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The Empire Strikes Back?

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

The New Cold War

By Edward Lucas
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

There’s been a muddiness to Western thinking about Moscow in the last decade. For much of this time there were two popular views of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and each betrays a slavish adherence to time and pattern: one looks forward and the other backward for explanations. The apologists – mostly businessmen and globalization fetishists – believed Putin was a reformer (perhaps an imperfect one prone to a little roughhousing), leading his people down the road to a prosperous and globally integrated Russia. They thought Putin’s goal was Russian prosperity, and they figured that to get it, he would be forced to adopt their prerequisites – democracy and capitalism. Lined up opposite were the hawks, who saw the East-West warming of the 1990s as a pause in the tiresomely-phrased “Great Game” between eagle and bear.

As the new millennium went on, the scale tipped slowly towards the alarmists. Putin presided with an impassive face over Russia’s backward slide into authoritarianism and his boosters grew increasingly nervous. The August 2008 invasion of Georgia left their arguments in tatters. One can argue that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was foolish and provocative in escalating the conlfict with Ossetian forces, but it’s clear that Russia had planned and hoped for war.

Now the hawks seem to have the credible position. But a third point of view has emerged which admits Russia’s increasing belligerence yet retains an impregnable faith that globalization and freedom will eventually win the day. It’s by virtue of this confidence that the third view is a sub-species of the first. The faith (there is no other word to describe it) that tension with Russia will blow over is weakening but not quite dead, and a strong impulse pushes it forward. The triumphalism of the 1990s still thrums in the background. Thus Fareed Zakaria, who can be sharp but has the dunder-headed idea that globalization begets harmony, could write this a few weeks after Russian tanks emerged on the Georgian side of the Roki Tunnel:

The attack on Georgia will go down not as the dawn of a new era of Russian power but as a major strategic blunder. Look at what has happened. Russia has scared its neighboring states witless, driving them firmly into the arms of the West… Vladimir Putin has done more for transatlantic unity than a President Barack Obama ever could. The United States and Europe are now in greater strategic agreement than at any point in the last two decades. Even the autocracies in the Caucasus have reacted negatively to the attack, refusing to endorse Russia’s actions and legitimize the new facts on the ground. China has refused its support. And what did Russia get for all this? Seventy thousand South Ossetians.

In the following months Russia completed the de facto annexation of South Ossetia – with its seventy thousand people – along with Abkhazia, twice as large and three times as populous. The Russian Duma has just rubber-stamped plans for permanent military bases in each. The Western response has been feeble.

Russian tanks move toward Georgia, August 2008

Before all that, part of the problem for the hawks was getting anyone to pay attention. America has been squarely focused on the Muslim world since 2001, and Europe remains divided on virutally every policy it takes up. And those who proclaim a new Cold War haven’t helped themselves any by prefacing their argument with a false analogy. Whatever it is, Putin’s brand of authoritarian capitalism is not the Soviet Union redux, as we shall see. But I suppose it’s easier to jump and point at a familiar bogeymen from the past than to address the complexities of the present.

The most perceptive alarmists seem to recognize this. Edward Lucas, a reporter for the Economist, calls his book The New Cold War, but you don’t get any further than the introduction before he tacitly admits that his title was a publicity stunt. It’s a bit strange to read the author of The New Cold War claiming that “the old Cold War and analogies with it are outdated.”

“So why the title of your book, Edward?” one might ask. Well, the Cold War might be outdated, “but so too are the rosy sentiments that succeeded it,” he answers. It’s a rearguard answer, and it hints at another reason for the anachronism. The New Cold Warriors are frustrated, both with Russia and the West. America, and especially Europe, have been slow to retool their attitudes in the wake of Putin’s militancy. It’s an exasperating situation, but re-pasting the hammer and sickle onto the map of the Eastern European frontier will land you in some unsavory company. The neoconservatives never abandoned the Cold War mentality, and those who want America and its allies to check Russia’s more nefarious ambitions would do well not to inadvertently align themselves with such a discredited bunch.

The other target of Lucas’ ire is Vladimir Putin. He rails against the Russian President’s rejection of Western values:

Some sort of clean-up was certainly overdue, but Putin also betrayed the positive legacy of the Yeltsin years; a Russia committed to friendship with the West, to pluralism in politics and the media, and to keeping the old KGB coralled, away from the heights of power…Russia has first tacitly and then explicitly abandoned the aim of becoming “normal” – an advanced industrialized country marked by political liberty and the rule of law, whose people could stand on equal terms with their counterparts in Western Europe and America.

This is a reversion to “Soviet behavior at home and abroad.” His own book makes clear that the resemblance is mostly superficial.

