The coronavirus crisis has brought us more than enough chaos, suffering, and hardship, but it has also given us something valuable: a golden opportunity to think. The drama unfolding before our very eyes should allow us to question the comfortable clichés that have arisen from intellectual rigidity and complacency. Our perception of Russia is one such area in dire need of fresh views.
Russia’s Adaptation Game
According to Arnold Toynbee’s “Challenge-and-Response” hypothesis, a civilization’s destiny is determined by how it responds to the challenges it encounters; it either reorganizes itself and gets a new energy or withers away. One would conclude that the Soviet system of personalized power failed to respond to novel challenges, resulting in its unravelling. The Soviet System indeed had problems adapting to new realities, but it still might have managed to limp along for decades more, allowing us even now to be observing and commenting on this construct, if not for Gorbachev’s desire to update it. The system, apparently, was not reformable; likely any attempt to open the windows would have provoked its collapse.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the death of the Russian Civilization project’s global mission. Its life had only been prolonged past its expiry for two generations during the Soviet times thanks to the Bolshevist-Marxist inversion.
The Soviet collapse was a mesmerizing event, a generator of false hopes, illusions, and misperceptions, resistant to efforts to fit it into familiar transitological concepts. As if following Toynbee’s prediction that “suicidal statecraft” is the endpoint for civilizations that are not ready to reinvent themselves, this global nuclear superpower, one of the architects of the international order, collapsed during a time of peace and absent any serious threats, from either within or without.
However, the post-Soviet modification of the Russian system has unexpectedly risen from the ashes and continues to test Toynbee’s theory. So far the challenges this system has faced over the past two decades have neither given it impetus for transformation nor killed it off. The post-Soviet system has demonstrated a phenomenal ability to reinvent itself by dumping the Soviet state and rejecting its role as an alternative to the West.
Indeed, the Russian system has adapted to the post-Cold war reality better than liberal civilization. It was the existence of the Soviet Union that mobilized the West and strengthened its liberal identity and global outreach in order to contain its ideological opponent. After the Soviet Union left the scene, all other challenges, including the terrorist threat, failed to create an incentive for reform as powerful as the previous one. The lack of a formidable challenger allowed the leader of the West—the United States—to slide into a policy of retrenchment, leaving a geopolitical vacuum.
Meanwhile, the Russian system—by building a new survival “machine” through imitation, through fakery, through both old tricks as well as some new ones—disoriented those who believed that it had gone into a terminal coma. Sometimes this construct gives off the impression of being a shambolic “state-zombie,” but this “zombie” has proved to be quite resilient, forcing us to rethink a few beliefs about political decay and civilizational death.
It is sometimes stunning to think how this system, which remains hostile to liberal democracy, has nevertheless been using Western financial and technological potential to prop itself up. True, this has been Russian practice for centuries, starting with Peter the Great. The most confounding episode was the Western input in the building of the Soviet economy and military in the 1930s.
Today, the Russian tactic—“to be both with the West and against the West”—also includes an historical novelty: personal integration of the Russian elite into the West. Isn’t it hilarious? On the one hand, the tactic is meant to keep liberal civilization at arm’s length; on the other, it uses Western resources and penetration of Western society to subvert it from within.
Yet over the past few years the Russian system has increased its own fragility by falling into traps of its own creation. The most serious threat is that the latest means of reproducing the Russian system have begun to erode one of its central pillars: personalized power. The system can’t support itself by means of ideology or massive repressions, as the Communist regime did. The post-Soviet system has been legitimizing itself through elections with guaranteed outcomes. But over time the rigged elections have begun to undermine the system’s stability. The Kremlin’s efforts to justify Putin’s presidency “forever,” coupled with Putin’s signing into law a provision allowing elections and referendums to be conducted by mail and via the Internet, throw into the dustbin the principle of electoral legitimacy, yet there are currently no substitutes for it.
The backbone of the personalized system—Russia’s Great Power role—has begun to crack under the burden. Shrinking resources and resistance from external powers unwilling to recognize Russia’s areas of influence have limited Russia’s great power mission. Even more important is the fact that the majority of the Russian population has begun to associate Russia’s great power role with economic wellbeing rather than military might.
