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15 january, 2007 | By Vlad Sobell

Moscow Increasingly Intransigent! (67271)

The final months of Putin’s regime have been marked by what his critics consider as “increasing intransigence”, or assertiveness, on the international scene.

 This paper argues that this is not intransigence, but a refusal to surrender Russias sovereignty in the face of relentless Western pressure. The regime is so stubborn as to risk a new cold war.

 Unfortunately, the new war is very real and is here to stay. It is a natural, though rarely anticipated, sequel of its 20th centurys predecessor. However, while the latter was fuelled by the Wests stand against Soviet expansionism, the current conflict can be characterised as the war of post-Soviet succession.

 

The West continues to misunderstand the new reality in Russia – largely an unfortunate consequence of poor analytical output.

 

Although Russia has achieved independence, it remains vulnerable to persistent anti-regime propaganda. This already seems to have exacted tangible costs.

 

Russias relations with the West continue to deteriorate

 

Russias relations with the West, especially with the US and UK, continue to nosedive. Following President Putins belligerent speech in Munich in February,[1] Moscow has hardened its stance, plainly refusing any longer politely to turn the other cheek to unrelenting Western hostility. The highlights include Russias threat to target the sites of proposed US anti-missile systems in Central Europe, Putins very public likening of the United States to expansionist Nazi Germany and his off-hand dismissal as stupidity a British request for the extradition of the prime suspect in the Litvinenko case. Moscow has hardened its stance, plainly refusing any longer politely to turn the other cheek to unrelenting Western hostility. The highlights include Russias threat to target the sites of proposed US anti-missile systems in Central Europe, Putins very public likening of the United States to expansionist Nazi Germany and his off-hand dismissal as stupidity a British request for the extradition of the prime suspect in the Litvinenko case.

 

This was, however, followed by Moscows surprise proposal at the G8 summit in Germany in early June offering the US to use a Russian radar facility in Azerbaijan, ostensibly taking up Washingtons offer to co-operate in anti-missile defence. With a startled President Bush describing the idea as interesting, but passing it quickly over to expert discussion, there can be little doubt that the proposal will be turned down. Or rather, the Pentagon will want to have its cake and eat it, as the early response by US analysts and officials suggests that Washington will now aim to have anti-missile facilities in both Azerbaijan and Central Europe.

 

While all manner of arcane technical and strategy reasons will be paraded to bored Western electorates to ensure that Putins gambit explodes in the Russian rather than American faces, the stark reality is that a truly meaningful Russian-US cooperation in missile defence is impossible. The reason is simple both countries consider each other as potential enemies rather than allies. Unfortunately, this fundamental fact of life will not alter, even if the atmospherics improve.

 

Anyone doubting this conclusion should take a look at the output by the American and, to a lesser degree European, think tanks, political speeches and the pronouncements by leading pundits. This shows that Russia continues to be seen as the fulcrum of global evil, with Putins regime working to strengthen its supposedly autocratic rule. If anything, following Moscows hardening stance, the regime has graduated from being increasingly authoritarian at home to becoming increasingly assertive or intransigent on the international stage. [2] 

 

New terms to describe the Kremlins behaviour, such as revisionism and revanchism (presumably, meant to implicate it in attempts to revise the results of the Cold War) have been added. And, apart from bloodying the protesting dissidents and unleashing nuclear terrorism on the unfortunate Litvinenko, Moscow has allegedly invented a novel form of warfare cyber-attacks designed to cripple the internet-dependent Estonia.[3] Bizarrely, NATO defence ministers are already planning co-ordinated defence and it must be only a matter of time before Europe will see the birth of a Cyberspace NATO.   Bizarrely, NATO defence ministers are already planning co-ordinated defence and it must be only a matter of time before Europe will see the birth of a Cyberspace NATO.  

 

In short, the idea that the Pentagon would share any significant defence information and technology with such an abomination strikes us as unrealistic. 

