Reflections on Russia

René Nyberg

Who could ever have anticipated that a great empire would implode just like that … and with a minimum of bloodshed? Nobody, but that is what happened in the Soviet Union in 1991.

An authoritarian regime that is not able to use force against its own people is doomed. In the wake of the breakup, the killing took place far from Moscow in the Soviet periphery. Most of the action was in the area stretching from Tajikistan to Moldova, not forgetting the wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Karabakh and the war in Georgia over Abkhazia. The most momentous war, of course, was the one in Chechnya that Yeltsin unleashed in 1994. The notable fact is that all of these conflicts still simmer, including Chechnya. The North Caucasus is an area that brings to mind the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Frozen conflicts describe the post-Soviet world in a striking way. Smoldering conflicts not only tell us about a lack of will and inability to resolve disputes, but also that such frozen conflicts have proven to be an expedient instrument for Moscow in controlling recalcitrant post-Soviet states and keeping them on a short leash.

Russia has no compunction about using beggar-thy-neighbor policies to achieve its goals. This is a striking contrast to the European goal of not just creating stability and promoting prosperity through integration, but extending that stability and prosperity throughout its neighborhood.

The best example remains modern Germany. Never before in its history has Germany been surrounded by only friends and allies. All of its immediate neighbors, with the famous exception of Switzerland, are members of the EU and/or NATO. The contrast is stunning. Russia has problems with all of its neighbors with the single exception of Finland, and even there it has to be said that Finland’s stable relationship with Russia is solely a Finnish accomplishment.

History has finally caught up with Moscow with the war in Ukraine. By occupying Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine, Russia now challenges the European security order it helped to negotiate. It is a gamble not seen in Europe since the Berlin crises and the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.

The war in Ukraine is the latest chapter of the demise of the Soviet Empire. The war is a gambit of global proportions. The loose talk about nukes is something we have not seen since the days of Khrushchev. But it is not a game changer. Its significance is psychological, rather than political or military. The usability, or rather the non-usability, of nuclear weapons has not changed.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, words are deeds.

Russia remains the other nuclear super power, and makes a point of reminding the United States and everybody else of this fact. The really worrying development is the lack of a confidential dialogue between Moscow and Washington about nuclear weapons, something that existed throughout the Cold War and after it.

The ongoing struggle over the European security structure also resembles the fight in the 1980s over the deployment of intermediate-range missiles. Angela Merkel faces the same challenge as Helmut Kohl. In a dramatic domestic fight, Chancellor Kohl pushed through the so-called double decision, whereby Germany would accept NATO’s decision to deploy missiles on German soil if the Soviet Union refused to negotiate. The rest is history. It is all about holding onto something that is important for the West.

Russia without Ukraine is no empire. Zbig Brzezinski has rehashed this inference of the Imperial German General Staff in 1915. It reminds us of the stakes involved. The frail cease-fire known as the Minsk agreements proves that Putin is not ready to relinquish Russia’s hold on Ukraine. As time passes, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Ukraine poses a challenge as a variation of the Russian theme. A Ukraine marching to a different drummer defies the Muscovite system and threatens its foundation. It also upsets Kremlin plans to collect the pieces of the dissolved Soviet Union under the Eurasian Economic Union.

The Kremlin’s intransigent position, where geostrategic interests triumph over economic ones, has led to the use of military force. The Kremlin’s calculus remains that the decadent West Gayropa in the long run will be unable to resist Russian power in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s operating assumption seems to be that Russian reserves will last longer than European patience.

Nobody, not even the Kremlin, should doubt Angela Merkel’s “Churchillian resolve” to defend the European security system. The grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats provides the popular chancellor with strong support. The ghost of German angst – pacifism, neutralism (the dream of a big Switzerland) and anti-US feelings – is still a reality in German society. When it comes to EU questions, and Ukraine in particular, the chancellor´s consistent policy also enjoys the support of the Greens. The mighty German export industry recognizes the primacy of politics, das Primat der Politik. The defenders of Putin, the Putin Versteher, have been marginalized, though the fight is hardly over.

