Russians Questioning Putin’s War

Paul Goble reports:

As Russia’s financial and political difficulties mount, some Russians in an increasing number of sectors are beginning to question the wisdom of Moscow’s decision to send troops into Georgia, with one analyst suggesting that the only thing Russia got out of this conflict was “a sense of euphoria.”

Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, human rights groups in Moscow condemned what Moscow had done. As the war proceeded and as the costs, moral, political and economic, continued to mount, opposition groups began to criticize the Kremlin’s policies. And today, more Russians not directly linked to these groups are asking questions. But the key to any change in Russian policy almost certainly lies with Russia’s wealthiest business leaders, not only because they are watching the value of their holdings and their opportunities for further expansion decline but also because, after the Putin years, they and their firms are increasingly intertwined with the state.

So far this last group has not spoken out, and they are unlikely to. But faced with the worst performing stock market in the world over the last six weeks, the decline in the value of the ruble, and increasing difficulties with acquiring credits abroad, they have cast an important vote against the Kremlin’s policies not with statements to the press but by sending even more of their holdings abroad.  (Ties between business and government in Russia are now so close that it is possible to speak about the re-emergence of state capitalism. For a discussion of this and of the ways the views of each are likely to be able to affect the views of the other, see, for example, here.)

While he is not a businessman, Dmitry Furman, one of Moscow’s most distinguished historians, may have provided some insight into the thinking of many in Russia now when he suggested in an interview posted online today that Moscow’s “war with Georgia gave Russia nothing except euphoria”. One can explain, he says, what Moscow did in Georgia in psychological terms – the Kremlin decided that President Mikhail Saakashvili needed to be punished for his outspoken anti-Moscow views and that Georgia was small enough and far enough away from Europe to make it “an ideal boy for beating.” And it is also possible to explain the support the Kremlin has received so far from the Russian population in psychological terms as well, the Moscow historian continues. The population, he says, has the psychology of a teenager. It wants to demonstrate that it cannot be pushed around. When the government strikes a similar pose, the Russian people will support it.

But neither of these psychological impulses has generated the kind of strategy that justifies what Moscow is doing, something that might allow it to attract support from others and guarantee that the Russian government and the Russian people will continue to act in a consistent way. Indeed, Furman says, at the present time, Moscow “does not have any strategy at all or any long term plans.” That is a major shift from Soviet times, then Moscow had a policy and both the Soviet people and the world knew what it was, allowing for both consistency and predictability. But “in the current political system which copies the Soviet system with its lack of rotation at the top, its unity of power, and its ritual democratic process, there is not the former ideological basis.” And the ideological basis that the leadership offers to the Russian people and the world “is contradicted by our reality.”

“Medvedev and Putin say of themselves ‘We are democrats,’ and they are not lying; they really think of themselves that way. But at the same time, Putin over the course of his time in office finished building the undivided presidential system of power which Yeltsin had begun and both did everything they could so that Russia would not be surrounded by democratic states.”

“We have no ideology which could justify our current reality,” Furman observes. “And therefore, there cannot be a strategy.”  Without a strategy, he says, it is impossible to decide what to do or to determine what constitutes victory. With regard to Georgia, “what did we want?” That is a question that no one in the Russian government answered or even tried to answer. And all the suggestions by others have fallen short. “Did we want to support small peoples oppressed by the Georgians out of humanitarian considerations? That explanation is completely excluded to the extent that we had [the two military conflicts with independence-minded] Chechnya, and there humanitarian considerations did not play any role.”

“Had we decided to include within Russia Georgian territories and thus expand the size of our state? Then the question immediately arises: what do we in general want to add? Where is the territory? Before, there was the idea of the victory of socialism in the whole world. But what is involved here? Whom do we want to join with us?” Furman said. Asked by his interviewer whether Moscow might have taken this action to remove Saakashvili. His response to that notion is devastating. “This is not the way to do it. Instead, by our actions, we strengthened his power.” And even if he were removed, Moscow lacks “the people and mechanisms” to put Moscow’s man in his place. And if “we wanted not to allow the Americans to assume a major role in Georgia,” then what Russia did has had the opposite effect, driving that country and its citizens further away from Russia than ever before and closer than ever before into the arms of the West in general and the United States in particular.

Without a strategy, Moscow has not expanded its control over pipeline routes and it has acted in a way that guarantees not only “the increase of our isolation in the world” but “a new outburst of separatism in Russia” because “it is impossible to have at one and the same time a Russian embassy in Tskhinvali and a peaceful Chechnya and Ingushetia inside Russia.” Moreover, without a strategy, it has not won over even its supposed allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) because that body, which he says is “melting” like an iceberg is now little more than a mutual protection society for authoritarian regimes who are fearful of “orange”-style revolutions.

There is, Furman says, “no principle difference between the regimes of [Uzbekistan’s Islam] Karimov, [Kazakhstan’s Nursultan] Nazarbayev and [the Russian Federation’s Dmitry} Medvedev.” When times are good, they all look to the West; when times are bad, they gather around Moscow for protection. But there is an even more serious problem with Moscow’s lack of a strategy, Furman argues: It both reflects and reinforces the reality that Russia is now a country where everything could change overnight, the hope of some but the greatest fear of many in the business-bureaucratic elite, who would likely be among the biggest losers such change occurred.

One response to “Russians Questioning Putin’s War

  1. It is fascinating to note that the Russian stock exchanges are in free fall, yet Russian online newspapers barely mention what is going on.

    Let us take the case of September 15th. The DOW Jones industrials slid 4.42% and all the online news media across the United States, Canada and Europe are talking about it in catastrophic terms.

    The same day, the Russian RTS fell by 4.78% and the MICEX by 6.18% and the online Russian news sources don’t even bother reporting it. It is now old news that the Russian stock market is dropping every day in value.

    So much for all the talk of Russia being a “safe haven” for investors.

    LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS: Thanks for the comment, Michel, and we wouldn’t mind if you copied and pasted it into our most recent post about the stock market, roosting chickens.

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