Yet another trap appears even more formidable. On the one hand, Russia—almost congenitally anti-modern—needs to use the West’s financial and technological resources and must play the role of energy supplier. On the other hand, the Russian system addresses the “collective West” as an enemy and tries to contain it. The Ukrainian crisis made it difficult for the Kremlin to balance these conflicting tracks.
The systemic pillars of the Russian personalized power construction have become brittle, turning into a source of dysfunction. However, anyone holding out hopes that the system will go down in flames should prepare themselves for disappointment. There are no visible indications that the system will repeat the Soviet self-burial. More likely is another scenario: a long and painful rot that leaves society without energy to revolt.
This does not mean that Russia will avoid the unravelling of the regime, or even of the system. We can only guess as to final outcome of the undercurrents that are even now gradually rising to the surface. The crisis could reverberate across the globe in ways that even Russia’s opponents would like to avoid, in much the same way as Western leaders tried to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, one external factor in particular is giving the system support: the political decay of democracy and the crisis of the European normative project (the European Union). The lack of a robust alternative is like a shot of adrenalin for the Russian system, helping it to deal with its own degeneration.
The coronavirus crisis has forced us to play the forecasting game. Building future scenarios is a natural pastime for those who wish to escape (at least virtually) the isolation and uncertainty of the moment. But if we can understand the fallacies in our old ways of viewing the past and present, our projections might even be realistic.
I discussed some of the clichés about Russia in need of rubbishing in a previous essay for TAI. The stubborn devotion that some show to these myths is striking! For instance, the pervasive Putiniana, the attempts to identify Russia with Putin, to penetrate his brain and tell us his deepest thoughts—how does this help us to understand Kremlin policy or the mood of Russian society? First, we don’t have access to the kinds of sources that could help us to unlock Putin’s innermost thoughts. Second, Putin’s leadership has already transformed into a kind of impotent omnipotence, to the extent that we now must look to other factors than Putin to read Russia’s pulse. One can’t help but suspect that the focus on Putin covers for a lack of expertise on Russia, or that such analyses are meant to whet the popular appetite for gossip about Putin.
Russia is perceived as an authoritarian state that is moving toward harsher rule and dictatorship. But the Kremlin’s reaction to the pandemic has demonstrated that one-man rule is unable to effectively employ authoritarian means. Attempts to respond to the new challenges in the traditional way bring systemic dysfunction. We need to examine the potential repercussions of authoritarian degradation.
One more axiom: “Russia’s great power status is the core of Russian identity.” Indeed, it would be unusual for Russians to think about their country as a normal state. However, we need to see the above-mentioned evolution of Russians’ attitudes about what makes a “great power.” Moreover Russia, with its limited resources, doesn’t have the capacity to keep its satellite states in their respective orbits indefinitely—not even if they resort to buying their subordination. Russia has been spending more than $100 billion every year to pay for Belarus’s loyalty, which, apparently, is still only conditional.
Sometimes, support for the construct comes from outside. When Russia is looking around for ways to justify its great power “spine,” prominent American experts have begun to call for a return to a Concert of Great Powers format, with spheres of influence, as a means of securing global stability. Such an initiative could help the Kremlin resuscitate the great power idea (at least for a while) through external rather than internal means.
Meanwhile, being astute technologically, the Russian elite has begun to look for other interpretations of the great power role. Among them: the demand that others recognize Russia’s right to interpret global rules and international norms. Such a course seems much cheaper than buying the loyalty of satellites. The West is at a loss as to how to respond.
One more idea: to offer Russia as the guarantor of peace and sovereignty, and a defender against “hegemony.” What an ironic turn for a state that involved itself in the Ukrainian and Syrian gambits, as well as other efforts to keep neighboring states under its thumb. Anyway, be ready for new interpretations of Russia’s great power role!
Russia longs for confrontation with the West, argue the experts. In reality two thirds of Russians want partnership with the West. This means that the population is tired of living in a war paradigm. The major part of the elite is also not ready for confrontation. True, the Kremlin continues its war rhetoric and escalation blackmail, having no other means of consolidation at its disposal. However, this is a policy of barking, not biting, of a wink and a nudge, that is intended to deter tougher responses from its opponents.
The Russian system needs militarization as a way to mobilize the population. Many of us thought this until recently. Indeed, militarism in Russia has become not only its national industry (as it once was in Prussia) but a way of life; peacetime is merely a resting period of preparation for the next war. In modern times, no country but Russia (and North Korea) has organized itself as a “garrison-state,” strictly subordinating people and their daily lives to the Sovereign/Commander in Chief.
