As the Taliban have now effectively taken control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, there is much that our political class, policymakers and media talking heads should reflect on and many lessons to learn. But it appears unlikely that this will happen.
I remember going to my first antiwar rally in October of 2001 to protest our attack on Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11. No one I knew wanted to go with me. I didn’t see how dropping bombs on regular Afghanis who had nothing to do with Bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks would help anything, especially after the Taliban had offered to hand over Bin Laden if the U.S. would stop bombing their country – an offer George W. Bush refused. It was a fairly small protest in San Francisco organized by the ANSWER coalition. I wouldn’t stop feeling like an outcast for my views until a year and a half later when antiwar protests swelled in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq. But the Bush administration merely blew off the largest and most coordinated antiwar rallies in the history of the world as “a focus group” that could be ignored.
As Sarah Lazare said on Twitter, the US press should be talking to those of us who were against this debacle to begin with, who could foresee the problems with trying to oppose a tactic with war, with trying – in the case of Afghanistan – to build a modern democratic country that is far from even being an industrialized country in terms of development and has no experience with democracy but is still largely a tribal nation that has been at war for most of the last 40 years (see my previous post on Afghanistan). I feel terrible for the plight of Afghan women and the prospect of sharia law, but we really had no business giving false hope to the women of Afghanistan that they could live as a modern western country when that was not the conditions that exist in Afghanistan – even with a western country propping up a corrupt and unpopular government. It certainly wasn’t going to be the conditions when that western country leaves. Now I see pundits and even left-leaning commentators on Twitter using this as an excuse for why we should have kept delaying the inevitable and stayed forever. If the government we are propping up collapses after 20 years, it will collapse after 25 or 30 or 50. The problem isn’t leaving too soon, the problem is the original policy of going in in the first place and thinking we can throw money at people who will then build a functioning democratic government with no skills, history or experience to do so. Sticking with something that doesn’t work after 20 years won’t make it suddenly work, it is just a form of denial.
Ironically, some of us are old enough to remember when George W. Bush campaigned on a more “humble” and less interventionist foreign policy and railed against “nation-building.” Watch this clip for yourself.
As for the speed with which the Taliban have accomplished taking over many provincial capitals and now Kabul, I can only wonder at how utterly inept our intelligence analysts must be to have predicted last week that Kabul could fall within 30 – 90 days and then have it happen less than a week later. This begs the question: do these people have a clue what’s going on anywhere in the world? Below is a press conference from a couple of weeks ago in which Biden says he doesn’t think the Kabul government will collapse upon the exit of US troops. Though Biden deserves some credit for following through on Trump’s withdrawal process, It would have been better to have prepared the American people for the fact that the Taliban were likely to take over and that the logistics of the withdrawal were not going to be pretty. But that would have entailed acknowledging that the policy was misguided to begin with and reminding us that we have been consistently lied to for years by military leaders and politicians about the situation in Afghanistan.
As this months marks the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August of 1991, Gorbachev has published a long essay on his policy of perestroika (reform) in the journal Russia in Global Affairs. You can read it in English here. As some readers may be aware. unlike in the west, Gorbachev is not necessarily well-liked among Russians. Many consider his policies to have paved the way for the chaos of the 1990’s. In my conversations with Russians during my 2017 trip, in which I asked about their views of various Soviet leaders, most had either negative or indifferent views about him, while 2 or 3 expressed some degree of positive views.
Here is an interesting except from Gorbachev’s essay:
Initially, political reform was not our objective. I acknowledge that, at the time, I believed that the Party—the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—would be the vehicle of reform. For many years, it had been managing the country’s affairs; its representatives had vast administrative and political experience and held key positions in all areas of government and society. Therefore, the Party, particularly during the initial stage of perestroika, played an indispensable role. Plenary sessions of the Central Committee convened regularly, and all my reports were approved at Politburo meetings, often after sharp debate, which became increasingly contentious as tensions and differences of opinion came to the fore.
This was the drama of perestroika. Millions of Party members and many Party leaders in central bodies and local organizations supported new policies. But as I traveled and talked to people, I increasingly felt that the energy of change was hitting the wall erected by the Party and government bureaucracy—the nomenklatura.
