Monday, February 15, 2010


"Putin became acting President on the last day of 1999 and was elected in March. When he came to power, judging from the essay he wrote, he set himself four tasks: 1) to reverse the economic decline; 2) to reverse the disintegration of Russia; 3) to increase Russia’s influence in the world; and 4) to introduce a rule of law or, as I prefer to put it, a rule of rules. Then, economic indicators were trending down; Russia seemed to be literally breaking up (this fear often featured in his early speeches); most world capitals slighted it as a negligible and declining power; and the “rule” in Russia was that of corruption and incompetence. No one can deny that he has made great progress in these aims. The economy has turned around: here he had luck with high energy prices, but his policy did not squander the money. He has certainly restored central control – too much in my opinion – but no one now talks about the coming disintegration of Russia. Russia is taken much more seriously today although here the result is mixed. To those who will ever regard a weak Russia as a danger and a strong Russia as a threat, Putin’s effects have been wholly negative; but these people will never be pleased. Russia must now be taken more seriously (even though I think that Putin and his team sometimes overestimate its power and influence). But there has been little progress on the fourth aim. Nevertheless, few have been as successful at accomplishing their purpose as Putin and his team have. The team is still in place and is moving on the second half of the program.

Putin stopped the decline and it is Medvedev’s task, as he ceaselessly says, to “modernise” Russia. The economy may be improving, but it needs a new “modern” basis; the over centralisation of the Putin period should be relaxed; Russia has to improve its standing in the world so as to be seen as more of a problem-solver and less as a problem-causer (which, of course, requires a certain change of attitude in the rest of the world as well as a change in Russia’s behaviour); and finally the “rule of law” must replace “legal nihilism”. Medvedev will not see the resolution of these problems, but he will move them along. I am reminded of a remark made by Dr Leonid Abalkin about 15 years ago: reform will be in three stages, the first stage will take one year, the second five years and the third thirty years. The Putin team is popular in Russia today for a very good reason: it has delivered what governments are hired to do. Altogether, it has been quite a turnaround in the last ten years: no one would write “Russia is Finished” today; now conventional wisdom has moved to the “Russia resurgent” meme (but, note, Russia remains a problem!). The plain fact is that Russia is doing better than any of the final 12 members of the USSR and the ruling team has broad, real and persistent support firmly based on things that Russians can see happening around them. This, incidentally, is the principal reason why Russian elections are so unsurprising: Russians vote for more of the same and that means voting for the team’s pedestal party".

Patrick Armstrong, "Russian Federation Weekly Situation Report," 14 January 2010, in

"In a number of instances, these alarmist views of likely Russian policy are based, at least by inference, on assumptions of a historical nature. 'The Russians,' of is given to understand, have always been an aggressive and imperialistically inclined people; hence, it would be naive to assume them to be any different today. But this thesis, when applied to the problems of this age, rests on two basic faults. First, it lumps all the major Russian regimes past and present --- the monarchical regime of the several centuries preceding 1917 the Communist (largely Stalinist) regime of recent memory, and, the government of the present Russia --- under a common heading....Leaving aside these eighteenth and nineteenth-century incursions of Russia into Eastern and Central Europe, which were really parts of what Gibbon referred to as 'the contagion of the times,'and also leaving aside the wholly abnormal situations of what we might call the terrible Hitlerian-Stalinist period, the worst that can be said about earlier Russian foreign policies is that they reflected an undue sensitivity to the proximity or threatened proximity to the Russian borders of any other strong power and a tendency either to push these borders farther from the Russian heartland or to create protective zones just beyond them. But this oversensitivity, deplorable as it may have been, was the reflection of the nondemocratic character of the Russian regimes in question and their fear that rival power, unless held at a distance, might inflame the otherwise passive Russian masses."

George Frost Kennan, "The New Russia as a Neighbor," in At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995 , (1996), pp. 322-323.

"I am convinced that if Emperor Alexander [III] had had a reign of twenty-six rather than thirteen year, his would have been one of the greatest reigns in the history of the Russian Empire. During the last years of his reign, after he had acquired experience, he realized that the unrest that had existed at the end of his father's reign had resulted from his father's wavering and not from Russia's desire for revolution. He realized that Russia wanted a quiet existence. As a result, his attitudes towards many questions were quite different at the end of his reign from those he had held at the beginning. One can put it in popular terms: he had become distinctly liberal. Had Emperor Alexander III lived on there would have been no war with Japan. We would have enjoyed peace that would have permitted us to move along the road of gradual liberalization, toward a life in which the state exists for the good of the people".

S. I. Witte, The Memoirs of Graf Witte, translated by Sydney Harcave
(this edition 1990, first written in 1909-1913), p. 175.

