Author’s note January 2016. Well, this didn’t turn out the way I expected, did it? Thanks to Washington’s machinations and especially the Ukraine coup, the “Assertive Enemy” phase remains with us, with a vengeance.
The Third Turn
The hypothesis of this essay is that the conventional Western view of post-Communist Russia has passed through two cycles and is entering a third. While the first two were grounded mostly on what observers wished to see, the third is shaping up to be based more on reality.
As Tom Graham wisely observed some years ago: while no one will take seriously a country with a declining GDP, no one can ignore one whose GDP is rising. When the USSR fell apart in 1991, its extraordinarily centralised economy, whose links were now were blocked by new national borders, choked and died. Living standards sank, inflation exploded, the tax base collapsed, state employees went months without pay, factory employees were paid in kind, the social support system failed and the demographic decline that had begun in the Khrushchev period accelerated. All indicators worsened at once. This was the time when “free fall” was a favourite descriptor. A reminder of this period was a piece that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 2001, starkly entitled: “Russia is Finished.” Still available on the Net, it makes curious reading today.
The apparently unstoppable collapse of Russia led to two prevailing views in the West. The first was that Russia was a kind of “little brother” which Western expertise could educate or lead into a future in which the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. In furtherance of this teaching mission, Russia filled with Western NGOs coming to transform its institutions. The second, and related view, was that Russia was no longer a threat but had become a danger. This was the period of “red mercury”, missing “suitcase nukes” and other nuclear weapons, crazy Russian generals in the provinces – in short, Russia’s collapse was a danger to the rest of us. This first phase might be summed up by the expression that we must help little brother lest he blow up and spatter all over us.
But Russians have a different view of the 1990s. I can think of no better illustration than a woman I know in Moscow. At the beginning of the period, she had saved up enough money – about 5000 Rubles – to buy a car. A year later that sum of money would have bought a monthly Moscow transit pass and a year later two loaves of bread. But at least she had a job. While hundreds of thousands saw their standard of living disappear, some individuals, feasting on the decaying carcass, became fabulously wealthy; the apogee of this period was Berezovskiy’s boast in 1996 that he, and five others, owned Russia. And perhaps they did: through fixed auctions and financial prestidigitation, they certainly controlled a good deal of it. Much of the so-called free press of the time was devoted to their wars as they calumniated each other in order to steal more.
Many Russians acquired bad associations with the word “democracy”. The democracy the West advocated was experienced by them as theft, corruption, poverty, crime and personal suffering. I recommend two books to readers for this first period: Janine Wedel’s Collision and Collusion and Chrystia Freeland’s Sale of the Century. Also, I recommend a consideration of the HIID scandal. In my more cynical periods, I think that the lasting effect of all the Western aid/assistance was to teach the Russians how to steal big time. Suspicious Russians, sticking to the zero-sum game, were strengthened in their suspicion that the West really wanted a weak and divided Russia.
The Assertive Enemy
But in 2000 the decline began to slow. The 1990s had been cursed, from Moscow’s perspective, by declining energy prices. Given that the overwhelming proportion of Russia’s money-earning exports came from sales of oil and gas, declining prices were a heavy blow. But they began to increase in the late 1990s giving the state budget some openings.
Enter Putin. For reasons not entirely clear even now, Yeltsin picked Putin to be his successor. He brought him from St Petersburg where he had been Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak’s deputy, to head Russia’s internal security force in 1998. He appointed him Prime Minister next year, resigned in his favour and Putin was duly elected President in 2000. Western reporters, mostly based in Moscow and having little knowledge other than in the Rolodexes inherited from their predecessors, fixated on the fact that he had begun his career in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB and stuck with that as their descriptor. Had they bothered to go to St Petersburg, they would have learned that he was very well known there because one of his jobs had been the City’s contact with Western businesses. But the mould was cast and Putin was forever a Chekist; his speeches and writings – especially his Russia at the turn of the new millennium – were combed for KGB-sounding entries. When he said “Russia was and will remain a great power”, it was interpreted to mean he wanted to invade Poland.
No one noticed that he also said in the document “The current dramatic economic and social situation in the country is the price which we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union”; that he spoke of “the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment”; that he said that it would be “a mistake not to understand its historic futility It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”. A few did observe his blunt assessment that “It will take us approximately fifteen years and an annual growth of our Gross Domestic Product by 8 percent a year to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal or Spain, which are not among the world’s industrialised leaders.” Commentators especially missed this encomium to democracy: “History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democratic systems are intransient”. The whole “Putin program”, which continues today, is laid out; read it for yourself.
Selective quotations set the style for most commentary for the next decade or so. Returning to Graham’s observation, as GDP began to grow under the “steely-eyed former K-G-B spy”, Russia gradually morphed from a danger into a threat. It became “resurgent” and “assertive”; that is to say it stopped declining. “Putin Wants a New Russian Empire” we were told.