People were wondering: Where is perestroika? Why are the most basic issues not being addressed? Why do our leaders’ attitudes toward the needs and concerns of the people remain unchanged?
In the fall of 1986, we concluded that we need to convene a plenary meeting of the Central Committee to discuss personnel policies. The plenum, held in January 1987, resonated tremendously in the Party, throughout the country and around the world. For the first time, we recognized the responsibility of the CPSU, its Central Committee and the Politburo for the strategic mistakes that had led our country into social and political stagnation. A large part of the nomenklatura saw the ideas and decisions of the plenum as a threat to themselves and moved to sabotage perestroika.
In 1987, the struggle between the reformers and the anti-reform wing of the CPSU began in earnest. It was pervasive, and it was weakening the Party’s ability to manage the country’s affairs and its legitimacy within Soviet society. My like-minded supporters and I realized then that unless we truly involved the country’s citizens in the processes of renewal and decoupled the Party from political power, the policy of perestroika would hit a dead end. We became aware of the need for political reform.
Paul Robinson has written an interesting piece, partly inspired by some other recent comments by Gorbachev, about the different opinions about who is to blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union which – whether one thinks it was a good or bad thing in the long run – created major tumult and instability:
It suits most people to blame Gorbachev; if it was all his fault, everybody else is off the hook. On the other hand, were communist hardliners to blame, you can argue the problem was that Gorbachev failed to reform fast enough, and this suits liberals. But if it was Yeltsin and the liberal reformers around him who were responsible, you can argue their successors today are unfit to run the country, having dragged it into ruin once already.
So, what’s the truth?
Gorbachev is right to remind people of the situation when he took power in 1985. The Soviet model had reached the limits of its potential. Central state planning was incapable of responding effectively to the demands of a modern, high-tech economy. Social problems such as absenteeism, alcoholism and crime were on the rise. There was a growing sense that something had to be done.
The Soviet leader’s problem was that he never had a very good idea of what that something should be. At heart, he was a true communist believer, who felt that all one needed to do was liberate people and they would work constructively towards improving the existing system. His attitude was similar to that of one of his closest advisors, Alexander Yakovlev, who remarked, “It seemed to me that it was enough to remove the machinery of repression … and all would be well.”
Gorbachev was not merely naïve, he was also economically clueless. American academic Graham Allison was shocked at a meeting held to discuss economic reform by the “dumb questions” Gorbachev asked. The Soviet leader could never overcome his suspicion of private property and opted for a form of “market socialism” that kept business under state control but gave enterprises more freedom from central planning authorities. The policy undermined whatever advantages central planning provided without giving any of the benefits of the free market. It accelerated economic collapse.
When people responded to Gorbachev’s reforms in a less than constructive fashion, he blamed hardliners in the party for obstructing him. He then set about dismantling the power of the Communist Party. But the party was the primary institution regulating Soviet society. When Gorbachev undermined it, there was nothing to replace it. The result was anarchy.
Harlan Ullman*, in an OpEd published at The Hill last week** titled “Is Ukraine Putin’s Taiwan?” called for NATO to make even further provocative moves near Russia’s borders, after having already carried out several naval exercises this summer in the Black Sea. A British warship sailing close to the Crimean coast even prompted the scramble of Russian warplanes. His suggestion is all based on alarmist assumptions regarding an essay Vladimir Putin wrote recently and the mischaracterization of past events.
In the essay, which readers can see for themselves in English here, Putin stated that Russians and Ukrainians are historically one people with a shared culture and history – not one country. Interestingly, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky essentially acknowledged the same thing in 2014 and 41 percent of Ukrainians agreed in a recent poll. But Ullman uses Putin’s essay to jump to the conclusion that Putin wants to take over Ukraine and doesn’t respect its independence. The solution to this supposed problem, according to Ullman, is for NATO to boot up, grab its military hardware and ride to Ukraine’s rescue from Russia’s alleged imminent attack.