"In Russia, the ruling power, unlimited as it is, has an extreme fear of censure or of mere frankness...In the history of Russia, no one except the Emperor has fulfilled his role; the nobility, the clergy, all the classes of society have been found wanting. An oppressed people has always merited it suffering; tyranny is the work of nations. Either the civilized world will, before fifty year have passed, fall again under the yoke of the barbarians or Russia will undergo a revolution more terrible than the revolution whose effects are still felt in Western Europe."

Le Marquis de Custine, La Russe en 1839, (1843).

This year marks the tenths anniversary of the assumption of power of the current Russian premier, Vladimir Putin. What can one make of the state of Matushka Russia in the ten years that Grazhdanin Putin has ruled over it, as either President or Premier? Well, as the American commentator Mr. Armstrong points out, if nothing else, 'Putinism' has meant that the fears (or for some people 'hopes'?) that Russia would fall apart are no longer on the geopolitical calendar. All to the good, from my perspective of course. But, leaving personal biases aside, what else can we take away, looking back over the past ten years that Putin has ruled Russia? How successful has been Putin's achievements in the spheres of foreign policy? In terms of the first of these three categories, the picture is very much mixed, at best. Since, while Russia is widely acknowledged to be 'back' as a force in International Politics, virtually no one, sees her occupying the type of position that Putin, et. al., would like to see her occupy, id. est., as a worthy successor state to Sovietskaya Vlast. The best evidence of this being the fact that when the chips were down circa August 2008, only two countries (Belarus and Nicaragua?) followed Russia's lead in recognizing the independence of its two Kavkaz satraps, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even its allies in the Shanghai Co-operation Council, failed to follow Moskva's lead. And, this example is not merely a one-off. Indeed, it would be true to say that in terms of its 'soft-power', Russia has not had so little of this sometimes precious commodity since say the aftermath of the Russian intervention in Hungary in 1849. Aside from the publics in the Central Asian states (as opposed to the elites), it would be true to say that Putin's Russia has almost no international currency outside of its borders (on the residual popularity of Matushka Russia in Central Asia, see: David Kerr, "Central Asia / Russian perspectives on China's emergence," in International Affairs, (January 2010), pp. 136-137).

The cynical or more 'realistic' among some may scoff at the saliency of 'soft-power', and comment `a la Iosif Vissarionovich, "how many divisions do the holders of 'soft-power' have"? Insofar as the leading holder of 'soft-power' in the world since the implosion of Sovietskaya Vlast is the USA, then one is tempted to retort: quite a lot. However the real issue is that unlike say either Stalin's or even Brezhnev Sovietskaya Vlast, Putin's Russia does not possess an erste-klasse military machine, capable of challenging the USA. Indeed, while the Russian military performed well enough in the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, no commentators would argue that the contemporary Russian army is within sight of being able to even imagine that it can challenge the USA. Indeed, it appears that while Russia still maintains a good overall position in the worldwide export market for armaments, this appears to be for the most part, in older, mostly Soviet-era equipment. A reflection of which is the recent order for up to four French ultra-modern warships by Moskva. Russia apparently not possessing in its fleet the caliber of the french proto-type (see: "France defends plans to sell warships to Russia," 9 February 2010 in Along similar lines, it appears that it is China, rather than Russia, which most worry for example the American military as a future challenger of the current American hegemonic position in the world. Russia is completely not thought of in these terms at all.

And, yet, the Putin-Medvedev regime, makes a point, and has made a consistent point, for reasons which appear to of the 'hurra-patriotismus' & Kvass-patriotism variety, rather than for any real strategic reasoning, to publicly challenge the American-centered international system. The most notorious occasion being Putin's speech to the Munich Security Forum in 2007. Objectively speaking, one may debate the relative merits and the truth or lack thereof in Grazhdanin Putin's comments on that occasion (see: The fact of the matter, is that such speeches and the tone which they are conveyed, does nothing, rien, zero, nihil, for Russian interests abroad and Russian foreign policy. The comparison to say Chinese behavior vis-`a-vis the Americans, until recently is quite striking. Under the rubric of China's 'peaceful rise', the leadership of the PRC, has muted as much as possible, any antagonism that it might have towards the American-centric International system. Even though, like Moskva, Peking feels some of the same internal pressures (whether real or imagined is a different issue altogether), to bang the patriotic drum on occasion. But, whereas the Putin-Medvedev regime bangs the drum on any occasion whatsoever, the PRC, has much more wisely decided (for the most part until recently) to refrain from openly antagonizing the USA. And, what is the upshot of these differing policies? That among the majority, not a huge majority, but, a majority none the less, of bien pensant commentators Moskva is widely (if wrongly) regarded as a sort of international menace of sorts. The recent words of the Financial Times', Philip Stephens, is rather indicative:

