To understand Vladimir Putin is to look at his background as a chekist and experiences made before and after the unification of Germany and with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire which according to Putin was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” whereby the often quoted humiliation of Russia by the US and Europe may be spurious.
But like before in our common European history, during periods of Russian domestic instability Europe has made significant territorial gains at its expense, in 1584 during the times of troubles; in 1918 as the result of the revolution and civil war; and in 1991 as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic and the South Caucasus and Central Asian states gained independence.
What the dissolution of the former Soviet Union made clear, a Russia in chaos is a nightmare. The Government was bankrupt, the protection of the nuclear arsenal was inadequate, which leads to the conclusion a weak Russia poses a far greater danger.
Nevertheless these experiences made during the 1990’s have caused bitterness and great resentment towards the west within the Russian national security establishment and increased Vladimir Putin’s popularity. As does the supposed underappreciation of Russia’s importance and exceptionalism, in the world often influenced by internal factors.
In order to comprehend Vladimir Putin is to look at Russia as a “theocratic nationalist autocracy” and at his favourited philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin who he chose as a guide, the only and most important fascist thinker, who since 2005 has known a remarkable revival in Russia.
Ilyin born in a noble family in 1883 became after the Bolshevik Revolution a contra revolutionary, advocating violent methods against the revolution. Exiled in 1922 he lived in Berlin until 1938 was impressed by Mussolini and Hitler and he started to regard fascism as of the politics of the years to come. In 1938 Ilyin moved to Switzerland where he died forgotten in 1954.
The fascism of the 1920’s and 1930’s as Timothy Snyder writes in his interesting book “The road to unfreedom” had three core features: it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy that creates the problems.
Ilyin expresses overblown visions of grandeur, while all of this is based on the devotion to the Orthodox faith and the influence of the Orthodox Church and the belief in Russian exceptionalism which as a autocracy is destined to have its own unique place in the world.
In fact like other fascists or authoritarians Ilyin saw Russia as a creature, “an organism of nature and the soul”, pure and innocent without original sins. He denied the existence of the Ukraine being able to exist beyond the Russian organism.
As Ilyin wrote “the time will come when Russia will rise with the help of Christian fascism from disintegration and humiliation and enter into a time of new development and greatness.” In this view Russia can do no wrong and is only reacting to the wrongs being done to the outside world. A world in which Russia saves the world not from fascism but wish fascism, a world in which facts do not matter and responsibility vanishes.
In 2005 Vladimir Putin organized a reburial in Moscow and Ilyin was fully rehabilitated and his fascist ideas are being used in speeches to explain the past and why Russia has to undermine the decadent west, the European Union and had to invade the Ukraine as being an element of Russia.
In this concept the European Union and Liberal order are seen by the present leadership, all men in their sixties who have all experienced the dramatic events surrounding the dissolution of the former Soviet Union as an existential threats to kleptocratic Russia, as the most lawless and unequal country in the world. The EU on the other hand enforces its laws, generates prosperity and distributes its wealth for members and people.
This desire to return to Russian geopolitical relevance in fascist form is the basis for Vladimir Putin’s article of 4 October 2011 in the newspaper Izvestiya entitled ‘A New Integration Project for Eurasia: A Future which is Being Born Today’. He announced that the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space being created by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan would be developed into a Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would join the three original members. He added: ‘We are not stopping at this point and place before ourselves the ambitious task: to go to the next, higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’ Since 2013 the principles of Eurasia have guided Russian foreign interests.
The end-product of Eurasia restoring Russian greatness requires the weakening and disintegration of the European Union in order to integrate Europe into the Eurasian Union, a Union without adherence to the rule of law or influence of the United States in Europe.
Vladimir Putin’s achievements during the first and second term he has been in power must be recognized. After Boris Yeltsin rule stability was achieved in Russia and most Russians were able to live normally. Vladimir Putin must be applauded for establishing a functioning and political system in Russia and prevented further territorial disintegration of Russia and collapse of the Russian state.