As an illustrative example of this one-eyed coverage, “the steely-eyed former intelligence officer” told us in advance that Russia would no longer sell its precious gas to its immediate neighbours for a third or a quarter of what it could get on the world market. For fifteen years Russia subsidised all its neighbours for billions and billions. Putin warned us – but not loudly enough – that this would no longer go on. But, when Russia started re-negotiating contracts to move the price up, its neighbours cried wolf. Russia was not trying to sell one of its most important assets for as much as it could get, it was threatening Europe and its neighbours with its gas weapon.
We were now regularly warned about Putin’s new Russian empire: “only one agenda on Mr Putin’s mind: to increase his iron grip on his country and rebuild the once-mighty Russian empire”. The foundation stone in the edifice of this notion was the endlessly repeated assertion that in a 2005 speech Putin had given the game away by saying that the breakup of the USSR had been “the greatest” geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. (In that same speech he said: “I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be our main political and ideological goal”; but, even if reporters bothered to read that, they presumably decided that it was just for show). But he did not say it was “the greatest”: the Russian is very clear. What he said was this: “Прежде всего следует признать, что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века.” (“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”) And he went on to say that it had been so because “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” One can argue with his opinion about how “big” this “disaster” was, but his speech was not a call for empire. Western commentators continued their practice, established when the Moscow-bound Western press had not bothered to find out what people in St Petersburg thought of their Deputy Mayor, of fitting whatever Putin said into the once-and-future-KGB mould. This misquotation, and the theoretical edifice erected upon it may be found here, here, here, here, here; the reader is invited to search for more. But it’s not what he said.
In each of these two examples – which were much made of at the time – we see the continuation of the initial prejudging: Putin had started out in the KGB, “once a Chekist always a Chekist”, therefore everything he does is a threat to his neighbours. Everything he says that can be twisted into a threat is true, everything else is false. The propensity to believe that Putin means some of the things he says but not others is the apodictic indicator of partisanship.
In the 1990s the word “democracy” had acquired distasteful attributes for Russians and it acquired another in the second period. This was the period of “coloured revolutions” in which victors immediately began to talk about NATO’s interests as if they were identical with theirs. Ukrainian President Yushchenko seemed to have little else in his program and, just before he went down to defeat this year, made it clear: “if we don’t give [a positive] answer [to the question of NATO membership] as a nation, then we will not have independence. We will lose our democracy.” NATO membership had now become the new meaning of “democracy”. For many Russians in the 1990s “democracy” had meant corruption and poverty and now geopolitics was added to its meaning: a geopolitics directed against them.
And now we come to Russia’s so-called invasion of Georgia. The desire of Ossetians and Abkhazians not to be ruled from Tbilisi was clear to those who knew the background: they fought Tbilisi when the Russian Empire collapsed; when the USSR collapsed they defeated Georgian attacks and won de facto independence. On 8 August 2008, just a few hours after President Saakashvili had said “Georgia is undertaking an immediate, unilateral cease fire”, his army invaded. The Ossetians stopped them and, when Russian troops arrived, the Georgians broke and ran, abandoning their cities and their weapons. In the end, South Ossetia and Abkhazia welcomed their Russian liberators, as they call them, and declared their independence.
The Third Turn
I believe this war marked the beginnings of a reassessment of Western views of Russia. Paris took a lead in trying to settle the war. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Tbilisi on 10 August and from thence went on to Moscow. But in transit he did something quite remarkable – he visited the Ossetian refugees in Russia and spoke to them. This was remarkable because Western coverage had never considered the Ossetians: the whole story was cast in terms of Russia, Georgia, NATO and other large issues. Kouchner learned that, for the Ossetians, Russia was the saviour and Georgia the oppressor. I believe that this experience inoculated Paris against swallowing Tbilisi’s story whole.
A ceasefire was negotiated, the Russian forces pulled back to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and those two declared their independence. But there were lessons learned. The obvious one was that Moscow was no longer the weak and spiritless place it had been a decade ago. But also learned was that Saakashvili was simply not reliable: you could not believe anything he said. Even the long-delayed and feeble EU report on the war did not accept his post-bellum assertion that the Russians had moved first (his story changed several times). Once one began to think along those lines one was forced to question the whole narrative that Tbilisi had given out. It was like pulling on a thread in a poorly knitted sweater: the whole narrative of Moscow wanting to conquer Georgia and telling lies about it began to unravel.
With the end of the “Orange Revolution” another yarn unravelled: Ukrainians did not want to be pawns in some grand geopolitical game and Viktor Yanukovych was not a Russian stooge who could only win elections by cheating. In the latest gas crisis with Ukraine Moscow was smarter and more transparent: it became evident that the blockage of Russian gas going west was not in Moscow but in Kiev. This was another thread in the sweater; the narrative about the “gas weapon” had studiously avoided noticing that Moscow was putting up the price for everyone, friends and enemies alike: Armenia and Belarus also had to pay more. The sweater unravelled some more.
The “coloured revolutions” ended unhappily. President Yushchenko of Ukraine was defeated: never more than a quarter of Ukrainians had expressed support for his NATO aims and only a twentieth wanted him back. The revolt and change of government in the Kyrgyz Republic finished off the “Tulip Revolution”. The declining group of defenders of the “Rose Revolution” now have to overlook Saakashvili’s machinations to remain in power and his apparent courtship of Iran.