As we all need to be reminded in order to support more NATO action, Putin is an aggressive autocrat and therefore capable of taking over eastern Ukraine. As part of his evidence, Ullman mentions Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. He leaves out the context of why Putin was criticizing the U.S.-led international order. First, Putin was the first world leader to call President Bush to offer condolences after 9/11. He also offered military assistance, against the advice of his national security team, to the U.S. in their pursuit of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The following year, Bush showed his gratitude by unilaterally withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a move Russia perceived as a threat to its nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the U.S. had illegally invaded Iraq based on false claims, killing hundreds of thousands and creating long-term instability in the Middle East, a region geographically much closer to Russia than the U.S.
Ullman also repeats the unfounded claim that Russia “laid a trap” for Georgia in 2008. As the EU Fact-Finding Mission published in its 2009 report, Russia did not start the war but responded to military attacks by Tbilisi against Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. This attack was undertaken because the Georgian leader at the time, Mikhail Saakashvili, was operating under the false impression the U.S. would militarily support him. One can debate whether Russia overreacted to these events, but Russia did not start the armed hostilities in 2008 as is commonly and erroneously claimed.
Ullman then moves on to mention “Russia staged a large military buildup around Ukraine, possibly as a rehearsal” in reference to an increase in Russian troops near the Ukrainian border back in April. The term “possibly as a rehearsal” is clearly supposition and he again leaves out significant context. For example, in February, Ukrainian president Zelensky ordered troops and heavy weapons into the area near Donbas, which represents the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Then on March 24th, Zelensky signed a decree approving a strategy to reintegrate Crimea and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol into Ukraine.
Ullman cites a possible invasion and occupation of Serpent Island located in the western part of the Black Sea as something Putin might do, stating “this scenario is at least as viable as a Russian invasion of the Baltics.” This is another fantastical claim some pundits make about the Kremlin’s supposed aggressive designs on Eastern Europe. However, no one has ever provided a plausible explanation of what the possible benefit of invading the Baltics would be to Moscow, especially given the obvious drawbacks of invading and occupying these three small countries. If this Serpent Island idea has comparable viability, then we have very little to worry about.
What is always in the background of touting Russia’s aggressive designs in its neighborhood, particularly Ukraine, is the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Again, some context would be helpful in assessing whether this event suggests that Moscow is interested in taking over eastern Ukraine by force.
Crimea had been part of Russia from the time of Catherine the Great’s reign in the 18th century. But in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine as part of his campaign to consolidate power in the post-Stalin era. Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, this was not a problem. However, when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Crimea remained in Ukraine as an autonomous region, while the naval base at Sevastopol was retained by Russia via a lease agreement with the Kiev government.
When the corrupt but democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich was illegally overthrown, with the active support of Washington, in February of 2014, Putin viewed the events as a threat to Russia’s security, especially when three former Ukrainian presidents subsequently called for repudiating the legal basis of the lease agreement with Russia. Sevastopol is Russia’s only warm water port and a critical naval base that is the last militarily defensible barrier to an invasion into southern Russia. Sevastopol has major historical importance for Russians due to the crucial battle against the Germans there in summer 1942 in which the Soviets ground down a portion of the German army for months, preventing their advance to Stalingrad, leaving a smaller and weaker German force that ultimately lost to the Red Army . The Soviet Union lost 27 million people fighting the Nazis.
Eastern Ukraine does not have the same immediate security significance to Russia as the naval base in Crimea. Given that Russia had also ignored several requests from Crimeans – the majority of whom are ethnically Russian and Russophone – since the 1990’s for reunification, it seems reasonable to conclude that the situation with Crimea in 2014 represented a unique national security issue for Russia that the Donbas does not. Ukraine in NATO is viewed as a red line for Moscow, but a military invasion of Donbas or any other part of Ukraine is not required to protect its interests as the U.S.-led west is not going to grant it membership anytime soon.
We need to have a rational discussion about what U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine should be. That discussion is not helped by alarmist recommendations based on distorted information and decontextualized claims.
*Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at The Atlantic Council. This explains a lot.
