I remarked at the end of my November 2014 TAI essay, “Reflections on the Closing of the Russian Mind,” that “Russia threatens its own future more than do any of the Western powers.” That is even more true now than it was then. Russia is set upon a self-destructive course. Its ruler, or for politeness’s sake its rulers, show no present intention of changing it, and might not now be able to do so even if they wished.1
Russian Foreign Policies
There are plenty of those who take a very different view. Thomas Graham and Matthew Rojansky in their October 13 article for Foreign Policy, “America’s Russia Policy Has Failed”, argue that, despite U.S. pressure on Russia, Moscow has succeeded in challenging a variety of American interests. They call for a new policy towards Russia that would deal with the country “as it really is.”
No one would quarrel in principle with the latter proposition. Or presumably with the rider that what one believes Russia really is now must include suppositions as to what it may become in the future. Those who accept the basic idea that Russia has “risen from her knees” look primarily to its international political role for justification. Putin’s obsession with Russia’s claim to be a great power is a driving force for him and his followers too.
A number of practical reasons are advanced in support of the Kremlin’s claim. The most basic is that Russia’s sheer size and lack of natural boundaries make it necessary for it to construct a defensive glacis. Putin and Lavrov, in referring to the post-1945 security of Europe’s being ensured by the Yalta agreement, have had this sort of argument in mind. Russian demands for a sphere of interest to be recognized as their right today reflect, at least in part, this type of contention. But there is an obvious problem. A geographically defined sphere of interest which rests on might not right is inherently unstable, as witness the Soviet bloc after Yalta. The area bordering on a putative Russian sphere today would also need to be under tacit control if it were to be maintained. Its existence would ensure continuing tension and therefore instability in Europe. Russia does not have the wherewithal to build a voluntary community of shared interests.
The drivers of Russian policies are at least as much emotional as practical. “Realists” assert that the West must take account of deeply rooted characteristics of Russia “as it is.” To the extent that this is more than a banality, it implies among other things agreement that the West’s encroachment on Russia’s self-proclaimed sphere of interest will justifiably be seen in Russia as a threat that the Kremlin must confront. Professor Mearsheimer is one of several analysts who have for instance argued that the European Union should never have agreed to negotiate an Association Agreement with Kyiv because of this constraint. Logically that would suggest that Ukraine’s own deeply rooted characteristics should not have weighed in the balance. Those who argue on similar grounds that the enlargement of NATO should not have happened must, if they are to be consistent, also maintain that the rights of “lesser nations” are to be subordinated to those of the “great powers.”
“Spheres of interest” of course exist as broadly defined categories. To be effective, they are bound not by compulsion but by mutual and evolving advantage. President Putin’s push for a Eurasian Union has been gravely, even fatally, compromised by Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its military conduct in Syria. The United States is a major actor in NATO and has significant political power in the West as a whole, but it is not the ultimate and unquestionable authority in that sphere that Putin and his coterie assume it to be. The proposition that international security issues can be managed by great powers dominating particular regions has its seductive neatness. It has, for example, encouraged talk of a concord between Moscow, Washington, and Brussels that would manage security in Europe. But what may look persuasive on paper would not necessarily be effective in practice.
Putin’s addiction to the idea of Russia’s having the right to recognition as a “Great Power” is the pursuit of an unattainable and dangerous fantasy. The Kremlin’s aspirations are shared by many Russians, both military and civilian. They nonetheless remain phantoms. No such category as that of a great power exists, or can exist. It follows that achieving that status is an endless and frustrating quest. Russia’s pursuit of it is governed by the idea of restoring lost, even imaginary, glory. That is what makes it dangerous to Russia and the rest of the world. The “East” in its traditional sense of a Soviet space ruled from Moscow is no longer there to be restored. Yet its ghost lingers in Western consciousness and dominates Kremlin thinking. It is a corollary to Russia’s claim to a special status that international issues are seen as in the first place a matter of rivalry between East and West, or rather, more exactly, between Moscow and Washington.