 

Cold war in reverse

 

It is fashionable to describe these events as salvos in a new Cold War and, indeed, the bitterness on both sides has reached levels not seen since the Brezhnev era. While this characterisation is to some extent appropriate, as (hopefully) the conflict will not escalate to a shooting war, there have also been important differences. The real Cold War was fuelled by a Western stand against Soviet totalitarianism and the need to roll it back. The current war, on the other hand, is a sequel to the original war, with the West in hot pursuit of the defeated enemy and insisting on Russias conquest.

 

There are several reasons why the West but chiefly the United States is prosecuting this campaign. First, it needs to properly integrate the former Soviet space, including Russia, into the global economy; specifically, the benefits include the exploitation of the regions immense hydrocarbon resources. Some may object that this, after all, is also the Kremlins objective. Of course it is, but the US/West is not comfortable with it being implemented on Russias terms or with Russian interference.

 

Secondly, the West needs to strengthen its position in the region ahead of the coming rivalry with emerging China. Taking the long view, this surely is where the future global confrontation will play out and the West cannot afford to be caught out napping.

 

And, finally, we might add certain ideological reasons. Russia cannot be permitted to run its independent sovereign democracy, as such a thing implicitly undermines the notion of universal democratic values, supposedly able to thrive only under direct Western supervision.

 

Objectively speaking, there is nothing surprising about these Western objectives. Triumphant empires throughout history brooked no opposition to their domination and there no reason why the West, democracy or not, should be expected to do otherwise. Given Americas military might and its claims to global leadership, it would be unrealistic to expect it to put up with an implicitly illegitimate increasingly intransigent Moscow regime.

 

In the same vein, we can be certain that Russia will intensify its resistance by becoming even more intransigent. If history is anything to go by, the Russian population will rally behind their leaders, no matter what they think about them. The new cold war or more accurately, the war of post-Soviet succession will, therefore, rumble on.

 

The West lives in denial

 

Viewing this unfolding panorama, one is struck by the desperately poor quality of Western analytical output. The consensus view generated in this way amounts to a simplistic denial of a very complex and colourful reality. Could this be one of the factors fuelling the conflict?

 

Thus, the Putin regimes resounding economic and political success tends either to be ignored or its policies, however credible, dismissed as misconceived. Alternatively, Russias spectacular economic performance, and its turnaround since 1999, is depicted as materialising in spite of the regimes supposed mismanagement.

 

The standard narrative goes as follows. Under Putin, the Russian state has been captured by a clique of former KGB operatives bent on destroying democracy. (It is assumed that anyone working for the KGB cannot by definition be a liberal, despite the regimes evident embrace of liberal economics). They have renationalised the economy and/or re-privatised it for their own benefit. (State oversight over strategic industries in a decidedly market environment is interpreted virtually as a return to communism). They have imprisoned the opposition leader and the symbol of Western-style capitalism and democracy Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They continue to persecute dissidents as they did when they ran the USSR, arresting and beating them up at every opportunity. But Khodorkovsky was lucky, as other dissidents and independent journalists tend to get murdered.

 

The media, as everything else, have been brought under direct or indirect Kremlin control. No significant structural reforms have been undertaken. (This ignores the stream of reformist legislation introducing the principles of the market-driven economy into every nook and cranny). Corruption in Russia is much more rampant than in other countries, placing Russia to the very bottom of the league. And last but not the least, Russia is growing de-populated owing to disease, collapsing social infrastructure and insufficient confidence in its future. (On this point the story is partly correct, but the regimes preventative steps are being ignored or ridiculed).

 

While Russias dynamic economic growth is not denied (actually, to deny this would be a truly monumental achievement), it is claimed that this has been due to little else but the high oil prices. Likewise, Putins popularity (when it is acknowledged) is due to the oil prices as well as regimes manipulation of the media.