Sound macroeconomic policy was introduced by Alexei Kudrin as Finance minister who introduced a package of anti-inflator and liberalizing measurers whereby the inflation stayed in control and from 1999 to 2008 the economy grew with 7 % annually.
This has been achieved at the cost of political freedom and civil liberties, which were tolerated, but after the manifestations of popular discontent in 2011-2013 after the flawed election of 2011 which allowed Vladimir Putin to return after two preceding terms and serve a third and fourth 6 year term as President, despite the stagnation in the country. Like with any autocrat the traits of his character are magnified, everything personal become political and is transformed into power.
Russian insecurity, disappointment and distrust of the free liberal order are part of the created environment in which Putin regards the White Revolution in Russia to be encouraged by Western Intelligence services, which has resulted that the policy of tolerance has been abandoned and dissent has been silenced in civil society in order to consolidate his power further.
The U.S. intervention in Libya and the open support of Secretary of State Hillary for the White Revolution in Russia from 2011 to 2012 contributed substantially to this climate.
Putin uses a combination of authoritarianism, nationalism and corruption as an alternative to liberalism which has proven to be appealing and which enjoys elite and popular support.
So does former Ambassador Jack Matlock who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991 and has argued in his article of March 14th, 2014 in the New York Times “The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War.”
“Russia is acting in response to years of perceived hostility from the U.S., from the eastward expansion of NATO to the bombing of Serbia to the expansion of American military bases in eastern Europe.”
As someone who is old enough to remember the Cuba crisis, which brought the world on the brink of WWIII in what was considered the U.S. sphere of interests, to think Russia would not response within its means when the bear is provoked in what it considers its sphere of interests should check their premises.
Looking from the other side of the equation, I have understanding for these Russian sentiments in which NATO is seen as a hostile military alliance at its borders, with economic pressure is being applied through trade embargoes and the promotion of human rights and democracy by non-governmental organization is used to facilitate regime change.
But Russia has through its history always has had an adversarial relationship with Europe and this once again has led to the activation of a fictional problem, like with Leonid Brezhnev, the decadent west returned as a useful distraction for the flawed elections of 2012 and his inability or unwillingness to reform the country and as the convenient permanent enemy confirming the historic tendency of Russia to blame the outside for its own failures.
In 2015 Boris Nemtsov was assassinated and a new law was enacted restricting public assembly and the Government has further shut down reform minded outlets and is expanding its control of the Internet, monitoring, blacklisting and using trolls to post anti-American views.
These tactics seen as to protect the national interest have proved effective as the Ukraine conflict, the Crimea annexation and Syria showed which served the Government and Putin’s popularity well.
The provocative invasion in Ukraine, the Crimea annexation and the intervention in Syria showed a rational and calculating approach rooted in the culture by exploiting the weaknesses of the Obama administration, when it became clear NATO would not intervene in the Ukraine to defend it or seek to defend its red lines in Syria. It’s worth noting that through its history Russian has not been adverse to expand its territories in Europe when the opportunity presented itself.
For the invasion of Ukraine the same justification was invoked as previously during the 1930’s, which was based on the principle that the state might intervene to protect anyone that it defines as a member of its own culture. This is the same argument that Hitler used in annexing Austria, partitioning Czechoslovakia, and invading Poland in 1938.
Putin presents himself as defending and securing what Russians care about, the Russian identity, autocratic values and their faith, showing himself as a strong leader surrounded by a small inner circle.
During Putin’s third term Vladimir Putin strengthened his control over state and society by repressing opponents and controlling his own political base, thereby creating an image of Russia as a global power using the same instruments used in the Soviet era.
It should not be expected that Vladimir Putin iron grip on power supported by Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church calling him a “miracle of God for Russia” will end with his fourth term.
Also Putin himself has said, describing both Nicholas II and Mikael Gorbachev as weaklings, who in his view threw power to the floor “I would never abdicate.”
The suggestion can be made “much like the shark that can only by eating his gills only by eating more.” This is the dilemma of Russian power then and now as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in “The Romanovs” describing Prince Alexander Menshikov (1673-1729) “who was appointed generalissimus by Catherine I, a title held by a select few – culminating in Stalin.