**Note: The Hill acknowledged receipt of but refused to publish this response to Ullman’s OpEd.
It’s useful to get a glimpse into what influential Russians are thinking in terms of geopolitics. This is excerpted from the Global Times July 20th interview with Andrey Bystritskiy, a Russian scholar who is also chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, a notable Russian think tank. – Natylie
The Biden administration is trying to unite allies to contain China and Russia. The latest example is that the US has announced plans to build a space base in the UK in a bid to stave off “threats” posed by Russia and China and to probe deep space. Meanwhile, China and Russia also announced in June the extension of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. How will the China-Russia-US triangle develop in the future? What are Russia’s expectations of China-Russia and Russia-US relations? Andrey Bystritskiy (Bystritskiy), chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum, shared his thoughts with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Qingqing on these issues.
GT: Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 28, less than two weeks after Putin’s summit with his US counterpart Joe Biden. How do you evaluate the significance of the two meetings, as well as Russia’s expectations of China-Russia and Russia-US relations?
Bystritskiy: First of all, I would like to note that we live in a changing world, moreover, a world that is changing radically. President Xi Jinping, in his speech on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), noted that he would not allow any humiliation of China, and Russia’s position is the same. This means that a kind of competition has begun over how the emerging new world will be arranged. The meeting with Biden was aimed at avoiding additional conflicts. It was an attempt to somehow normalize relations, to find ways at least not to worsen the current situation, which is already bad. The meeting with the Chinese President was aimed at developing cooperation, at modeling a new world, at creating favorable conditions for mutual prosperity. This is the fundamental difference. China and Russia can work together to form a new world order. Moreover, they are already doing it. And they even have had certain achievements along the way. For example, in the development of the Eurasian area. The United States is obviously not quite ready for the kind of equal and constructive cooperation that can be observed between Russia and China. Today it is very important to understand that a new world is taking shape. Western countries are trying to defend their former dominant position, they and their elites have moved on to what can be called active defense. They are trying to strengthen their positions by weakening their competitors, including China, Russia and other countries. The Chinese and Russian position is different: shared prosperity should be a condition for the prosperity of everyone, of all countries, of the whole world. If I may say so, the United States and its allies are the past, clinging to their privileges. Russia and China are the future. Incidentally, this does not mean it is impossible for there to be productive cooperation between all countries, including the United States, Western countries, China and Russia, and other countries as well.
GT: July 9 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China. The normalization of China-US relations ushered in an era of a China-Russia-US triangle. President Putin recently said that “The United States is now walking the Soviet Union’s path.” What is your opinion on this? How do you think the China-Russia-US triangle will develop in the future? Will another strategist like Kissinger appear in the US?
Bystritskiy: The appearance of a strategic thinker like Kissinger seems unlikely in the United States today. The fact is that 50 years ago, the USSR and the USA were relatively equal in strength. The USA realized that it could not defeat the USSR, that growing confrontation was not beneficial for the USA itself. The US elites were brave and inquisitive; they looked at the world rationally. Of course, they were not without selfishness, but still had the knowledge that they were not omnipotent. Kissinger then decided that turning to China and improving relations with it would help create a kind of balance, a balance of power, new to the world at the time. The novelty was that China was turning into another, completely independent and powerful player, although this transformation, of course, took a long time. The new balance created by Kissinger also implied a new interaction between Russia, the United States and China. And, surprisingly, this interaction has arisen. Of course, the development of relations did not quite follow Kissinger’s plan, perhaps even not at all. But, anyway, after 50 years we see that a strategy of constructive interaction between the three countries in the Russia-China-USA triangle is possible. But under one condition: the rationality of the elites, the ability to accept the world as it is, to realize the limits of their strength, their power. Alas, it is precisely the problem of rationality, of a sober assessment of reality today, that is an important problem, primarily for the United States itself. The efforts of all three countries are important for the development of relations in the China-Russia-USA triangle. But, from my point of view, the main efforts should be made by the United States. Today it needs to reconsider, and radically reconsider, the configuration of the current world and its role in it. At the same time, by the way, it needs to figure out what, in fact, are the interests of the United States.
GT: During Putin’s video meeting with Xi, the two sides announced they would extend the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. Article 9 of the treaty, which was signed in July 2001, says “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that… it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.” How do you view the significance of this article to both parties today?