In any case, when he’s not getting carried away with himself, Lucas is an excellent analyst and his account of the changes Moscow has undergone in the last decade is comprehensive. And if The New Cold War shows anything, it’s that Russia has evolved into something unlike anything it’s been before.

* * *

Few remember it, but as Lucas reminds us, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s grip on power was tentative at first. In the final years of his presidency, Yeltsin went through three Prime Ministers before finally settling on Putin in August 1999, who he appointed on account of his loyalty and the approval of Russia’s elites, who thought he would be malleable:

A mere mouse seemed to be running round the Kremlin’s endless corridors. The new president’s inner circle was an uneasy mixture between the “family” – the Yeltsin cronies who had brought him to power – and two St. Petersburg clans, the siloviki and economic reformers. The president shifted indecisively between all three, seemingly agreeing with whomever had advised him last. “Putin jokes” were common, most of which had obsence punch lines.

But he was popular. In 1999, in the wake of a wave a mysterious terrorist bombings in Moscow, Putin (as Prime Minister) took charge of what would be a brutal and wildly popular war of retaliation against the breakaway province of Chechnya. He became President the next year, and passed limited economic reforms and soaring oil prices buoyed Russia’s economy. Putin then consolidated his power. He began by attacking the “oligarchs” – tycoons who bought up Russia’s denationalized resource and media industries in the 1990s. The oligarchs had become – through their influence in government and their connections to organized crime – arguably the most powerful faction in the country. They granted Yeltsin his second (rigged) election and Putin his position as heir.

A pattern emerged. Oligarchs not deemed sufficiently loyal had their offices raided on trumped-up or invented charges. Their companies would be seized, split and sold to government-controlled conglomerates like Gazprom or Rosneft. Those appointed to replace the oligarchs were invariably loyal and usually members of the siloviki (a term with no English equivalent, meaning former and current officers of the intelligence and security services). Their power, if not brutality, far exceeds the old KGB, which answered to the the Communist Party. The FSB has become so entrenched that at times it’s difficult to distinguish it from the government it ostensibly serves. Lucas tells us that

Since 2000, veterans of the Soviet intelligence and security services have taken control not only of the Kremlin and government, but also the media and the commanding heights of the economy…as many as three quarters of the top posts in Russia may be held by siloviki.

But today there are no gulags, and large-scale state violence no longer exists, for the simple reason that it’s not really necessary. Putin is overwhelmingly and genuinely popular, and so is his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

A rally held by Nashi (“Ours”), a Kremlin-backed youth group

There are several reasons for this; the most important and least sinister is money. Until the recent economic crisis, Russia’s GDP had been growing 7 percent a year for nearly a decade. Five times as many people own cars as did fifteen years ago. Nearly eighty percent of people over 18 go on to some form of higher education (it was less than a third under communism). These are staggering figures, and they go a long way toward explaining why many Russians couldn’t care less if they have a say in government.As we’ll see, Russia’s growth has allowed it to reassert itself abroad, and this too has buoyed the national mood. Russian nationalism cannot be underestimated, and Putin milks and moulds this pride with a sickeningly nostalgiac official mythology. Putin infamously called the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and Russia’s government – through state-controlled TV broadcasts, newpapers, textbooks, and creepy Nazi youth-like organizations – is reglorifying its Soviet and czarist past. Here again the Russian people are mostly in agreement: recent polls placed Stalin and several of the more brutal czars in the pantheon of Russia’s greatest leaders. Perhaps this is why commentators look to the past for explanations, but it’s a lazy mistake. Backward-looking state-sponsored nationalism is usually a guise for something new.

The upshot of all of this – the economic prosperity, the swagger abroad, the cultural engineering – is that most Russians are quite happy with their leaders, so all that’s needed to quiet opposition is a stifling bureaucracy, the odd raid or arrest and the occasional murder of a journalist. Many of the English-speaking reporters who have worked in Russia have not liked what they’ve seen. In Putin’s Labyrinth, Steve Levine writes, with a nearly audible sigh,

After sixteen years of living in or visiting the former Soviet Union, I have come to believe that Russia’s acquiescence to this bloody state of affairs sets it apart from other nations that call themselves civilized. I realize this is a harsh judgement, and can only say that it was not hastily reached.

* * *

Putin’s domestic success allowed him to concentrate on foreign policy, where he has been even more successful. Part of the reason his break with Yeltsin didn’t register at first was that some of the Putin’s differences with Europe and Washington were a continuation of disputes that began in the 1990s – disputes that hid in the shadow of rapprochment and Russia’s attempt to graft democracy and capitalism onto itself. In the first war with Chechnya, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, Russia demonstrated in bloody fashion that it was determined not to lose any more territory. It was a clear signal that Moscow’s apparent embrace of freedom could only go so far, but no Western head of state went beyond the usual condemnatory remarks. The brutal suppression of an internal rebellion might get you a few icy stares at the UN, but it doesn’t prevent you from doing business in the family of nations.