But the Kremlin’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that the ruling class does not know how to use militarist mechanisms to deal with the present challenge. Russia has found itself in a situation in which it can’t reject militarism (which is part of the system’s genetic code), but it also can’t boost it further without threatening its economic survival.
There is another popular narrative about the triumph of Russia’s disinformation campaign and attempts to meddle with and thus weaken the West. To be sure, the Kremlin is sponsoring propaganda agencies working abroad (together with troll armies) and is trying to interfere whenever possible. But what have these efforts really achieved? Is it the Russian “disinformation” campaign and Kremlin meddling that have brought the crisis of liberal democracy? When and how exactly have Kremlin efforts influenced Western policies? If Russian meddling has been successful, why has Moscow failed to persuade the West to lift its sanctions against Russia? If there have been limited or local areas where disinformation has succeeded, then these are more easily explained as being the result of Western naiveté and ignorance than of the Kremlin’s astuteness or cunning.
Indeed, Russian meddling has only increased Western suspicion toward Russia. In 16 of 33 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, more people see Russia unfavorably than favorably. Few people globally express confidence in Putin. In 22 of the 33 countries surveyed, more express a lack of confidence in Putin than express confidence. A median of 60 percent across these countries say they have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs.
Another cliché—assertions of the Kremlin’s geopolitical successes—is a frequent topic for Western media. Meanwhile, Russia’s tactical successes turn into strategic disasters. For example, while Russia undermined Ukraine’s stability and its pro-Western course, it also lost Ukraine as a nation. Russia’s gambit in Syria helped to save Assad and returned Russia to the Middle East, but preserving its role there is a delicate operation, given that the Russian population does not support it. Likewise, Russia used Venezuela to get oil and irritate Washington, but now it is trying to extract itself from the situation and prevent the United States from sanctioning Rosneft for engaging in deals with the Maduro regime. Russia’s involvement in Libya’s chaotic situation won’t yield any dividends. Russia’s galaxy of Eurasian satellites is also in flux, and Belarus has enough cockiness to reject the Kremlin’s plans to integrate it with Russia. Instead of an alliance of equals with China, Russia has nightmares about becoming its junior partner. Finally, the Kremlin’s humiliating defeat in its “oil price war” with Saudi Arabia is a warning that Russia’s role as a global energy power is waning. Returning to the global scene in the role of spoiler hardly brings Russia the respect and trust it craves from others.
Experts will have to reassess their old narratives about the Russo-Chinese marriage. Growing suspicion toward China and the U.S. “cold war” with Beijing have forced the Kremlin to reconsider whether it is ready to continue its friendly embrace of China. This does not mean that it will join the United States in standing up to the Dragon, but a Russian elite actively trying to normalize its relationship with the West will have to find a way to avoid turning Russia into a junior partner to China.
Finally, not only Russian but also Western observers view Russia and Russian foreign policy through its relationship with the United States. This approach represents yet another fantasy. True, the United States is an ideal enemy for Russia to use in fanning the flames of hate and an ideal competitor for geopolitical games. But all alleged grievances aside, has the United States ever played a significant role in Russia’s past or present? Or is it a serious economic factor for Russia? Not really, or at least not as much as another state: Germany, of course, has exerted enormous influence on Russia down through the centuries, although neither Russians nor Germans like to admit it.
The “German factor” has influenced Russia’s trajectory at several points in its history. One of the watershed moments of Russian history is the “Gas for Pipes” deal between Germany and the Soviet Union. Concluded in 1970, this “deal of the century” sealed Russia’s fate for many decades to come, allowing the Soviet Union to become an energy power and to make Europe dependent on its energy shipments, thus prolonging the life of a dysfunctional model from which Russia still cannot escape today. Germany remains the pivotal factor that could either benefit the traditional Russian system through such energy deals, or undermine its resilience.
