Russia – Moving Borders Politely
Vladimir Putin’s index finger is hovering over the, presumably red, button that activates nuclear Armageddon. The president of Russia threatened to bring the finger down should NATO further reinforce its defence of the Baltic States or make any attempt, covert or otherwise, to wrestle control of the Crimean Peninsula away from Moscow. President Putin had his disconcerting habit of fumbling with nuclear control buttons conveyed to US intelligence officers during a meeting – cloaked in secrecy of course – with their Soviet Russian counterparts. The spy summit reportedly took place in Moscow earlier this year.
The get-together allowed the Russians to give their American peers a heads-up regarding the intentions of the Putin Administration. The Russian president is said to mull responses “ranging from nuclear to non-military” in order to undermine NATO’s presence in the Baltics where a rapid reaction force to counter Russian advances is now taking shape. In their post-meeting assessment, the American spooks concluded that Russia probably aims to “unsettle” the Baltic States with cyber-attacks and by stoking up ethnic tensions. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all have sizeable populations of ethnic Russians that eventually may need rescuing.
This dovetails nicely with the domestic charm offensive that the Russian Army recently unleashed. With the full blessing of the top brass, the design bureau of the Ministry of Defence has produced a formidable new weapon: a fashion line. It is aptly – albeit rather predictably – named The Army of Russia. The collection was unveiled to oohs and aahs at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Moscow which ended March 31.
“Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all have sizeable populations of ethnic Russians that eventually may need rescuing.”
The design bureau’s director Leonid Alexeev was on hand to present the balaclavas, boots, tops, sweatpants, and accessories that seek to cash in on the Russian public’s love affair with the nation’s armed forces. The apparel comes emblazoned with curious slogans. One of these – “Politeness Conquers Cities” – seems to refer directly to the events of 2014 when Russian forces “politely” requested the Ukraine military to vacate the Crimea.
The Russians’ reading of what Western powers consider an invasion followed by an annexation is more than the deferred post-imperial syndrome usually diagnosed. While many Russians applaud their country’s geopolitical ascendancy, there is more at play than just jingoism. In the most basal of terms: President Putin is buying support; his cross-border forays are merely an added dimension.
Though at times statistics may be misused to underwrite flights of fancy; they can also shed light on otherwise inscrutable developments. Abraham Lincoln remarked that: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time; but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Honest Abe forgot to mention that you can actually buy people. President Putin knows this only too well: it has kept him in power.
Where have all the white ribbons gone that enlivened the failed Snow Revolution of December 2011? This was when protesters filled Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in the tens of thousands to express collective disgust with the widespread vote rigging that allowed President Putin’s United Russia Party to cling to a narrow majority in the State Duma. At the time, polls showed that well over 40% of the population supported the protesters’ demands to at least some degree. More than half of the Russians queried felt that corruption had significantly increased and constituted the country’s most serious challenge.
While the crackdown on political dissent certainly contributed to the restoration of order, it remains curious that relatively few people actually joined the protests before the repression hit. Most Russians kept their grumblings private and their heads down. Sociologists have pondered this pervasive indifference exhaustively and concluded that, while to most Russians the outlook may have seemed bleak, their actual circumstances in 2011-2012 were none too bad. This helps explain why the protests in Russia failed to gain traction whereas those elsewhere – Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia – did succeed in toppling presidents. Here, the present moment looked so atrocious that the future – whatever its shape – could only bring improvement.
Spreading Cash Around
With oil prices at or near historical highs, Russia in 2012 raked in over $512bn in export revenue. Part of that cash was spread around. While in 2011 the country’s GDP expanded by 4.8% and government revenue increased by 8%, average salaries shot up by 13.6%. Another statistical jewel shows the proportion of welfare payments in relation to overall incomes. Between 2005 and 2007, social benefits represented slightly over 12% of the total salary pie. By 2012, the share of social pay-outs had increased to 18.1%.
Simultaneously, pay derived from entrepreneurial activities decreased as a share of total income: from 20.6% in 2007 to barely 14% in 2012. Finally, the income of workers employed by the state – about one in three Russians are on the government’s payroll – increased 1.6 times faster than take-home pay of people employed by private business.
These numbers paint an interesting picture: people exposed to the vagaries of the free market fared markedly less well than those dependent on the state, either as workers or benefit claimants. At the time of the protests, most Russians doubted that their prosperity would last; however, President Putin made sure it did and thus removed the publics’ anxieties.
By vastly increasing the number of people co-opted into the system, the Putin Administration not only managed to survive, but actually saw its popularity explode. Now that the bread had been provided, the games could begin.
President Putin is quite frank when discussing his government’s mission: it is to cast a New Russia along the historical, cultural, religious, and geographical lines that existed during the weaning years of the Romanoff Dynasty. President Putin denies that he wishes to impose a state doctrine based on religious and historical values to replace Marxism as the driver of national purpose. However, he does seem to value a reappraisal of lost cultural values and the introduction of a vaguely termed “qualitative democracy” not necessarily linked to conventional electoral arithmetic.
Taking a Cue from Portugal
Eschewing the anthropocentric ways of the perfidious Western powers, President Putin proposes a more benevolent corporatist alternative not unlike the Estado Novo (New State) created by António Salazar, Portugal’s prime-minister and virtual dictator between 1932 and 1968: not so much fascist state as conservative, technocratic, nationalist, and authoritarian one.
Parallel to the Estado Novo – which aimed to preserve and perpetuate Portugal’s vast colonial empire through its doctrine of Lusotropicalism – President Putin’s New Russia can only come about if it manages to re-establish the country’s role as the powerbroker in Eastern Europe. Although the Crimea was easily snatched and Eastern Ukraine quickly destabilised, these were but the low hanging fruits. The geopolitical objectives – or irredentism – pursued by Moscow to implement Putin’s grand vision may yet result in the reabsorption of the Ukraine’s rump. However after that, Russia will need to reach higher, punching – perhaps – above its weight.
Attempts at regaining its influence on the Balkans have not produced any tangible results, with even its formerly staunch ally Bulgaria turning west. The amorous looks cast by Greece are merely the result of that country’s sorry predicament. Athens’ flirtations thus seem narcissistic in nature; not the stuff President Putin can use to further his goals.
Then again, Belarus is firmly in Moscow’s pocket and the Kaliningrad exclave adds a nice touch as well; but that’s about it. Crossing any other meridians to the west will meet with a response that may cause President Putin’s trigger-finger to itch.
Determined to stay in power, President Putin has to deliver: either rising incomes or adding territories – politely or not. Both the United States and the European Union would be well-advised to recognise two plain facts: Vladimir Putin will hang on to power and Russia needs some room to throw its weight around – preferably in a gentlemanly way.
Devoid of Sense
In light of these facts, the biting sanctions currently in place have stopped making sense. Their efficiency, which even surprised the imposing parties, is undermining Russia’s economy. GDP growth has petered-out to a barely measurable 0.6% in 2014, while inflation is rampant at over 16%.
It is only a question of time before the public’s returned anxieties boil over into protests. For now, President Putin enjoys popular admiration – if not adulation – for his geopolitical accomplishments. Since he cannot deliver sustained growth, President Putin has no choice but continue his quest to reconquer lost lands.
It is a rather simple either-or proposition. Lifting the sanctions – for which surely a politically expedient excuse can be phrased – would allow the Putin Administration to fire-up the bread oven instead of the military rhetoric. The man will not be unseated without a fight of possibly global consequences. Western powers could do worse than to just deal with the facts and draw a line that allows their foe some wiggling room. The steady progression of time – though it may not be accelerated without causing great disruption – will eventually stop even President Putin in his tracks. i