More to the point, Yeltsin detested NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory and strenuously opposed NATO’s bombing of Milošević’s Yugoslavia. But his country was weak and he couldn’t do anything about it. Putin would change this and took power with the aim of expanding Russia’s influence, especially in the near abroad. He began with Central Asia, where he won Uzbekistan’s loyalty by helping its dictator suppress Islamist opposition and deflect Western criticism. Putin’s arm-twisting has led Kazakhstan (whose land border with Russia is the longest in the world), along with others in the region, to reconsider their budding ties with the West. In 2001, Russia joined China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a kind of Central Asian NATO.

But Eastern Europe has been the focus of Russian attention, and of disputes with America and Europe. Ex-communist states Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland joined NATO in 1999. 2004 saw the admission of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Moscow views this as encroachment upon its traditional sphere of influence and likewise opposes the useless deployment of a US missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Still, Russia doesn’t really have a military option with NATO, though it continues to make a practice of intimidation. Lucas recounts one particularly ominous instance:

The Russian forces in Pskov, just across the border [from Estonia], practiced the recapture of the Baltic states in 2007. Details of the exercise are sketchy, but it seems to have involved an intervention to protect the rights of “Russian-speakers” threatened with violence by local “nationalists.” The aim of the exercise was to see how easily the Russian invading forces could capture the airfields and ports, thus preventing NATO from reinforcing its allies.

The “human rights” of Russian speakers is the stock justification for Russian meddling, and there are tens of millions throughout ex-Soviet Eastern Europe. Much of eastern Ukraine, which has tilted hard to the West in recent years, is ethnically and linguistically Russian. The threat of instability (and Russian opposition) has kept Kiev from joining NATO. And Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 on the pretext of defending the Ossetians and the Abkhaz – though the irony of defending people who Stalin tried to assimilate didn’t give Putin any pause.

Despite the muscle flexing, Russia’s military is still relatively weak and in horrid state of repair. The Kremlin’s most powerful and effective weapon against Europe – East and West – has been its massive energy reserves and state-run conglomerates. Lucas summarizes what he calls “pipeline politics”:

The aim of the natural-resource industry is to boost the geopolitical strength of Russia. In practice, that means four things. The Kremlin wants to prevent European countries from diversifying their sources of energy supply, particularly in gas. It wants to strengthen its hold over the international gas market. It wants to acquire “downstream assets” – distribution and storage capacity – in Western countries. And it wants to use those assets to exert political pressure.

Or in Putin’s own words:

The gas pipeline system is the creation of the Soviet Union. We intend to retain state control over the gas transport system and over Gazprom…And the European Commission should not have any illusions. In the gas sector, they will have to deal with the state.

Russia has made almost nothing but progress on all four fronts. Here Europe and America compete with a severe handicap. Russian oil and gas companies are responsible to the Kremlin, not their shareholders. Gazprom and Rosneft acquire assets and attempt takeovers with the Moscow’s orders in their ears, while Western companies think of their own bottom line. Furthermore, as Lucas points out, Europe is not “a single energy market” but “a series of energy islands, each administered and regulated by a national government. Naturally enough, each government thinks about its own interest, trying to ensure cheap energy for its consumers and jobs for its producers.”

So Russian conglomerates plan joint ventures with and buy large stakes in major European corporations with ease. The leaders of the EU states these companies are based in could legislate against this, but job losses don’t win elections. As Lucas puts it:

The EU may bleat, but nothing stops [European] companies from doing their own deals with Gazprom and Rosneft. Gazprom, for example, now has investments in at least 16 out of 27 EU countries; in Britain, Italy, Germany, and France, among others, it has won direct access to at least some consumers, with all that implies.

Europe’s efforts to construct gas pipelines of its own have met with little success. For years the EU has been planning to construct the Nabucco pipeline, which would take gas from Central Asia through the Caspian Sea and into Europe. The plan was undercut by Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In an act of corruption that would make Silvio Berlusconi blush, he left office to become chairman of a Russian-led consortium planning an alternative pipe called Nord Stream. It received a billion Euros in secret loan guarantees just days before Schroder left office.

By dealing with each government individually, Russia has managed to prevent Europe from forming a united front. More than half of Europe, lying prostrate before the mighty GDP graph, now works against thier own national security interests. 60 percent of Europe’s gas is imported, and half of that comes from Russia. Europe’s imports are expected to rise to 80 percent in the next 20 years as domestic production falls. Russian leverage is bound to increase.

