Winter 2014

Putin’s Dream: Russia’s Nightmare

Sir Andrew Wood

President Putin has spoken with increasing insistence of the necessity of a new world order. He proclaims it essential to overcome US ambitions to dominate the globe, and to enforce its self-interested rules. His rhetoric, and apparently his beliefs, have become uncomfortably parallel to those of the late Hugo Chavez. 

Russia as a Great Power’

The narrative underlying this evolution in Putin’s thinking is of long standing, reflecting his abiding ambition for Russia to be recognised as a Great Power, with the privileges that go with that archaic concept. The search for such recognition has been given greater stress as Russia has gone through a faltering transition from what might once have laid the basis for a rule based system to one which is now dominated by a closed and it seems shrinking set around the President. The quasi-academic framework of the belief that the collapse of the USSR led to a unipolar world subject to diktat from Washington was in the atmosphere as Yeltsin’s Presidency neared its end. It has by now hardened into a basic foreign policy assumption. Moscow considers that Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union is the natural analogue to the United States, and should be treated as such. The European Union has been in this context seen at any rate until recently as no more than a minor irritant. Russia, as Putin has said often enough, has risen from its knees. 

It is true that the United States and its allies had more freedom of action — and if you prefer to look at it that way greater international responsibilities too — after the Soviet collapse. But so did other states. Uni-polarity was, and is, a myth. It stretches normal belief to suppose that Washington is set on dominating the world, or is in any position to do so. But Putin is now probably genuinely convinced that Western malevolence and cunning is responsible for a good part of his difficulties, in neighbouring countries as well as within Russia itself. It is in the nature of a hermetic system that Russian officials should not just mirror the beliefs of their leaders, but offer proof of their truth wherever possible. The fury that greeted the 2004 Orange Revolution in Kiev as Yanukovich’s first election” was overturned was only the precursor to the aggression against Ukraine following his flight in February this year. Both were justified on the grounds that the United States, in tandem with the European Union, had seized a Russian asset. The Cold War, for the present occupants of the Kremlin, has never ended. The truth that it was Yanukovich’s corruption, incompetence and authoritarian instincts that led to his fall would always have been uncomfortable for the Kremlin to acknowledge. 

There are those in the West who at least in part buy into the narrative of grievance which underpins the now prevailing Russian official view that their country is a fortress under siege, and that the way Moscow has been treated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union justifies its present anger. I find Russia’s retreat to its increasingly authoritarian structures, its refusal to face up to its internal problems, and its exaggerated view of its power and importance in the world to be better explanations. Russia’s leadership, in demanding respect, shows a lack of confident self-respect. The Kremlin’s reversion to a nationalist agenda is not just a cynical political manœuvre. It can only in part be explained because the Kremlin can no longer promise material prosperity in exchange for political passivity by Russia’s citizens. There is surely a measure of fear for the future here too. To read the account of the way that the United States destroyed the USSR given by Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, to Rossiskaya Gazeta, on 15 October or to listen to Putin’s remarks to the Valdai Club on 24 October on The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules” is to enter a parallel, and dark, universe. 

Russian Self-Absorption

Russia apparently lacks any sense of how its actions may appear to others, or any sense of the possibility of the Kremlin being mistaken. The effect is for Putin’s Russia and the outside world — not just the West — all too often to speak past each other. Does Putin know he is lying when he says that there are no Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine? If he does, is that why he objects so strongly when he is not believed? What did he mean when he told the Valdai Club on 24 October that the crisis in Ukraine is itself a result of a misbalance in international relations”? If he meant that Russia’s right to the decisive say over Ukraine should have been respected then what did he mean by also saying that Ukraine was a sovereign and independent state? What was the point of claiming that Russia had not been consulted during the negotiations leading up to the proposed Association Agreement with the EU, when it clearly had been, both by Ukraine and the EU? What exactly did Putin mean by saying on the same occasion that all the rules governing international relations after World War II were designed for a bipolar world”? Was he in any sense joking when he claimed then that if there is an area where Russia could be a leader — it is in asserting the norms of international law”? One can parse such remarks, but knowing when he is telling the truth as he understands it, when he is bluffing, when he is being hypocritical but daring anyone to contradict him, or when he is hinting at something concrete is an uncertain art. It is easy to suspect that he does not always know himself. 