Bystritskiy: This is a very important article. It implies close cooperation and common views on the modern world, on the origin of threats in it. The development trajectories of China and Russia are not the same; our countries differ in size, population, and type of development. But there is more in common. Both Russia and China see the world in a similar way and they are sensitive to the concept of sovereignty. The most important thing is that our countries also want fair play and equal opportunities for all countries to participate in world development. The most important problem is that Western countries in a broad sense, first of all the United States, cannot give up the illusions of their superiority and their exclusiveness. There is no doubt that the contribution of the West to the development of modern civilization is enormous. One can only admire Western science, Western achievements, the social development of Western societies. However, it is strange to see that if within Western societies there is a desperate struggle for emancipation, for the rights of various minorities, then in foreign policy there remains an amazing bias, a stubborn desire to impose values, which, by the way, are often disputed within the Western countries themselves. There is a feeling that the ruling elites of the West are trying to win back on the foreign policy front what they are losing on the domestic one. And this is very dangerous. There is no doubt that the United States and its Western allies are actively trying to slow down development and undermine the stability of our countries. The behavior of the West in a pandemic situation has become a striking illustration. Instead of open cooperation, striving for cooperation with all countries of the world, consolidation of efforts, we see selfish manipulation of public opinion, attempts to use the situation to draw new dividing lines, demonstrate their superiority, and weaken independently developing countries, such as Russia and China. Therefore, Article 9 is important. It shows the consent of China and Russia to cooperation, their understanding of threats and readiness to confront together those who are ready for aggression against our countries.
GT: Putin approved the updated Russian National Security Strategy on July 2. The updated document includes the expansion of strategic cooperation with China and India in the list of Russian foreign policy priorities. What is your take on Russia prioritizing ties with non-Western major powers like China and India?
Bystritskiy: First of all, we should look at the prospects of development of the world. It is obvious that a new world configuration is emerging right before our eyes. Who would have thought in ancient Rome that the British province would become, centuries later, a prosperous empire, the ruler of the seas? It was hard to imagine. And the Spanish, having reached America, hardly believed that the countries of the New World after a while would turn into large, powerful and independent countries. But what used to take centuries is now moving much faster. And it would be short-sightedness not to see how rapidly the centers of development are changing. China has become the world’s leading economy in an unusually short period of time. India is also developing rapidly, albeit in a different way. In general, it seems that the whole Greater Eurasia is in motion. Billions of people were drawn into a new policy, into a new development of Eurasia. Our macroregion is acquiring its own face, its own development profile, perhaps even its own certain self-identity. Of course, this is a complex process full of contradictions. External competition has not gone anywhere either. Many people are very unhappy that countries that have recently been historically weak and dependent are suddenly gaining their agency, their voice. Incidentally, with regard to China, President Xi Jinping spoke about this, emphasizing the country’s independence, its own view of what is happening in the world, its role in the development of world events. Therefore, it is clear that for Russia it is important to develop stable relations with the leading countries of Eurasia, such as China and India. It should be noted here that the strength of Eurasia lies in the fact that it is great and powerful. By the way, many leaders of countries such as Germany and France (which are also part of Eurasia) understood and talked about the need for a kind of unity of Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Of course, this is not an easy process, but the goal is also tempting. For Russia, it is important to strengthen the ties that cement Eurasia and protect its independence…
A lot of what I do with respect to the issues of Russia and U.S.-Russia relations is intended to educate an English-speaking audience about Russia in a fair-minded and fact-based way. That includes encouraging citizen diplomacy and writing about what Russia is really like as opposed to all the misinformation the average American is bombarded with. In my writing I try to explain Russia’s history, geography and culture in order to give Americans an understanding of what shapes Russia’s worldview and perceived interests. A huge portion of that writing involves critiquing and countering US/UK writers who say uninformed things about Russia, thereby contributing to inflammatory rhetoric and unnecessary conflict with the world’s other nuclear superpower. So I feel compelled to point out when a Russian writer does something similar with an English-speaking audience that is just as unhelpful.
On August 2nd, Alexander Lebedev published an oped at RT discussing incidents of anti-Russian bigotry that he has encountered while traveling and working abroad. Given that he chose to publish this piece in an English-speaking outlet, his audience and the people he is making his case to are presumably those in the English-speaking world, a significant chunk of which will be Americans.