"The other day I heard Sergei Lavrov expounding on the merits of Moscow's plans for a new European security architecture. Sad to say, the Russian Foreign Minister was unconvincing. To listen to Mr. Lavrov preaching the politics of mutual trust and shared security is to imagine Mr. Cheney delivering a sermon on the inescapable virtues of multilaterialism,"

Philip Stephens, "Russia stirs a Cold War spat about European Security," 12 February 2010, in

And, by definition, Stephens and his like, are rather down on the list of Russophobic commentators these days. Which serves as an indication that while perhaps emotionally satifying for segments of the Russian public at home (although one wonders exactly which segment of the Russian public is so pleased and or enamoured by Putin's discourses on the evil nature of American hegemony of the international system?), as a diplomatic weapon, Putin's tactics are backfiring almost as soon as he loads and aims his pistol. The upshot is that on a good number of issues, where Moskva is not by any means 'in the wrong' (the quarrels between Kiev & Moskva over the pricing of natural gas in 2006 & 2007 being a prime example), it is almost automatically assumed by its near and far western neighbors that it is in fact so. The upshot of Russia's relative isolation from its natural, European partners and neighbors (remember Russia's isolation is 'relative' and not absolute), is an unnatural and increasingly dangerous dependence and reliance on a all but revanchist PRC. AS the British academic and commentator David Kerr has recently remarked:

"Russia is not yet in a prisoners dilemma here: it has demonstrated sufficient coherence and will to maintain itself as an independent strategic actor between East and West. The problem is the location of Russia in relation to the West as a system of values and aspirations for the future....It has its own strategic space, but it does not have an explanation of what it is trying to achieve here, other than through its European inheritance. Russians insist on a polycentric, not unicentric, idea of that inheritance; but, they are even more adamant that they are not in any sense Asian, except geographically. As China looms larger on its Asian frontiers, Russia may not only experience pressure on its sphere of autonomy, but may feel increasingly exposed trying to deal with China in a space that requires it to be detached from the West. In essence, China's rise will change the frontiers between East and West, and may force Russia to conclude that its belief that it could stand apart from the West was something of an illusion."

Catherine the Great once said: 'Russia is a European State'. Presently, one is tempted to add a caveat to the effect: 'let us hope that it lasts'. Currently, Russia is perhaps in the most isolated position in Europe that it has been since the late 17th century, if we abstract out the interregnums of the early Soviet period (1917-1922) and the tail end of the reign of Emperor Pavel Petrovich (1800-1801). With most if not all of its near, western neighbors acutely hostile to her. I am not arguing that this is a situation which Russia is necessarily to blame for in its entirety. What I am arguing is that the Putin regime, has not done very much to counter the negative tendencies which have emerged, diplomatically speaking in the past fifteen years or so. Similarly, I am not going to dismiss the fact that Russia does indeed, have cards, diplomatic cards to play. She still has relatively plausible relations with Germany in particular, but also to a lesser extent with Italia and France. Even the USA, is not entirely hostile to Russia under the successor administration to the egregious Bush regime. Nor am I going to counter the fact, that in the Bush years, especially the early Bush years, Putin did endeavor to align himself with American policy circa 2001-2002. And, was to a degree rebuffed for his pains. That being said, it still defies belief (or at the very least my belief) and understanding why Putin, et. al., chose to align Moskva so closely to the PRC. Especially when one does not need to be a historical determinist to see, the it is only, repeat only Peking which has any real revanchist designs on Russian territory. Not Poland, not Germany, not Georgia, not Ukraine, not Japan, not even the USA. But, one would scarcely guess this fundamental fact in Russia's geostrategic position, from the policy that the Putin regime has been following in say the last half-dozen years. Aside from an ingrained residue of 'Sovietism', what explains this bizarre failure to look facts in the face? Well, it appears on the surface at any rate primat der innenpolitik? Id est., the fear, one may indeed speak of an deep and ingrained fear, among the Putinesque elite who govern Russia, whether from its FSB-aligned, 'security' clan lead by Deputy Prime Minister Sechin, or it more 'liberal and international' clan lead by Finance Minister Kudrin, that any deep seated real, Western alignment, would have a potential, internal impact on Russian domestic politics. With the possibility that the neo-authoritarian structure that has been built up over the past ten years, being challenged by say a 'Democratic' Ukraine. Real or imagined. At this point, it would be more accurate to say 'imagined', especially since the so-called 'Russian' candidate has just won the Ukrainian Presidential poll. But, the point holds up none the less. And, what does the future hold? Without making any predictions, or endeavoring to pretend to read a crystal ball, my surmise is that either the Putin-Medvedev regime (and in terms of this duo, it is much more likely to be Medvedev rather than Putin) gradually liberalizes itself, and, at the same time, aligns itself in a pro-Western direction, or else the regime will gradually decompose and become more and more merely a shell of a once grossmacht. One which is ever so gradually infiltrated from the east by Peking. An evolution which I for one, think would be a horrible tragedy.



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