Menshikov could survive only by consuming more to safeguard what he already had. If stopped he would be destroyed and retirement of the leader is impossible without insurances that he will not be prosecuted nor his fortune confiscated.
As history shows Menshikov rapacity aroused general hatred and in 1729 he was deprived of his enormous wealth, stripped of the titles, and he and his whole family were banished to Beryozovo in Siberia where he died the same year.”
As President Putin failures must be seen his inability to step over his own shadow in order to modernize Russia since the country is in structural decline both economical as in human capital and with the absence of a successor. However it is likely a successor will come from the inner circle, someone who will resemble Putin’s autocratic leadership style and his defence of Russian interests.
Today the country is doing worse than any time since 1990 due do the domination of the state and ruling class on the economy, corruption, sanctions which latter have effectively increased Russia’s dependency on China as a junior partner as long as this serves China’s interests and the devastating corona pandemic.
After recovering from sharp contraction following 2009 financial crises, Russian economy was under pressure. GDP Growth Rate in Russia averaged 0.74 percent from 1995 until 2017, reaching an all-time high of 4.10 percent in the first quarter of 1999 and a record low of -5.40 percent in the third quarter of 1998.
Since years of negative growth the country returned in 2017 to minimal non-structural growth whereby over the years the dependency of income out oil products has only grown, contributing 20-25 percent of GDP, 65 percent of total exports and 30 percent of government budget revenues.
There is a level of dysfunction that is pushing the country to the wrong direction, due to stagnation of the economy, military adventures,the corona pandemic and its self-chosen isolation which is often the case with autocracies. Instead of reducing the dependence on the oil and gas sector together with the diversification of the economy and the necessary infrastructure as suggested by Kudrin.
Russia has during Putin’s term in office being unable to create a stable state, with succession principles in place and the rule of law, but has continue and stagnant economic policies, showing his inability for reform but was able to control the state.
As a result of operational setbacks in the war in Georgia the modernization of the armed forces have prioritized and defence spending has increased 20-fold during his time in office.
In this regard Russia will continue to develop its civic nationalism and as President Putin sees this today, Russia is attempting to halt what has been a creeping western (US + EU) invasion of Russia since 1991 and today Russia is at war with the free Liberal order, an order which the Kremlin considers an existential threat to its rule and must therefore defeat it.
This narrative about western hostility towards Russia has a long history whereby the Patriotic War of 1812, the Crimean War of 1853 and WWII also play a role, as seen as underappreciation of and denying Russian greatness, by not recognizing Russia as a great power.
Interestingly before 2013 the basic Russian position was the European Union was not seen as a threat, neither was NATO or membership of the former East-Bloc countries.
But with former East Bloc countries in transformation and improving economies on its peripheral, their success had the seeds of become a risk to its present form of government. In 2013 Russia turned against the liberal order and European Union, to create a fictitious problem, to distract and blaming the EU for its own failures, condemning it as decadent and hostile similar to the Brezhnev period.
Its guiding principle is the “Primakov Doctrine” which has the following guiding principles:
–Russia should strive toward a multipolar world managed by a concert of major powers that can counterbalance U.S. unilateral power.
·Russia should insist on its primacy in the post-Soviet space and lead integration in that region.
·Russia should oppose NATO expansion and, more broadly, persistent efforts to weaken transatlantic institutions and the U.S.-led international order are another. Partnership with China is the third fundamental component. All three remain major pillars of Russian foreign policy today.
Following years of first cultivating extreme right circles, policies towards the free Liberal order have now become more aggressive by means of open military confrontation and hybrid warfare based on the “Gerasimov doctrine,” a blend of propaganda, hacking attacks and disinformation.
This leads to the conclusion a nationalistic and expansionist Russia which in fact seeks the reversal of the 1989 historic events has difficulty coexisting alongside a Democratic Europe in which political freedom, civil liberties and free media are guaranteed.
