Image via WikipediaRussia has problems and it knows it. But, the end of the US centric world has given Russia the opportunity to reassert itself as a major player in the Eurasia theater, but just barely and perhaps only for a limited time. The policies of Peter the Great are back.
Russia looks to Europe and the West, but not as it did in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Yeltsin came Putin whose vision was to reassemble the broken state, create a highly centralized governance system and stamp out overt displays of democratic aspirations through the supremacy of the FSB (formerly KGB) in the political food chain. None of this is surprising in hindsight because Russia proper was historically indefensible and needed either buffer territory or client states to surround its core and strong central government.
Imperial Russia carved out an empire in Central Asia, the Caucuses and East Asia which was simply transferred over to the Soviet Union, albeit with considerable bloody fighting in these regions between 1918 and 1922 when it was re-conquered for a second time. The buffer proved invaluable for defeating Nazi Germany in a variety of ways, not the least of which was room to retreat, a place for industry out of reach of enemies and an unlimited source of cannon fodder.
Putin served the Soviet Union as part of the KGB and his inheritance was an imperial Russia with major losses in Central Asia, the Baltic States, the Caucuses and East Asia (Mongolia), a pathetically weak military, collapsed industrial capacity (most of it was located in the now independent Ukraine), unrest in the Northern Caucuses (Chechnya in particular), unconstrained oligarchs who had divided state assets under privatization and a depressed public. It was a mess.
Any sober Russian leader knows that Russia is surrounded by some pretty hefty neighbors with no natural barriers while the country outside the western Russian core consists of multiple ethnic groups with a dislike of Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the internal economy that sustained it (badly). It’s major asset is energy, but it has a poor infrastructure network in general and needs foreign assistance, particularly in technology. This is a daunting task for any Russian leader.Russia, historically and for good reason, does not trust its neighbors. But since Europe is so much more advanced in almost every sector Russians – or at least their leaders – realize that aggressiveness must be tempered with accommodation. In the A.Y. period (After Yeltsin), Vladimir Putin aggressively went about securing absolute power and restoring Russian prestige in the world as he saw it. Russians were ecstatic and felt that, at least as far as the “near abroad” (all the former Soviet colonies) was concerned, Russian pre-eminence was achieved. He was seen as pro-Western abroad and a strong leader at home. As Russia internally became authoritarian and the nascent democracy was crushed with the help of an energy dependent Europe and a distracted US (Bush saw into Putin’s soul, felt comradeship and invaded Iraq – another story), Putin led Russia in a great charm campaign with Europe and the US.
Frankly, this is not much different from any other country in the prosecution of foreign/domestic policies. It’s ok to be nice abroad when the perceived strength of the country is high. Weak countries tend to be more unpredictable and prone to accidents. Although Putin’s internal and international reputation suffered as he became more dictatorial, it didn’t matter internally because the majority felt that he had restored Russian greatness and stature. He also leveled Grozny.
Dmitri Medvedev, the current and soon to be ex-president, was welcomed as a friend of the West. Again, appearances were deceptive. Medvedev is charming, most of the time, and probably understands Europe and the US better than KGB trained Putin. But when push came to shove, Russia’s national interests logically came first and securing the borders for buffer zones against any outside threat was still a priority. Georgia, ignoring every signal not to poke the bear (who had already said – repeatedly - how much it disliked Georgia’s president) felt the consequences of that policy. Small surrounding countries made a note.
Leaders are rarely of a single personality and both Medvedev and Putin put the national interests of Russia first which results in accommodation or aggressiveness as the case may be. The distraction of the US, first in Afghanistan and then in the illegal war in Iraq gave Moscow a ten year scope of maneuver which it used to destroy democratic tendencies, kill off journalists opposed to the regime and consolidate power within the country followed quickly by changing the dynamics in the near abroad without a murmur of objection from the US or the West. The result was a profound disillusionment in the West with Putin, but no action because the only country that could counter Russia’s moves was tied up in the personal wars of Bush and the abandonment of countries like Ukraine by Europe.
