Yesterday, Vladimir Putin blamed his country’s financial woes on the United States, condemning the “irresponsibility” of the American government, yet failing to acknowledge that Russian aggression has had a big impact in unsettling global confidence in Russia’s economy. Putin’s condemnation is just the latest in a long list of antagonism on the part of Russia. Recent events have made it amply clear that Russia is not only positioning itself as a resurgent superpower, but as a foil to the United States. Russia’s actions also make it obvious that the overriding principle of its foreign policy is to thwart America’s efforts around the world. Russia does this by arming and supporting America’s enemies, undermining and intimidating America’s allies, and subverting America’s policies whenever and wherever there is an opportunity for so doing.
Here are just some of the actions that Russia took in the last few months:
1) It threatened a nuclear attack against countries hosting the Ballistic Defense Shield; flew nuclear bombers to Cuba;
2) continued to sponsor Iran’s nuclear program;
3) sold advanced weapons systems to Syria;
4) held join military exercises and promised nuclear cooperation with Chavez;
5) and attacked and sought a regime change in Georgia (one of America’s closest allies).
Even though we are clearly on a collision course, America has yet to see clearly the real nature of our adversary. There are many in our government who view Russia as a fledgling democracy and think that it can still become an international partner. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is simply no longer possible for us to see eye to eye with Russia, because its system of government is now in conflict with our own. As long as it remains in place, Russia’s hostility will only keep increasing no matter what we do. The sooner we recognize this, the better we will able to steer clear of naïve and misguided policies based on false assumptions.
Russia’s present-day system of governance could be best described as autocracy. The last five years saw a rapid accumulation of political power in the hands of a small clique led by Vladimir Putin. Even though Putin no longer holds the country’s highest office – he is Prime Minister now – there is no question that he is the one holding the reins of power. The Russian parliament – the Duma – is loaded with Putin’s friends with his party United Russia holding 315 of the legislature’s 450 seats. Russia’s newly-minted President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s long time follower and protégé, is merely his mentor’s executive extension.
Many in the West have not been able to clearly perceive the autocratic nature of Russia’s government, mainly because they have been misled by the lingering illusion of political openness. The fact that it still possible to express differing political opinions and even to voice dissent (to an extent) has led many to the mistaken belief that Russia is still a democracy of sorts.
This is decidedly not so, for it is impossible to mount a serious electoral challenge to those in power. Any potentially viable opposition party is gutted well before it can become a legitimate contender. This is usually done under false legal pretences, obscure procedural motions or arcane technicalities. Last year, for example, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was disqualified from the presidential race on the grounds that he “failed” to comply with electoral law by holding a meeting where 500 supporters would endorse his candidacy. This, however, was not due to any laxness on Kasparov’s part. What happened was that Moscow’s municipal government – run by Putin’s friends – made sure that no venue in the city would allow Kasparov to rent a hall which could accommodate 500 people. Kasparov’s plea that votes from smaller gatherings be added up went unheeded.
Independent newspapers are subjected to similar treatment, especially come election time. Many have been raided by law enforcement, their computers taken away and their operations disrupted for long periods of time. This is almost always done under the pretext of cracking down on the use of unlicensed software. Although it is true that software piracy is rampant in Russia, the government’s enforcement is selective and usually aimed against people and organizations who speak out against the regime. In May of last year, for example, police in the city of Samara raided the offices of a private group that specializes in monitoring elections. Tellingly, the ride took place 90 minutes after the group’s head, Ludmila Kuzmina, made a statement on radio in support of a protest march organized in that city by Kasparov. After the group’s computing equipment was seized and an inquiry opened, Kuzmina had to sign documents promising not to leave the city until the authorities completed their investigation. “The quality of our work is suffering. I am under pressure all the time. They call me for interrogations. All I do is deal with the police,” she said.
The outlook of Russia’s current regime is historically anomalous in that it does not subscribe to a distinct ideology. This is unusual, because power grabs normally take place under an ideological cover which – if the plotters are secular – is almost invariably a variation on the socialist theme. Historical examples abound: the Soviet Union, all countries of the Eastern block, China, Cuba, North Korea. In fact, there has hardly been a secularist takeover in the last 80 years that has not been socialist in nature (Nazi Germany is no exception as Hitler was an avowed socialist). Today we see this dynamic unfolding in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.
Given Russia’s harrowing communist past, the regime’s power play could not be presented in socialist terms even though Putin himself is a former communist. What has emerged instead is an odd mixture of Russian nationalism, populism, a cult of personality and increasing anti-Americanism. This provides a less than coherent ideological framework on which to base an autocratic rule and, as a result, the Kremlin has to improvise by pulling on different strings at different times. As Putin’s popularity has declined, for instance, the government increasingly plays up the nationalistic theme. This was especially apparent during the recent invasion of Georgia which was largely cast in nationalist garb. It was said to be the duty of the Russian people to save their South Ossetian brethren from the oppression by the Georgians under the malevolent Mikhail Saakashvili. The fact that most of those “Russians” were given Russian citizenship only quite recently was omitted from the narrative. Needless to say, the ploy worked and the government’s “rescue operation” received widespread domestic support.
Until recently Vladimir Putin enjoyed considerable popularity, but it now appears to be on the wane. In last month’s poll asking Russians who they would support for president, Putin came out with only 33 percent. This is decidedly low for a man who used to enjoy 80 percent plus approval ratings and who took more than 70 percent of the vote in 2004. Putin, however, would come on top as the current president Dmitry Medvedev received only 14 percent in the same survey. That less than 50 percent of Russians would vote for these two men is an indictment of the regime. And there is every reason to assume that if there were a visible opposition figure the number would be lower still. This serves as a stark remainder that autocrats are never liked long by their own people. If they were, they would gladly maintain their power via the democratic process. If the 70 plus percent of the vote that Putin and Medvedev each claimed in the last two elections were a true reflection of popular support, there would be no need for opposition crackdowns.
It is difficult to predict Russia’s prospects in the long run. It is clear, however, that in the short term the current regime will not be displaced by electoral means. This does not mean that its rule is assured indefinitely. A serious crisis could alter the political landscape dramatically. In the middle of September the two Russian bourses had to shut down on two consecutive days to halt massive sell-offs in the equities market. At the end of the second day, the Russian stock market was down nearly 50 percent since May. Should the market instability translate into widespread economic hardship – which is a real possibility – those in power would take the heat as there is no one else to blame. In the wake of the bourses shut downs, Putin tried to fault America but such blame-shifting has only limited effectiveness. Blaming the country’s economic woes on the United States will simply not work if people cannot afford bread and milk in the grocery store around the corner.
Whatever happens in Russia in the years ahead, we need to recognize that the current Russian regime has gone too far along the totalitarian road to share common goals with a democratic country like the United States. Any hope that goodwill gestures or concessions will be either well received or reciprocated is wishful thinking. Like their Soviet predecessors, the current crop of Russia’s autocrats harbor an unquenchable animus toward the United States and what it stands for. And like their Soviet predecessors, they prefer the friendship of gutter regimes like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.