Trust in the Kremlin’s word, Putin’s of course in particular, but not just Putin’s, has for those outside Russia been largely destroyed over the years, and over this year especially. That makes it all the more problematic to run with such ideas as he has floated for the way that a new world order might be developed. It was difficult enough to make anything concrete out of the generalised, almost content free, proposals for a new European Security architecture put out under President Medvedev’s signature. President Putin’s idea appears to be that what he insists, against the evidence, is still a unipolar world should be replaced by one of various poles interacting, with the actors refraining from intervening in the internal mechanisms governing the affairs of these various elements. He plainly has the Eurasian Union in mind as one such actor, along for instance with the Shanghai Cooperation Council or the BRICS group, as other examples. There has been vague talk of another Helsinki Agreement. The Russians talk of disarmament negotiations, and rail against US ideas on Missile Defence, while also laying the grounds for claims to greatly extended Arctic territories, and reminding the world with recent frequency that they have nuclear weapons they are ready to use if they have to. 

The result is a fog in which some bits of ideas can be discerned, but no coherent pattern with which the outside world can constructively grapple. Putin has talked of leading a conservative coalition but without attracting much following. He has spoken of Russian Values as separate from those of the West but without explaining what these might be. Then there is the Russian World, meaning all whom the Kremlin would choose to regard as Russian, inside or outside their country. The Kremlin would clearly like to bring order, according to its logic, to its immediate neighbourhood, and to Ukraine in particular. But the chances of Ukraine willingly now tying its fortunes to the Eurasian Union are nil. Russia’s attempts to force that country into the fold have put already cautious Kazakhstan and Belarus on greater guard, making the projected transition of the Union into a political as opposed to economic entity problematic. The Kremlin has made much of its turn to China as a potential balance or even compensation for its damaged relationship with the West in general and Europe in particular, But even if China were more willing than it appears to be to make concessions to Moscow for the sake of enhancing their longer term relations, it would take time and expense to build it up. The option of adding another expensive and criminalised frozen conflict to Russia’s new abroad” by somehow consolidating the hold of Russia’s proxies on bits of eastern Ukraine might perhaps assuage the Kremlin’s amour propre, but would be a poor return for the blood and treasure that Russia has invested. 

Russia’s Ukraine Dilemma

Putin has very likely been surprised, even shaken, by the reaction of the West to his Ukraine adventures, and by the relative cohesion of the EU and the United States. We got back to business as usual, and even a reset, rapidly enough in 2008 after Georgia. He would still hope to separate Brussels from Washington, all the more so no doubt given the Republican victories in the US mid-term elections, which imply that US sanctions will remain in force at least until the next Presidential contest is over. But the EU is not due to review its own measures until the summer of 2015. Even if sanctions are not enhanced they will increase their bite on the Russian economy. And Putin has unfinished business in Ukraine. The introduction of fresh forces and weaponry into the Donetsk and Luhansk area has so far only stirred fresh Western concern, but using them in an effort to consolidate or increase the area under the aegis of Russia’s proxies would be to risk further western measures in retaliation. To do nothing, however, would be to face the possibility of the pro- Russian forces gradually losing their cohesion, and/​or Moscow having to increase its financial as well as military support to maintain the Russian hold. Russia is not yet placed to freeze the conflict and sustain the enclave, but if its forces move beyond the areas they presently hold, where can they safely stop? 

Putin and the hard line supporters among his entourage may well hope that Ukraine will run out of money and the will to resist, and that the West too will tire before too long. They need as swift a resolution as they can manage, while being able to declare victory to their domestic audience. My belief is however that they have already over-reached themselves. The price of Crimea alone is formidable. Novorossiya”, however you care to define it, would be prohibitive. Kiev could not be compelled to pay for it if it became a reality. The Russian public does not want a war with Ukraine, but is uneasily aware that Russian soldiers are dying there. 

Russia’s Nightmare

Putin and his clan balked on his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 at the risks they saw in furthering economic and societal changes that could have promoted their country’s prosperity. They preferred a statist approach, and the determined repression of criticism. Even without sanctions, the result would have been discouraging, and not just for the economy. No state can prosper without informed debate, and autonomous institutions. Top down ad hoc management by a small group of self-interested figures is a recipe for long term failure. Russia is now in considerable economic difficulty. Retreat into a patriotic laager will not solve that. 

Putin’s dream of Russia once more becoming a Great Power is surely now badly tarnished. He has the comfort of the support of the great majority of his countrymen, bolstered by the thought that no one knows who or what would replace him if he disappeared. But he and his hardline supporters have backed themselves into a corner. 

Seizing Crimea and promoting anarchy in Eastern Ukraine may have been some sort of answer to feelings of frustration as to what Russia has become, but it was no answer to Russia’s true national interest in building a competitive economy and an effective state. It stretches the imagination to suppose that Putin will find some way to search for a fresh path over the next couple of years, as the money runs out and public enthusiasm cools. If he does not, then authoritarianism risks turning into something worse, and Russia’s future will be at serious risk. The Kremlin has already wounded the prospects for a new world order by acting on the value that might is right. A political crisis within Russia itself could destabilise it further. 

Sir Andrew Wood was formerly British ambassador to Moscow and is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House on the Russia and Eurasia Programme