In this regard Russia has become a growing threat to Europe as the killing of Litvinenko and the failed assassinations of Skripal, Gebrev and lately, Navalny and the destabilization attempts in Moldova, Montenegro and elsewhere show.
Alexei Navalny is the last victim in a long in a line of victims, from diplomats, bankers, defectors, doctors to crime and corruption fighters, which have shown themselves to be an inconvenient to the regime, a regime which is showing more weakness than strength But these practices also testify to the high level of sophistication in poisoning opponents, which are seen to damage the interests of the state.
These developments linked to the poisoning, arrest, and sentencing of Alexei Navalny as well as the related mass arrests of thousands of demonstrators shows more weakness than strengths and confirms the lawless character of the regime.
This also raises questions for the European Union about the increasing fraught state of EU-Russia relations given the Russia’s obligations in the field of human rights which stem from international commitments it has freely assumed under the European Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe
History also shows how Russia likes to play being victimized by the West, especial accusing the European elite using self-serving revisionism, thereby conveniently ignoring Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler under which Poland was invaded and the 40 year long occupation of the former Warsaw pact countries. Today it’s illegal in Russia to mention Stalin began the war as Hitler’s ally.
Since the Berlin Wall came down there have been suggestions that promises and understandings made by NATO have not been kept, while there has been the fast and furious eastward expansion of NATO and economic expansion of the EU at the same time.
This expansion of the European project has its limits, with a Liberal order and EU not in need of expansion, but more in need of consolidation in order to protect the achievements made during the last fifty years whereby the future of the free Liberal order is more conservatism.
A case can be made that the post-Cold war settlement was perhaps unbalanced and the EU eastwards expansion was strategically unwise and has violated assurances given by Hans-Dietrich Genscher to Eduard Shevardnadze during the negotiations over German unification.
Also according to transcripts of meetings in Moscow on Feb. 9, 1990 then-Secretary of State James Baker suggested that in exchange for cooperation on Germany unification, U.S. could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” No formal deal was made but the Russians accepted the assurances which were not in writing and reunification talks began.
At the time the consequences of the rapid development were not overseen, but there was no real alternative at the time, also due to the fact the US and EU have since 1991 no coherent strategy in place and these opportunities to include Russia in the framework of nations during this cycle of history was wasted.
Our common European history is messy and has known many wars and conflicts with ever changing alliances, and the perceived arrogance from Europe and the US since the German unification are the “bitter fruits of history” and might have caused Russia to feel alienated and to its own detriment did not join Europe in its partnership with the US.
This partnership while joining our European house would have benefited Russia greatly, instead of this self-inflicted wound Russia has chosen isolation and further decline. But the reality is also, there was never a real chance that a undemocratic and powerful Russia was going to join Europe and NATO, given its desire to dominate organisations it joins, just as China will oppose US military dominance in Asia.
As Dimitri Trenin suggests in his book “Russia – should we fear Russia,” there are chances to improve the European-Russian relationship, but with the US there always will be confrontation, which may subside over time. This scenario would lead to a Europe without NATO and the US which is not a very feasible scenario.
In this regards there has been “anxiety” in the US about the security concerns for the Russian bogeyman from Truman to Reagan, but there is also a fair amount of hypocrisy and the fears have been a useful instrument in justifying the annual increase in defence spending since WWII.
To place this in perspective the United States leads in military spending in 2018 with 649 billion US dollars with Russia spending 61,4 billion US dollars, which amounts to respectively 3,2 % and 3,9% of GDP.
The Russian defence budget remains the third largest in the world, dwarfing the military expenditures of most European states combined. In reality Russia’s effective military expenditure Is more in the range of $150-180 billion per year, with a much higher percentage dedicated to procurement, research and development than Western defence budgets., with the substantial annual rise in arms procurement.
From the perspective of the average Russian citizen and given its history, today the eastward expansion looks different with NATO troops deployed in Kaliningrad and all three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, within two hours from Moscow and St Petersburg, almost similar to the perspective of American citizen when having missiles pointed to the U.S. from Cuba.