According to statistics published recently by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Putin has spoken on phone during his present presidency seventeen times with the German chancellor, thirteen times with the President of Kazakhstan, ten times with the President on Ukraine, seven times with the President of Belarus; six times with the French President, Israel’s prime minister and the Netherlands’ prime minister; five times with President Niinistö of Finland and four times with President Obama and former European Commission President Barroso.

At the same time, we are observing Putin’s authoritarian regime circling the wagons. The propaganda onslaught has attained an unprecedented level. Unlike its Soviet predecessor, Russian propaganda is sophisticated and fairly effective. Its main instrument remains obfuscation. Facts and fabrications, news and rumors, are all entangled and jumbled in a way that effectively confuses the Russian TV viewer.

Since the war in Ukraine, over a million Russians have lost their right to travel abroad. The right to travel was one of the great achievements of the Russian Revolution of 1991. We are talking about Government employees, especially those serving in the security services and police.

Putin is no dictator. Russia remains a market economy in which the central bank mitigates the effects of crisis by letting the ruble float. It is still true that never before in history have the Russians been as free as they are today: free to choose where to live, free to choose how they spend the money they have earned and free to travel. Against this background, restricting travel, even for a special group, is not a trivial measure.

In his brilliant Stalin biography, Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University describes how two groups, led by the interior and finance ministers, constantly lobbied the last Czar.

As 19th century satirical author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin remarked: “Everything changes in Russia in five years, nothing in a hundred years.”

Today we see Putin lobbied by security services and the military, the so-called siloviki, and the financial lobby led by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. Russia is slipping into recession after being hit with the double-whammy of sanctions (especially financial sanctions) and a steep decline in oil prices. Reforms that were never carried out or postponed cannot be enacted overnight by fiat. And while the financial cushion of Russia’s reserves is considerable, it is not unlimited. The reserves were prudently amassed during the fat years in the 2000s when the oil price just kept rising. Russia copied Norway, which famously created the world’s first large sovereign wealth fund to protect its oil income for future generations. Kudrin’s claim to fame remains his advice to Putin to follow the Norwegian example.

Russia today is an upper-middle-income country by the World Bank definition. This is a major achievement and the foundation of Putin’s undeniable popularity. A deep recession would endanger the whole system. Putin has consolidated his power, yet failed to reform the economy and constantly put off creation of even a modicum of legal guarantees for business. Russia is not a country ruled by law.

Russia has no real opposition to speak of. Most of the liberals have been silenced and the media stifled. But the financial lobby, with Kudrin as its spokesman, keeps the pressure on Putin publicly. Indeed, nobody has described the Russian dilemma better than Kudrin: “Either the TV or the fridge will carry the day.”

Against this background, rolling the iron dice in Ukraine and the pivot to China seem like acts of desperation. And if this was not enough, Chechnya is acting up. The murder of Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Putin has in a spectacular way demonstrated that Chechnya, ruled by a loyal chieftain, is not really controlled by Moscow. This is a serious blow to Putin’s prestige and visibly irritates the security services.

Putin is yet another successor of Peter the Great, who three hundred years ago started to reform Russia and famously opened a window to the West by founding the city of St. Petersburg at the far end of the Gulf of Finland. Since then, reform has been an on-again-off-again proposition. Attempts to reform have been abandoned and resumed repeatedly. Stephen Kotkin characterized Stalin as a Georgian incarnation of Stolypin. Stolypin was the last reformer-prime minister of Czarist Russia. He was murdered in 1911 in the opera of Kiev with the Emperor in attendance.

Let me entertain you with an exquisite Stolypin quote. When Stolypin was accused by conservatives of abandoning Russia’s “historic mission in the world” he retorted: “Our internal situation does not allow us to conduct an aggressive foreign policy.”

A pivot to China is no alternative to the modernization partnership with Europe. The Middle Kingdom has never known allies, only vassals paying tribute.

There is no way to predict the future. The only thing we should be aware of is that the development will not be linear and we should brace ourselves for surprises, including nasty ones.

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Written by René Nyberg