 

Finally, Russias external resurgence is interpreted as a violation of its own fundamental interests. By confronting the West, the Putin clique is depicted as promoting its own selfish interests at the expense of those of the population at large.[4]

 

What this analysis has missed: Russia has reset its clocks

 

In actual fact, over the last 15 years Russia has successfully executed a very difficult and risky manoeuvre the transition from the rigidly centralised and controlled Soviet system to its anti-thesis. The former value-subtracting economy has been replaced by a standard market-driven economy.

 

Though boosted by the strong oil prices, its dynamic growth cannot be attributed to this factor alone, with the governments credible macroeconomic policies, and the long-awaited post-Soviet rebound, being the main drivers. The regime has indeed brought strategic industries, especially the hydrocarbons, under state control, but this is normal world practice, which, anyway, makes sense given these resources strategic value. As regards the non-energy sector, Putin has recently confirmed that the objective is not an indefinite state control, but consolidation and the creation of competitive corporations, with the view of eventual sales, including to foreigners.

 

Russia does not have a perfect democracy (no country has) but it has a functioning and rapidly consolidating democracy, perfectly adequate to the countrys present conditions. The Russian government is not significantly more corrupt or dysfunctional than its former Soviet (or emerging markets), and indeed in some cases Western, peers.

 

We could dwell on this very complex and unprecedented process.[5] However, it may be simpler to see it as a transition from an inherently unviable system, where collapse and disintegration were prevented by sheer repression, to a decompressed and free entity, held together by a new productive economy, with the new elites having a stake in its continued stability and success. Russia has crossed from being fundamentally unviable to the opposite. There has never been anything like it in its tortured history. However, it may be simpler to see it as a transition from an inherently unviable system, where collapse and disintegration were prevented by sheer repression, to a decompressed and free entity, held together by a new productive economy, with the new elites having a stake in its continued stability and success. Russia has crossed from being fundamentally unviable to the opposite. There has never been anything like it in its tortured history.

 

The poverty of Western analysis is perhaps most evident in its failure to grasp that the post-Soviet meltdown has resulted in the resetting of Russias clocks. Although the Russians mentality and culture remain largely unchanged (such things evolve only at a glacial pace), the meltdown has resulted in the replacement of the Soviet-era with new,

market-driven incentives. The new Russia simply cannot be neo-communist or neo-imperialist even if it wanted to, as such delusions entail unacceptable economic costs.

 

The West cannot accommodate the new Russian reality

 

Tracking the evolution of Russias foreign policy doctrine, a Russian specialist[6] has recently highlighted the fundamental change, explicitly marked by Putin in June 2006. While in the final phase of the Soviet Union and the first post-Soviet years Russias foreign policy was defined in terms of friendship or partnership with a particular group of countries (allies or rivals), Putin has cut Russia loose from any such constraints. has recently highlighted the fundamental change, explicitly marked by Putin in June 2006. While in the final phase of the Soviet Union and the first post-Soviet years Russias foreign policy was defined in terms of friendship or partnership with a particular group of countries (allies or rivals), Putin has cut Russia loose from any such constraints.

 

Speaking exactly a year ago to assembled Russian ambassadors, the president declared that: Russia overall should bear responsibility for global and socioeconomic development commensurate with its position and capabilities. At the same time Putin stated that Russia does not want any confrontation, but we will not participate in any holy alliances. (Subsequently these principles were enshrined in the preamble of the official Survey of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation).

 

Such Delphic pronouncements have weighty ramifications if placed in their proper context. In an international environment where the US demands integration within a web spun by it, Russias declaration of co-responsibility for the running of the global system constitutes an implicit challenge to the leader. At the same time, this also implies that, as its economy continues to strengthen, Russia will strive to bring its political influence, and hence its insubordination, into line with its expanding economic weight.

