is right. Accepting the proposition that self-proclaimed Great Powers are justified in forcing their will on weaker states is the road to international anarchy. That is why Western powers should defend as best they may the right of Russia’s neighbors in the Former Soviet Union—and the right of Ukraine in particular—to decide for themselves how they are to be governed, and what path they should take.
Western powers should consider what areas may most constructively be dealt with together with the Russians, and which are less promising. The overall state of relations should not be the principal consideration. Bilateral relationships are bound to vary over time. The Russians will not soften their approach for fear of provoking Western countries or in the hope that one good turn will deserve another at some later stage. Those negotiating with the Russians should also take care to be sure of what precisely is meant by particular words or phrases. False parallels, the useful lie, and equivocation are long standing Moscow specialties.
NATO powers and non-NATO powers in the West will need to re-establish their defense capability if the Russians are to take them seriously, and those most exposed to possible Russian pressure are to be reassured. That is not to threaten Russia militarily, but mere prudence. Russia threatens its own future more than do any Western powers.
The EU has yet to find a coherent way to concentrate its policies toward Russia, or to align them with NATO’s potential. The present crisis may perhaps sharpen EU minds as to the need to do this, and to work more effectively with the United States and Canada.
Lastly, Russia will one day resume its trek towards becoming a better-governed and more responsible society. Autarchy is not a long-term option. How and when such change will come is no easier to determine than it was when I wrote in 1981. It may indeed now be more difficult to pre-figure because the hard but attractive option of democratic and Western-influenced change in Russia was then seen, however imperfectly, as the possible alternative to sticking with the failure of the Brezhnev version of the exhausted potential of Soviet Communism. The Russian fear now is that chaos, not hope of betterment, will rule as and when the Putin system gives way.