At one point, after relaying a list of incidents (including the denial of a proposal to make modern electric ships in coastal Italy and having to drop the idea of a lawsuit against a baker in Britain whom he accidentally overpaid by $300,000), he makes a comparison to Black Lives Matter (BLM): Russia Lives Matter:
So, I have been thinking: perhaps it’s time we started our own movement called Russian Lives Also Matter! Sure, you could say that measures taken by the West against Russian tycoons (some have sanctions imposed on them, some are denied citizenship or kicked out of countries, others had their legally acquired Cyprus citizenship revoked) are partly compensated by their massive wealth – but shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights as everyone else?
This reference to Russian Lives Matter was also included in the headline. This was an unfortunate misstep by Lebedev. The examples of bigotry cited in the article, while they are unfair and should be called out, are not by any stretch of the imagination comparable to black Americans being murdered by the police.
There is debate within the US about the direction BLM has taken since it started out in response to the police killing of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. However, it was still a hugely disproportionate analogy for Lebedev to make.
There clearly is bigotry against Russians in US media, politics and culture (and elsewhere in the west) – which I have written extensively about – and I think Lebedev’s larger point about it being a problem that needs to be addressed is valid. But disproportionate and exaggerated comparisons are not helpful and will make some of the Americans – who are a part of the intended audience he’s clearly trying to appeal to – think that he’s an out-of-touch billionaire trying to compare his travails to that of low-income minorities who are being killed by police. Consequently, they will be a lot less likely to take him seriously and undermine the cause he is trying to bring attention to. In that case, I’m not sure what the practical point of his piece was.
We need to do everything possible to encourage diplomacy and programs that will pave the way for mutual understanding between the world’s two nuclear superpowers – which gives both countries and both peoples a special responsibility in the world. Uninformed and/or inflammatory rhetoric on either side is a huge obstacle to this goal. It would help for everyone on both sides to take this responsibility seriously and be more thoughtful about what they say publicly.
Having pored over former Financial Times reporter Catherine Belton’s book, ‘Putin’s People’, it’s hard to be surprised it is now causing her legal problems. More surprising is that it was published like this in the first place.
Despite being picked up by a major American publishing house, the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, Belton displayed a profound lack of journalistic judgement in how she conducted the research behind her explosive claims. And that’s coming back to bite her.
In one lawsuit brought by Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, the Russian founders of one of Moscow’s largest financial institutions, Alfa Bank, a settlement was reached last week. HarperCollins agreed to amend and edit parts of the book asserting that the pair of businessmen essentially had sponsorship from the KGB when they embarked on their entrepreneurial careers. According to the agreement, the publishers admitted the claims made in the book were unsubstantiated…
We’ve all heard the statement that Russia is a declining power. It is repeated so often by western pundits that it has become a truism.
The incoming leader of Britain’s MI6, Richard Moore, said so a few months ago. Even analysts who are considered more thoughtful, such as John Mearsheimer, have made a similar declaration. But is this statement really true? If not, why do we keep hearing it?
Basic Facts About Russia
To answer the first question, let’s look at some basic facts about Russia relevant to its position in the world. Russia is the largest country in the world geographically, straddles two continents, and possesses a nuclear arsenal as large and modern as that of the United States – if not more so. In terms of its non-nuclear military capacity, only the United States is considered stronger.
Regarding its economy, Russia’s GDP is eleventh in the world, behind Italy and Canada. However, Russian total purchasing power parity comes in at sixth in the world.
Russia possesses a wealth of natural resources including minerals, metals, precious stones, and wood. The country has also been the world’s first or second largest exporter of wheat for several years. It contains an educated population and consistently places highly in computer technology competitions.
The Russian Federation has only existed since 1991, so it makes the most sense to examine the last 30 years to determine whether or not the country is declining. This requires us to look at what Russia was like during the 1990s.
Two interesting pieces have been published in the past week that conclude the Russian political class truly believes that the US-led west is hostile to the point of posing an actual threat to both its security interests on the world stage and its domestic stability. We can debate the degree to which these conclusions may be true in objective reality, but the larger point is that there is evidence that the Russian leadership actually does believe this and is acting accordingly.