 

In his speech Putin further elaborated on the new approach as follows: Russian diplomacy must not simply participate in work on global agenda, but must also make a real contribution to its formation. This must be done by supporting the concept of the collective leadership of the leading states that objectively bear special responsibility for the state of affairs in the world, with another passage stating that:

 

…it is a matter of a culture of international relations based on international law without imposing models of development and speeding up the natural course of the historical process. And here questions of the democratisation of international life and a new ethic of communication among states and peoples, as well as the expansion of economic and humanitarian interaction among countries acquires a special role.[7]

 

Not only has Russia made a unilateral declaration of independence, its new foreign policy doctrine implicitly criticises the United States for its allegedly undemocratic, unilateralist conduct in foreign affairs.

 

Yet, while challenging the US supremacy, Russias new foreign policy doctrine also entails the renouncement of its own imperialism, for it places the emphasis on the creation of a multi-lateral, or multi-polar, global order.

 

The regimes enemies may have an indirect leverage

 

Since Russia is the leading producer and exporter of hydrocarbons, and since its economic structure ensures that it has no need to partake in blocs such as the European Union, it can enjoy unfettered economic, and hence foreign policy sovereignty. The West can fulminate against the Kremlin regime to its hearts desire, but its efforts to influence or damage Russia will remain futile.

 

Nevertheless, the regimes enemies sense that all is not lost, and they may well be right. For all its increasing intransigence and confidence, Russia is vulnerable to the negative sentiment generated by the persistent drip feed of anti-regime propaganda.

 

The Western medias headlining of issues such as the revision of the Sakhalin II project (or the threat to the TNK-BP involvement at Kovykta), allegations of the Kremlins involvement in (supposedly) political murders, the highlighting of Moscows friction with the former Soviet republics and the harassment of dissidents, ultimately must exact some price.

 

A lot of mileage can also be gained from the looming issue of presidential succession. President Putin has repeatedly promised an orderly transition in line with the constitution. However, the analytical community and financial markets will not relax until the bridge is crossed and the new leader safely installed. Indeed, this is not unreasonable, as Russia has never seen an orderly leadership transition in line with the constitution.

 

There is some evidence that these concerns have been one of the factors explaining the disappointing performance of the Russian stock market so far this year, while a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit has found that potential investors remain nervous about political risk, with 53% of respondents describing it as a significant concern.[8]

 

Unfortunately, the new cold war will continue to impose these costs.

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Putins Munich speech signals the end of Russias quiescence, DIR 23rd March 2007.

[2] A good recent example is the article the Senator John McCain in the Financial Times, on 13th June titled Why we must be firm with Moscow. McCain accuses Putin of having Napoleonic delusions and presenting a dangerous challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community.

[3] This latest red herring reportedly occurred at the height of the May frictions with Estonia (over the Soviet-era memorial), when some of the thousands of computers attacking Estonian sites were allegedly located within the Russian state bureaucracy. However, expert community, including chief security officer of Estonia Computer Emergency Response Hillar Aarelaid, has expressed scepticism that the Russian government was involved. See Experts doubt Russian government launched DD0S attacks, Security Wire Daily News, 18th May 2007; http://searchsecurity.techtarget.com. Furthermore, the claim that Moscow invented this new form of warfare is false, as the first such episode took place in 2001, during the US stand-off with China.

[4] An insight into the standard of American scholarship in this respect may be gained by an extract from the testimony to the Committee on Foreign Affairs by David Satter, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, presented on 17th May. Speaking of the need for the West to engage with the Russian population over the heads of its leaders, Satter has gone theological: At the same time, we need to make clear to the Russian people that their real interest and the interest of their country is with the universal moral values, one set of standards for all, which are the Biblical heritage of both Russia and the West.

[5] It is unprecedented because of Russias size (exceeding by a large margin all other former communist countries) and the depth of the undertaking by population, China is larger than Russia, but China has yet to undergo the fundamental political change accomplished by Russia.

[6] A Real Doctrine, A. Bogaturov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 30th May 2007.

[7] Bogaturov, ibid.

[8] Financial Times, 14th June.


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