Secretary of State John Kerry has leaned over backwards not to offend Russia’s sensibilities. His reward has been to join the list of those discovering that negotiating with official Russia is to enter a parallel universe. Neither Ukraine nor Syria were in the first place crises that had to be seen as part of a struggle between Russia and the West. But that was the framework into which Moscow pushed them. A solid belief in the undying malevolence of the United States toward Russia has been built up over the Putin years and has now petrified into total conviction. Russian diplomats insist that what their country demands is respect and equality. Respect in Kremlin speak is not due regard for virtue but what a senior gangster demands from underlings and competitors. Equality is equality with the United States seen not “as it is” but as the Kremlin supposes it to be in the distorted context of its own Russian imaginings.
The complete sentence from the Graham-Rojansky Foreign Policy article, quoted at the start of this passage, reflects a degree of acceptance of this Russian narrative of Moscow’s having been Washington’s victim: “But above all, rather than setting out to defeat or transform Russia, a new U.S. approach should deal with Russia as it really is.” Neither the United States nor its NATO allies have set out to defeat or transform Russia in any radical sense over the past decades. To do so would have required—if I am right to take the sentence as a reflection of the Kremlin narrative as it has developed up to this point—consistent cunning along with stupidity. It cannot ever have been a Western endeavor to destroy Russia. It is beyond our power, even if we wished for it, to change the regime in Moscow.
Russian foreign policies have been directed by a small, hermetic group answerable to Putin. The assumptions that guide them are not subject to testing, let alone correction, within Russia. The emotional drive behind them is powerful but distorted. The judgments that result are flawed. The Kremlin’s expectation of a “New Russia” in Ukraine has given way to the reality of an expensive commitment to Crimea and the death of thousands in continued fighting in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, together with a crisis in relations with the West. Russia cannot “win” in Syria even at the price of an onslaught on the remaining centers of opposition to its client Assad. What Putin will have achieved is a legacy of blood and rubble. Russia’s policies have exported violence but not security.
After the Duma Elections
The Kremlin managers can take reassurance from their September success in ensuring a constitutional majority in the new parliament. The popular perception of the Duma as made up of self-seeking nonentities obedient to the instructions of the Presidential Administration and the markedly low voter turnout cannot have surprised them, but at least they can now be sure that the new parliament will not get in the way of the Kremlin’s plans for the future. Moscow rumors prematurely suggest that these plans may include bringing forward to 2017 the presidential elections constitutionally due in 2018. Putin would be eligible to run again for a further six-year term in either year.
Putin has in a parallel development pursued a number of changes that have made him still more dominant in the Russian order of things. It has in the past been possible to see him as rather more than the first among equals or near equals yet still as the arbiter over rivalries between those around him. He has over the past several months arranged the retirement of senior members of that coterie and replaced them with younger figures bereft of previous independent political authority. Putin has also ditched leaders of the previously feared Investigative Committee, responsible for the persecution of those judged hostile to the regime, or in possession of fortunes too large to escape the predatory instincts of its operatives. His long-term personal guard Viktor Zolotov has been made the head of a newly created National Guard answerable to the President. Reports that Putin intended to restore the KGB by transferring duties at present handled by a variety of other agencies to a unified successor have yet to be confirmed or entirely dismissed. It is a matter of guesswork to determine exactly what these changes mean, or what it is that Putin hopes to achieve over the next year or so in the run up to his expected return for a fourth term in 2017 or 2018. But the changes are symptomatic of a further centralization of power along with, paradoxically, uncertainty of purpose.
The authoritative Moscow Council for Foreign and Defense Policies reported at the end of May 2016—in a formally commissioned study of the period covering its field from the end of 2010 to the end of 2020, and meant to give Russian foreign policies a “new intellectual charge”—that “a country’s economic level remains the fundamental indicator of its strength and influence among the states of the world” and that Russia’s main problem was the “deepening condition of economic stagnation” which had already lasted eight or nine years. The bargain between the small group at the top and the state structures they control, on the one hand, and Russian society as a whole being enriched in exchange by rents from natural resources, on the other, has been under increasing strain at least since 2008. Putin’s answer since his return in May 2012 for his third presidential term has been to reject economic reform programs while ramping up internal repression, and bolstering his domestic authority by adventurism abroad.