The situation is even more dire in Eastern Europe, where Bulgaria, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania depend on Moscow for all of their gas. And 80 percent of Western Europe’s gas runs through Ukraine, which has had a number of disputes with Russia since Western-leaning Victor Yushchenko took power. Russia has used these rows to manipulate Ukraine’s internal politics to its advantage. The latest incident occurred in January of this year, when Russia shut off all gas to the Ukraine. A deal was brokered, not with President Yushchenko, but with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who intends to run against the President in upcoming elections. The EU pressed a furious Yushchenko to accept the deal, lest their supplies be cut off. So Russia won two victories: the first a blow for pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine, the second a warning to the EU that Kiev is both Moscow’s plaything and unfit for NATO membership.

Russia has indeed reasserted itself, but there is little in the above that recalls the Soviet Union. There’s a merciless savvy to Putin’s foreign policy. Russia today doesn’t rail from the isolated confines of a Warsaw Pact; instead it has integrated itself with the world on its own terms. It uses markets and bilateral diplomacy. It projects its influence with confidence and without a shred of sentiment, save grievance. Putin seems, if anything, a student of realpolitik. He’s Henry Kissinger in an ushanka.

* * *

Self-interest is to be expected from any nation, and rank ambition governs the more powerful among them. The problem is that many of Russia’s aspirations are in direct opposition to American and European interests. And the “New Cold Warriors,” whatever their misapprehensions, are right to sound the warning klaxon.

Even so, it’s worth keeping in mind that Moscow has serious weaknesses. Most serious is the Russian people itself. The population is shrinking quickly. Its birthrate is comparable to the rest of Europe, but Russia is plagued by heart disease, alcoholism, AIDS, tuberculosis, and drug addiction. Its health care system is exceptionally poor. The average male can expect to live a mere 59 years. And despite newfound prosperity, the finances of the average family are so precarious that children are often an unwanted burden. There are more abortions than births in modern Russia.

The current financial crisis has exposed Russia’s economic vulnerabilities as well. Its stock market is down nearly 80 percent from its peak. The natural resource industry – the only one that matters – has been hit hard as demand for raw materials falls all over the world. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is wedded to the world’s markets, and its fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil and gas. Moscow has to fight a crisis in population health, bail out its economy and meet commitments to increase defense spending, all with declining revenues.

There is even circumstantial evidence of a split between Putin and his hand-picked successor. Following Putin’s example, Dmitry Medvedev seems to be establishing loyalist beachheads in the Byzantine Russian power structure. The Guardian recently reported that

[In February] Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development, a new thinktank created by Medvedev, criticised Putin for restricting press freedom and stressed that “the most honest and independent opinions on Russia’s problems are coming from the liberal wing, rather than from the so-called statist patriots”.

The man at the centre of the Kremlin power struggle is the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who has warned the siloviki and the private corporations in which they have strong interests that the state is limiting financial rescue packages for big business.

“The siloviki have been used to sharing out the spoils of the state,” said Delyagin. “They want to get rid of Kudrin because he holds the purse strings and he’s not giving them any cash.”

In a replay of the power struggles of the 1990s, factions traditionally aligned with Putin are fighting back:

An $18m corruption investigation into the finance minister’s deputy was renewed three weeks ago in a thinly veiled attack on his boss by the siloviki. For Putin, the problem is that Kudrin – who yesterday admitted mistakes in handling the financial crisis – is one of his deputies and an old ally from his St Petersburg days.

The Guardian portrays Putin as loosing face with both groups, the economic “liberals” (it’s hard to know what that means in Russia) and the siloviki. But the workings of Russia’s government are notoriously opaque, and like Putin in his early years, Medvedev is an unknown quantity.

Last month, he expressed tentative optimism about talks with President Obama, which were held in early April. But on the same day he did so, Russia finalized arrangements for permanent military bases in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia has refused to abandon. After meeting in London, Obama and Medvedev promised a “fresh start” for US-Russian relations. Hillary Clinton presented her counterpart with a mock “reset button.”

Outside the photo-op bubble, it looks like more of the same. The Italian and Russian governments just announced about a dozen separate business deals worth tens of billions of dollars. Among them are deepening ties between Eni, the Italian energy giant, and Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly. NATO still remains divided on Russia, with England and the ex-Soviet bloc pressing for a tougher stance, while Italy, Germany and the rest of “Old Europe” lean toward increasing ties. After the military alliance’s 60th anniversary summit, NATO released its “Declaration on Alliance Security,” which tepidly declares that “We stand ready to work with Russia to address the common challenges we face.”

The Obama Administration is pressing hard for better relations with Russia, and so Western leaders have tamped down their usual human rights critiques. A more conciliatory stance may net cooperation on nuclear arms reductions, missile defense and perhaps even Iran, but then again, America’s “reset” with Moscow might simply be a window for the new Russia to get more of what it wants.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.

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