What’s it about?
Arkady Ostrovky looks at Russia, Putin, Wars and Nationalism, and why Russia has not yet become a free-market democracy. His review illuminates how much has changed and stayed the same in Russia over the last half century.
Why Russia Seems Strong but is Weak:
- Russian’s knowledge of the past is patchy, filtered through the myths created by the current regime.
- The economy has descended into stagnation after a decade of economic growth. The market reforms of the 90’s have petered out, oil prices are low, and the States share of the economy has doubled. Competition has withered, the rule of law is patchy, the economy is run by a small clique of insiders, connected with the ruling political elite.
- The KGB has been rebuilt as the main vehicle for political and economic power, restoring the two main pillars of the Soviet state: propaganda and repression.
- Russia has a vibrant urban and wealthy middle class. Russian cities are modern and European. The young are educated and open minded.
- Putin’s annexation of Crimea and attack on Ukraine came after protests against his rigging of the 2011 election. Rattled, Putin began to spread nationalism, creating the notion of Russia as threatened by the West.
- Military triumphs and anti-American propaganda flood the airwavess, fueling the idea of a besieged country protected only by Putin and the security forces.
Russia has no intention of going to war with America or its allies. Instead it will act through non-military means “to undermine the general political and strategic potential of major Western powers, to disrupt national self-confidence, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity…
Anti-British talk will be plugged among Americans, anti-American talk among British. Germans will be taught to abhor both Anglo-Saxon powers. Where suspicions exist, they will be fanned; where not, ignited.”
So wrote George Kennan, the “wise man” of American diplomacy, in a famous telegram from Moscow in 1946.
Seventy years later the telegram seems as relevant as ever, because the system that Kennan described is being rebuilt.
Resurgence and Decline
Russia modified and liberalized after the collapse of the Soviet Union, creating private ownership, launching new industries, and freeing people to make money, consume and travel. The state retreated. Although TV, radio and print are controlled, the internet is free. At critical junctures an elite came to dominate the economy resurrecting the old spy service. The path of least resistance seemed to be chauvinism and paranoia, and the Kremlin’s traditional neurotic view of world affairs.
Putin’s skill has been to co-opt the public along the same lines. His propaganda builds on the disrespect and disbelief Russian’s have for objective truth. When all facts serve some purpose, it is easy to portray the West’s policies as rigged and as hypocritical as Russia’s are.
The new nationalism builds on traditional Russian insecurities, resentments and jealousies and is something the population wants to believe.
Take Away Points and Context
- It was naive to think that after 74 years of Soviet Rule, and several centuries of paternalism before, that Russia would emerge as a functioning Western-style democracy. Nevertheless, Russia’s current state was not inevitable and has been brought about by decisions the Russia elite have taken when facing hard choices.
- The economy is stifled by corruption, lack of external investment, an over-mighty state, weak rule of law, and an authoritarian culture that thrives on fear and keeps young minds closed. This increases the risk that Russia will face slow economic and intellectual degradation.
- Russia’s interventions abroad have, in the Russian people’s eyes, restored Russia’s status to that of a Great Power. Yet the Russian military is weak, its growth limited by a declining population and aging technology. Russia uses both military and non-military means to assert itself, and as a generation of leaders who lived through the second world war passes away, a new generation, less afraid of violence, threatens the use of nuclear power.
A Special Report in the Economist.
Why Russia Seems Strong but is Weak. Your comments welcome below.