These decisions made in the past are since the early 2010 viewed as having ignored Russian sensitivities and security interests and are used as arguments the west is backing Russia in the corner, evidenced by the fact that nine of the former Warsaw pact nations and three former Soviet republics have been incorporated into NATO.
It must be recognized that the “Fast and Furious Eastwards expansion” of the EU under the encouragement of the US has slowed down and negatively influenced the integration of the traditional member states of the European Union and its institutions and has delayed the “Political Union.” The EU would have been better served with a two-speed European Union, instead of including the Eastern European countries as” full “members in the EU.
A two-speed Europe, whereby the “traditional” EU would have concentrated on faster integration of the EU and its institutions and establishing in earnest the “security and defence union” which already was agreed in 1956 but never ratified given France it objections would have been more sensible.
Differences in culture and commitments to the democratic and legal values of different member states in New Europe have led to illiberal democracies where the free media is attacked, while the independence of the judiciary and other sources of check and balances and human rights are severely weakened.
The difference in culture and values between “Traditional” and “New” European countries, the “interest of the individual” versus the “interest of the state” will take years to bridge.
By moving eastwards, threatening the black sea and in fact meddling in the domestic affairs of others, in the sphere of influence of Russia the case can be made the west has perhaps overreached and given Russia legitimate security concerns, which have stoked the forces of revenge and revanchism and has also caused the revival and modernization of the Russian military since its war in Georgia in 2008 which reasserted Russian hegemony over the Caucasus.
But also internal difficulties have been reason for these reactions with anti-Muslim sentiments growing in Russia. Russia’s overall population is dropping (142 million-2010) the number of Muslims (16,7million) being 11,7 % is on the rise. The population of indigenous Muslims, mainly from the Caucasus has increased since the fall of the Soviet Union from 13,6 to 16,7 million in 2010.
In all of this Vladimir Putin unlike Mikhail Gorbachev who recognized the changing winds of time and stepped over his own shadow with policies of glasnost and perestroika, Vladimir Putin has been unable to ignore Russian insecurity and his Soviet past.
Vladimir Putin is riding the tiger of Nationalism, this ideological poison which is narrow- minded and immoral requiring a blind loyalty to country over justice and humanity and which drove some of the greatest crimes in history. The ethnic nationalism which we see today sticking up its ugly head has led in the past to ethnic cleansing and caused the break-up of multi-ethnic empires, including Habsburg, Ottoman and Russia.
Today Vladimir Putin has chosen for continued authoritarianism, nationalism and corruption and has made the choice for Collectivism over Individualism, Lies over Truth, Oligarchy over Equality and Confrontation over Cooperation.
But for Vladimir Putin with his project for Eurasia, a Russia what becomes more like Europe, with respect for territorial integrity, the rule of law, less inequality makes no sense, but a Europe which becomes more like Russia does.
This despite that the west was the natural partner for post-soviet Russia and is a historic part of our European house, thereby ignoring a one-man authoritarian rule is the weakest form of Government.
Any sign of perceived weakness by the populist autocrat or the loss of legitimacy of the regime will be seized upon. Even in the soviet politburo this caused leaders to be replaced and finding consensus between its members was a requirement.
There are a number of serious weaknesses,
- the Presidency for life and the absence of a successor, without a mechanism of transfer of the power to secure continuity of his policy.
- The level of dysfunction that is pushing the country to the wrong direction, due to stagnation of the economy, military adventures, the corona pandemic, sanctions and its self-chosen isolation which is often the case with autocracies.
- The dependence on the oil and gas sector has a high risk factor, with the low and unstable oil price having affected the financial reserves which are now at a far less than the total external debt of Russia.
- The high level of sophistication of poison which has been used and has cost the lives of many is also a personal security threat to Putin, in fact there is a two edge sword which is laying in front of Vladimir Putin.
Despite these weaknesses Vladimir Putin has chosen to his own and Russia’s detriment to be on the peripheral, a position opposed to the developed world and not to be part of the global equilibrium.
William J J Houtzager
February 20th 2021