Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an empire in decline

In contemporary Russia … … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away.

==Peter Pomerantsev.

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.

==Winston Churchill.

I write a lot about foreign affairs even though I have not traveled outside the USA (except to Canada) and I don’t speak, read or write any language except English.

putin.as.czarMy tools for understanding are to learn the basics by reading books and magazine articles, and then to try to imagine what I would do in the place of the citizen or leader of a foreign country.

My method obviously doesn’t yield profound insights, yet it is more than some of our leaders and analysts seem to be able to do.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about Vladimir Putin and Russia, which is my way of trying to clarify what I think.  I don’t admire Putin’s method of governing or his ideology, but I have a grudging respect for him as a Machiavellian statesman and patriot.

The other day I commented on an interesting post on the Vineyard of the Saker blog about how Russians are rallying behind Putin in the face of American and European economic warfare.

Today I read an interesting article by Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs which gave a counterbalancing point of view—Putin as a weak despot only tenuously in control of a ramshackle.

The methods Putin used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state. 

Putin himself complains publicly that only about 20 percent of his decisions get implemented, with the rest being ignored or circumvented unless he intervenes forcefully with the interest groups and functionaries concerned. 

But he cannot intervene directly with every boss, governor, and official in the country on every issue.  Many underlings invoke Putin’s name and do what they want. 

Personal systems of rule convey immense power on the ruler in select strategic areas—the secret police, control of cash flow—but they are ultimately ineffective and self-defeating.

This description reminds me of the China of Chiang Kai-shek or the 19th century Ottoman Empire.  Kotkin thinks that dysfunctional despotism is rooted in Russian culture and history.

About a decade ago, Stefan Hedlund, an expert on Russia at Uppsala University, in Sweden, wrote an impressive overview of 12 centuries of Eastern Slavic history in an attempt to explain Putin’s authoritarianism.

He pointed out that Russia had essentially collapsed three times—in 1610-13, 1917-18, and 1991—and that each time, the country was revived fundamentally unchanged.

Despite the depth of the crises and the stated intentions of would-be transformative leaders, Russia reemerged with an unaccountable government, repression, and resistance to the imposition of the rule of law.

Hedlund’s impressive tome was titled Russian Path Dependence, but rather than complete determinism, he perceived choices—albeit choices heavily conditioned by culture.

He noted that efforts at institutional change in Russia had always failed because they had not altered the country’s underlying system of norms, which rested on a deeply ingrained preference for informal rules.

“Modernization reinforced archaism,” Hedlund grimly concluded, quoting the historian Geoffrey Hosking: “Increasing state control meant entrenching personal caprice.”

Current U.S. foreign policy serves as a foil and justification for Putin’s policies, Kotkin wrote.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, as Washington engages in stupid, hypocritical, and destabilizing global behavior, Moscow shoulders the burden of serving as a counterweight, thereby bringing sanity and balance to the international system.

Russian lying, cheating, and hypocrisy thus serve a higher purpose.   Cybercrime is patriotism; rigging elections and demobilizing opposition are sacred duties.

Putin’s machismo posturing, additionally, is undergirded by a view of Russia as a country of real men opposing a pampered, gutless, and decadent West.

Resentment toward U.S. power resonates far beyond Russia, and with his ramped-up social conservatism, Putin has expanded a perennial sense of Russian exceptionalism to include an alternative social model as well.

Nevertheless, Putin is operating from a position of weakness.

Putin’s predatory politics at home and abroad, his cozying up to right-wing extremists in Europe, and his attempted engagement of a powerful China hardly add up to an effective Russian grand strategy.

Russia has no actual allies and has damaged its most important relationship, that with Germany.

Winning domestic plaudits at Western powers’ expense is politically useful, but those countries, as always, continue to possess the advanced technology Russia needs, especially in energy exploration and drilling

Putin’s Russia is not a conquering power on the march, but an empire in decline, trying to hold on to its former power.  In Central Asia, His government props up dictators left over from the Soviet era, including the odious Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan.

On its other borders, Russia supports secessionist movements, Nagorno-Korabakh in Azerbaijan, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and now Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine.

These little dependencies don’t give Russia control of its former colonial empire.  It does give it an excuse to intervene when its former colonies act against Russian national interest.

An analogy would be present-day France, which constantly intervenes in its former colonies in Africa, but without intending to reimpose direct colonial rule.

Kotkin doesn’t think it is feasible to force Russia out of the positions it now occupies.

Ukraine is a debilitated state, created under Soviet auspices, hampered by a difficult Soviet inheritance, and hollowed out by its own predatory elites during two decades of misrule.  But it is also a nation that is too big and independent for Russia to swallow up.

Russia, meanwhile, is a damaged yet still formidable great power whose rulers cannot be intimidated into allowing Ukraine to enter the Western orbit.  Hence the standoff.

No external power or aid package can solve Ukraine’s problems or compensate for its inherent vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia.

Nor would sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s brave but ragtag volunteer fighters and corrupt state structures improve the situation; in fact, it would send it spiraling further downward, by failing to balance Russian predominance while giving Moscow a pretext to escalate the conflict even more.

As Kotkin sees it, the only alternatives are a new cold war or negotiation.  A cold war, maybe lasting for decades, won’t benefit the Ukraine, the European Union or the USA or change the balance of power.  The best thing is to see if negotiation can accommodate Russia’s and Ukraine’s national interests.


How Vladimir Putin Rules by Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs.  A long article, but worth reading in its entirety.


[Afterthought 2/20/2015]  As I’ve written in previous posts, the Ukrainian crisis has many causes in addition to Vladimir Putin’s determination to protect Russian national interests. 

These include public discontent with the previous Ukrainian government, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism in Ukraine, manipulation of Ukrainian politics by neo-conservatives in the U.S. State Department, the International Monetary Fund’s austerity policies and rich speculators who want to buy up Ukrainian national assets at bargain prices.

Sadly the Ukrainian people will be losers because no compromise peace is likely to free them from IMF policies requiring higher taxes, fewer government services, higher prices, lower wages and sale of national assets.

What would be in the best interest of the Ukrainian people would be a policy of neutrality between Russia and NATO, good relations of Ukraine with all its neighbors, some sort of acceptable autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian minority and, above all, relief from the burden of its unpayable debt.  And an honest, competent government to make all this work.   This is hard to imagine at this point.

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