Intellectuals and Liberals at the Service of the System
There are a few other popular perceptions that have become the core of the anthology of myths about Russia. One of them is a source of infatuation with this country: the myth about Russia’s culture and intelligentsia, which have been cited as evidence of Russian “European nature.” The truth of the matter is treacherous. In a bitter twist of irony, the System has succeeded in getting Russia’s intelligentsia and culture to serve its interests. The Russian intelligentsia has concentrated exclusively on ethical and moral values but has never addressed the issue of rule of law and transformation, hoping instead that a benevolent Savior would emerge to bestow happiness on his subjects. The existence of the intelligentsia did not undermine the System; on the contrary, it gave the System a more civilized and polished look. The Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky could not possibly be a predatory, archaic state—perish the thought!
The intelligentsia (which actually ceased to exist as a social group after the Soviet collapse) mediated between regime and society, softening (intentionally or not) the latter’s rebellious impulses and channeling them into the permanent “soul searching” that has become Russians’ traditional pastime (another Russian “mystification”). The Russian experts Lev Gudkov and Boris Dubin write that the intelligentsia was “the bureaucracy that aided the reproduction of the totalitarian society. . . . Its own interest was to soften ‘the extremes’ in the relationship between the authorities and the population.” What a harsh—but accurate—assessment! Regretfully, the intellectual groups today have failed to become the architects of a political alternative for Russia.
As for Russian culture, its “spiritual” guideposts have always pointed toward anti-modernism. It suppressed individualism and privacy, subordinating them to transcendental and lofty goals—whether those be in the service of country and state, the Kingdom of Heaven, or communism—turning into a demodernizing force that legitimized the archaic way of life. It is an historical irony that the Russian characteristics that have attracted the world for centuries and are accepted among humanity’s intellectual and artistic treasures turn out to be merely the fine garments in which one of the world’s most despotic states clothes itself.
Also instrumental in serving the needs of the System have been the Russian liberals who talk about reforms and declare themselves to be proponents of the West while simultaneously working for the Kremlin. They act as doctors performing the increasingly difficult task of extending the construct’s life by ensuring its macroeconomic stability and civilized image. Their function makes the Russian “systemic liberals” in reality an anti-liberal and anti-European force. (One must admit that the Russian liberals as a rule have been “liberal imperialist,” rejecting the idea of the Russian nation-state; they fear Russian nationalism more than Russian imperialism.)
In any event, at the crucial moment in Russian history—after the collapse of the Soviet Union—Russian liberals didn’t facilitate the country’s transformation. To be sure, they were the personification of Russia’s hope for change, but they understood it as regime or leadership change rather than a change of rules or institutions. This helped the Leader to reproduce one-man rule. (Even if they did this unwittingly, they still bear responsibility for the outcome.) Thus Russia returned to a system of personalized power, but this time in a market-friendly form. For their part, Russia’s “system liberals” became part of the ruling group and legitimated the new incarnation of the System, thus discrediting liberalism in Russia.
Sergei Kiriyenko, who had been viewed as a liberal and later became deputy head of the Kremlin staff, argued that the old liberalism had become obsolete, and that the new liberalism must pursue the demands of “the generation of statists and great power advocates.” Liberals called on Putin to become the “Russian Pinochet.” Anatolii Chubais went public with the idea of Russia as a “liberal empire.”
One of the leading members of Yegor Gaidar’s reform team, Petr Aven (now an oligarch), later admitted, “The mission to implement liberal reforms was given to Soviet intellectuals who personally were far from liberalism; they were self-centered, having no respect for other opinions. . . . [T]he most serious feature of our reformers [was a] serious overestimation of their own capabilities and possibilities.” A devastating confession, no?
Today, liberals in the government and liberals outside who declare their readiness to cooperate with the Kremlin are elements of a system that has demonstrated its hostility to the core principles of liberal democracy. Systemic liberals give the system extra breathing room and imitate development. Playing the role of stabilizer of personalized rule, they undermine liberal principles and disorient the liberal electorate. Trying to prevent Russia from sliding into a deep crisis, they are stabilizing a corrupted petro state. The bitter irony is that they often contribute more to the survival of the system than the siloviki responsible for coercion.
The presence in government of liberals in economic and financial roles, as well as the fact that Kremlin leaders continue to use liberal economic slogans, prevents real liberalism from taking root in Russia. The Kremlin liberals have thus helped to bury Russian liberalism—at least for the time being.
We should be ready for a new set of fallacies about Russia to arise amidst the current coronavirus crisis. To keep them at bay, we need to understand how we have misjudged the past. The time for redemption has come. All of us have to eat our slice of humble pie and own up to the illusions we have created.