Another important development since 2008 is that the Putin program has proved to have legs: despite apocalyptic predictions, Russia got through the financial crisis reasonably well. Here are two small indicators: Russia’s unemployment rate is actually less than the USA’s and the IMF predicts better growth for Russia over the next five years than for any other G8 country. Russia is not about to collapse into insignificance. And, internally, Russia’s leaders enjoy overwhelming majority support.
I suggest that the West is entering a new cycle in how it perceives Russia. Gone is the patronising little brother phase and going is the Russia is the eternal enemy phase. What we are entering, I believe, is a period – perhaps the first ever – in which Russia is seen as a country much like others. A country with which its neighbours must deal but deal with in a normal fashion: neither as an idiot failure nor as an implacable enemy. An important partner in security, not the cause of insecurity.
The West has not had a very good record of seeing Russia as it is; more often it has been a palimpsest on which the visitor has written his notions. I recommend Martin Malia’s Russia Under Western Eyes which starts with Voltaire’s imaginary ideally-governed Russia or David Foglesong’s The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’ which details a century of American obsessions about a Russia seen as a disappointingly stubborn and backwards twin brother.
But it is certain that change there has been since August 2008. Here are some indicators.
The famous “reset” of the Obama Administration. Some of the fruits, apart from a new nuclear weapons treaty have been:
The US State Department finally put the leader, but not the organisation itself, of the Caucasus Emirate on its terrorist list (the jihadist foundations of the second war in Chechnya has been one of the West’s persistent misunderstandings).
The abandonment of strategic missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic. Although the deployment had little support in either Poland or the Czech Republic, it was strongly supported by the political classes in each country. Another example, it seems, of democracy becoming geopolitics.
The air crash that killed Polish President Kaczynski and the open and sympathetic reaction of Russians has opened possibilities with Poland, previously one of Russia’s most implacable opponents inside NATO.
The financial crisis has hit many of the former post-USSR success stories quite hard and made them re-think relations with Russia. Latvia is a pertinent example.
Relations with NATO are changing rapidly. NATO expansion has been dealt a blow: it’s clear that Ukraine will not join and no one wants to share a table with Saakashvili. But more to the point, NATO has, after a dozen years of treating Russia with contemptuous indifference, realised that it needs Russia in Afghanistan. While the General Secretary of NATO says different things to different audiences (for example in Tbilisi saying that Georgia will be a member of NATO one day), he has also been making overtures to Moscow, calling a few weeks ago for a “true strategic partnership.” I suspect that Paris and Berlin (and perhaps now Warsaw too) are pushing him.
For several years, President Medvedev has been calling for a re-think of the European security system. At first dismissed as “an attempt to split Europe” his idea is receiving better reception.
Crying wolf – what more ridiculous example can there be than this hyperventilation: “Putin’s shadow Falls over Finland” – is losing its effect. Russia’s neighbours have not been bludgeoned into slavery by the “gas weapon”, Russian troops did not “conquer Georgia” and annex the pipelines. After these and (many) other predictive failures, new doom-filled warnings are that much less believable.
The metaphorical sweater is unravelling rapidly. If Ossetians and Abkhazians regard Russians as their protectors, one cannot believe the story Tbilisi has been telling us for years. If Yanukovych won a fair election, perhaps it was the “Orange Revolution” that was the fraud. If Armenia has had its gas prices go up as much as Ukraine, then it can’t be a “gas weapon” to reward friends and punish enemies. What was stopping Russian troops from seizing large parts of Georgia proper? perhaps Putin neither wants the empire back nor to control the pipelines. If Russia’s principal enemy in the North Caucasus is a “terrorist”, then what’s really going on there? If China and Zimbabwe are members of the WTO, why isn’t Russia?
Paris and Berlin continue to lead: at the three-way summit in Deauville, overtures were made as was clear from the press conference. President Sarkozy said “We are certain that Russia, Germany and France share common positions in many respects” and that “we live in a new world, a world of friendship between Russia and Europe.” Chancellor Merkel said “we need to put relations between Russia and NATO on a rational track. After all, we face some of the same threats in the world today.” Medvedev, for once not the suppliant, was less forthcoming but made it clear he was listening.
These are, to be sure, straws in the wind but there are now quite a few of them and more come every day. Barring some unexpected catastrophe, I expect this development to continue. Paris and Berlin (and perhaps Warsaw) are leading developments but others will join in. The coming NATO summit will move the process a step further.
The end result, for perhaps the first time in history, will be a Western view of Russia more nearly as it actually is; no longer an imagined reflection. As an important player with its own interests Russia will have to be accommodated. Not an enemy, not an opponent, not necessarily an ally, but an important player that, in fact, marches in the same direction most of the time. And when it doesn’t, disagreements can be discussed and reasonable compromises made. In short, a Russia that is seen to be “in the box”.