The first piece is, “Russia’s targeting of some opposition groups & media seems to be about links to hostile foreign states, not their support at home”, by historian and Russia expert Paul Robinson, published here. In this article, Robinson states that, unlike previous claims of Russia under Putin becoming overly repressive – claims that have often reflected hyperbole – recent actions against foreign-funded opposition and their media and NGO’s indicate a stepped up level of activity by the state against them:
Opposition supporters claim that the Russian “regime” is running scared. They point to the relatively low rating of the pro-Putin United Russia party and argue that the government is afraid of performing poorly in this September’s parliamentary elections. Great claims are also made of Navalny’s “smart voting” scheme, that encourages voters to cast their ballots for the candidate most likely to defeat that of United Russia. The new round of alleged state repression is said to reflect the authorities’ understanding that they can no longer rule by consent.
This explanation doesn’t fit well with the facts. Putin’s personal rating remains very high, and United Russia is still far ahead of its main electoral rivals – the Communists and the mis-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Given Russia’s electoral system, United Russia will almost certainly win a majority in this year’s parliamentary elections. Electorally speaking, it has little to fear from the likes of Navalny.
As for “smart voting,” it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In last year’s local elections, it had next to no effect on the results. Thus, It is unlikely that the Kremlin is seriously scared of it at all.
A somewhat better explanation, therefore, may have to do with the way that some oppositionists have targeted senior officials with accusations of corruption. Navalny is a case in point, as too is Proekt media.
There may be something to this, but at the same time, this is nothing new. Navalny did corruption exposés for years, including one attacking former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, without him being imprisoned or his foundation getting banned. Something has changed.
Recent state actions seem to be focused against those who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be acting on behalf of foreign interests or in some other way (such as defending alleged ‘traitors’ in court) as contrary to the interests of state security. This suggests that the key variable that has changed is the international situation. As this has gotten worse, a perception has hardened in official circles that the West is seeking to destabilize Russia with the help of collaborators within the country.
Robinson goes on to point out the fact that other liberal opposition parties and their support network – such as Yabloko – have not been affected by the crackdown, which reinforces his conclusion.
The second piece, “Is Russia playing the victim, or is the sense of impending siege justified?”, is by historian and Russia expert Geoffrey Roberts, published here. Roberts provides a summary and analysis of Russia’s most recent National Security Strategy document:
Having sown the wind, the West will now reap the whirlwind. Two decades of failure to see Russia’s point of view or to understand why Moscow feels so threatened have helped to create not just a rival but an adversary, a state whose main mission is to isolate itself from Western power and influence at any cost.
Moscow’s current view is that external dangers to Russia have only multiplied and intensified in recent years. Accordingly, the National Security Strategy asserts that Russia and its citizens are under attack. A number of foreign states identify Russia as a threat or, worse, a military opponent. These same states strive to isolate Russia internationally and to interfere in its domestic affairs. Amid a tough global struggle for spheres of influence, the use of force to resolve international problems has become increasingly common. There is a moral vacuum at the global leadership level. The liberal democratic model is in crisis and Western states are attempting to solve their domestic problems at Russia’s expense.
Strategically, Russia will respond to this unstable and threatening situation by strengthening its military, enhancing its internal security, and reducing its dependence on foreign trade, finances, and technologies.
Equally, the document lays out Russia’s commitment to a unified international order based on legal norms and respectful, trust-based relations between states. It wants to strengthen international institutions, especially the United Nations Security Council, which it sees as the foundation of global order. It aspires to reduce the threat of war, curtail renewed arms races and develop new mechanisms to safeguard strategic stability in the nuclear sphere. Politics, diplomacy and peacekeeping are Russia’s preferred foreign policy instruments as it seeks cooperation with other states in relation to nuclear proliferation, climate change, migration, health threats and counterterrorism.
These internationalist commitments are welcome but they are thin gruel compared to past proposals by Moscow for Russo-American strategic partnership and pan-European collective security. As Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin has commented, the new strategy is designed for an era defined by an “increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies.”
This sorry state of affairs is not seen as Russia’s doing, but the result of strident efforts by Western states to preserve their hegemony in an increasingly multipolar international system at a time of fierce all-around competition to control markets and financial resources.