When Medvedev became President and Putin reverted to Prime Minister, nothing changed. Indeed, without blinking and largely due to the thundering stupidity of the Saakashvili, president of Georgia, he quickly launched the war against Georgia the result of which was a foregone conclusion despite the poor and sometimes astoundingly incompetent performance of the army and air-force. It was the perfect war to help secure an important part of the Russian southern flank and blunt Turkish influence. The refusal of Azerbaijan to bend to Russian pressure, however, makes this victory somewhat less than it could be in the Caucuses as does the continuing unrest and unremitting anger in Georgia.
The overthrow of the Bakaiv government in Kyrgyzstan, which had gained control in a color revolution but which quickly degenerated into a kleptocracy, was supported by Moscow – and by the West for different reasons, but the geo-political results were favourable to Russia. As far as Russian historical security policy toward its neighbors is concerned, the outcomes were pretty good.
Finally, there is Ukraine. Russia can do without the Baltics, although it has threatened them frequently, especially when Medvedev said that Russia has the right to protect Russians wherever they happen to be. Ukraine, however, is a different matter. Russia was caught off guarded with the Orange Revolution and the visit by Putin just before the fraudulent election angered both Yanukovich and Yuschenko supporters as an unwarranted interference in Ukrainian politics. However, Russia without Ukraine is indefensible. NATO touches its borders in the Baltics and now has NATO members Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea. The expansion of NATO was beginning to look like an encirclement coupled with the Manas air base in Bishkek. A NATO aligned Ukraine would be a disaster.
In short, Russia cannot do without the food, infrastructure (pipelines to Europe), or the port of Sevastopol for the Black Sea fleet. Geographically without Ukraine Russia is looking into a black hole of poverty and marginalization. The defeat of the Orange Revolution with the election of Yanukovich ended the threat of Western penetration into the Russian heartland. This victory in Ukraine changed the attitude of every Russian neighbor. Conciliation and cooperation with Moscow is now the flavour of the day. The West must now learn to deal with a dictatorial puppet regime in Ukraine, which will only be removed by revolution, similar to the absurd notion in the Soviet period of allowing Ukraine a seperate seat in the UN.
Moscow knows it has a small window of opportunity to achieve its goal of internal control and secure borders. With the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, negotiated by Bush and being implemented by Obama, and the wind-down of Afghanistan, the room to maneuver for the Kremlin has narrowed. However, now that it is feeling strong and secure - and knowing that demographically it is losing ground it allows the government to move closer to the West to obtain the technology it desperately needs. Historically, Russia has always followed this pattern. This time, however, may be different because investors’ memories are longer.
Nevertheless, so far the Russian balancing act of building strength internally through the Potemkin village of managed democracy and threatening aggressiveness in the near abroad is working. Moscow has extended its control through strategic relationships in Europe, particularly with Berlin whose need for Russian energy is Moscow’s trump card. This secures the Western front, at least for the near future both politically and economically.
Finally, the customs and trade union conceived in Moscow, is not – as it alleges – to re-create the EU trade system, but to tie Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus close to the Kremlin. The economic union is only a step in the search by Russia for security through control.
Nevertheless, as the window closes, Russia still has resistance from Azerbaijan and Georgia and faces continuing unrest in the north Caucuses. The Baltics are not exactly friendly. Poland, despite its moves to normalize political relations with Moscow, mistrusts Russia and Germany and has helped to form the Visegrad Group with the Baltic states whose primary goal is to forge a military alternative to NATO. As previously mentioned, Russia's demographics is not enviable. Russia's balance between cooperation and confrontation will continue for some time and will always reflect national interests.
One last observation. On September 24 Putin announced he would be running for President to replace Medvedev. These are not, of course, elections. Nevertheless, two days afterwards, Medvedev’s public and nasty firing of the deputy prime minister and Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin revealed more of the internal politics of the Kremlin than would normally be the case.
Medvedev was not happy at being treated like a seat warmer for Putin. During the meeting he referred to decisions he had made and the fact that he was in charge. Unfortunately, with the musical chair now back to Putin, it is clear that his decisions and positions were irrelevant. Not only that. Russia does not seem to be going anywhere economically (aside from energy and without Western help) and certainly not democratically. The idea that Putin will be running the show until 2024 is not appetizing; but from the view of the Kremlin, it is the only choice.