The Kremlin has worked to considerable effect on the Russian population with the contention that Russia must forcibly protect its position in the world from its external enemies, as it and many Russians see them to be. But the initial excitement arising from the annexation of Crimea has inevitably diminished, and Russia’s interventions in Luhansk and Donetsk have not matched the appeal of that first rush. While many foreigners see Russian action in Syria as impressive, its domestic impact has been muted. Concern for Russia’s future prosperity has, by contrast, increased.
Those who imagined that, because the economy is now arguably Russia’s number one problem, United Russia’s overwhelming majority in the new Duma would be used to begin to address it, have to date been disappointed. Optimists are now more inclined to suppose that economic reforms will at last be embarked upon once Putin has been re-elected in 2018—or 2017, if those elections have to be brought forward because reserve funding used to meet short-term needs may well be exhausted earlier. Common sense would suggest that serious reforms are now even more necessary than when they were publicly debated during Dmitry Medvedev’s time as Kremlin placeholder. It is nevertheless clear that those arranging this year’s Duma elections planned only for a supportive majority for Putin and his associates, not a change in policy direction as such. Defense expenditure remains the clear priority, at the literal expense of health, education, and other social needs. The President has given no indication of what he might want to seek by way of a new approach to resolve Russia’s deep-rooted economic problems.
The Russian State
It is easy enough to understand why Putin and his adherents fear to change domestic course. To do so would be to admit the failure of the policies they have long pursued, and to face the considerable dangers of the radical shift that would be necessary for genuine “modernization.” The economic and political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev’s September paper for Ifri provides a clear account of, to quote its title, “Russia’s Economic Modernization: The Causes of a Failure.” Those causes remain in full force. Inozemtsev remarks in conclusion that he has not included reasons for that failure such as accountability, transparency, and an independent legal system on the grounds that these have been amply explained before. That dismal condition too remains in full force. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s Centre for Strategic Research has come nearest among those now looking at fresh ways to relaunch Russia’s economic fortunes, but while these are persuasive enough in the abstract, they are incompatible with present political realities. They include institutional reforms with clear political consequences, together with the relaxation of geopolitical tensions. The Kudrin report identified the high degree of state ownership in the economy (currently about 70 percent) as Russia’s central problem. The Russian government would have to work for a relaxation of geopolitical tension, it stated, for it to reach an annual growth rate of 4 percent in four years time. Putin has said that Russia “is not prepared to trade its sovereign rights whatever the degree of international confrontation.” Others have put forward ideas based for the most part on monetary stimuli with inflationary consequences even in the unlikely case that the Russian state proved able to implement them effectively.
I argued in my April 26, 2016 essay for The American Interest, “The Hollow Men,” that Vladimir Putin and those around him have made themselves prisoners of the past. They can now add their destructive foreign policies and their failure to work for a productive economy to the ties that bind them to a system of government they have eviscerated of independent and accountable institutions. In any other country the population at large would make a link between the impoverishment of large numbers of its citizens and the actions of its rulers. That is not yet the case in Russia. But there is surely a risk for Putin, who has now more clearly than before become Russia’s leading figure, that he will eventually be held responsible. His poll ratings remain a comfort. But the apathy expressed in the Duma elections is a counter-indicator. Putin will, as things are likely still to stand by then, obviously be the front-runner in the next round of presidential elections scheduled for 2018. No serious opponent will be permitted. But no one yet knows, or is likely by then to know, just what he would intend to do in the six years that would follow. He cannot, surely, live in Wonderland forever.
1Kirk Bennett’s admirable trilogy on the present condition of Russia (parts one, two, and three) provides clear and finely argued food for thought about Russia’s future trajectory. I have read it with sympathy and substantial agreement. What follows is intended to address some of the more subjective elements within the Russian policymaking process.