“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Such was Churchill’s assessment of Russia and its interactions with the outside world in 1939. The immediate context of his pronouncement was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, one of the most outlandish and surprising agreements on world history. Perhaps little has changed since then- Russia’s actions today seem still to stretch the boundaries of normal understanding. Yet as unfathomable as they may seem then and now Churchill added, as a rider: “perhaps there is a key.”
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has committed a long list of serious misdemeanours in recent times. There was the Litvenienko poisoning, the invasion of Ukraine, supplying or firing the missile that downed MH-17, bombing an aid convoy in Syria, the possibility that they were behind the RNC hack. Just in the last few days Russian warships have sailed through the channel prompting a dire warning from Mi5 director-general Andrew Parker. What is Putin, and by extension Russia, up to?
The comparison of Russia to the archetypal angry, cornered bear is a good one. Russia, ever since it became an major power several hundred years ago, has seemed threatening to the other great powers of the world. By dint of its scale, as well as its vast human and natural resources Russia was feared as the bear that may awaken at any moment, and crush its neighbours. To Europe of the early twentieth century the Russian army was a ‘steamroller’, slow and unsophisticated, but potentially overwhelmingly powerful.
The apparent strength that outside countries perceive in Russia belies the weakness, paranoia and chronic inferiority the country’s leaders have always felt. In the post-Second World War world the USSR under Joseph Stalin was seen to be an ideologically driven, imperial power in-waiting, bent on world domination. It was this assessment, made in George Kennan’s infamous ‘Long Telegram’ that set wheels of the half-century long Cold War in motion. Stalin and the USSR were in no way justified for their heinous annexations of the eastern bloc states, but the motivation for the control they were placed under was much more to do with consolidating hard-won territorial gains, and providing a buffer against what Stalin perceived, in turn, as American imperial ambitions in Europe.
There is much more continuity than change in global geopolitics. Russia remains a paranoid state, perpetrating acts of aggression in order to mask weakness and home and achieve whatever strategic advantages it feels it can obtain. Russia is seen from the Western perspective as a single, unified country, whereas it is instead a congolomoration of constantly embattled nations and ethnicities, few of whom have ever felt great loyalty to the leaders in St Petersberg or Moscow. Not only are there very real internal enemies for the Russian leadership to contend with, the country has the longest land and sea border of any country in the world. It is surrounded by many countries, all of whom are potential enemies, many of whom have fought Russia in the past. Chess is the national game; Russian foreign policy is like playing simultaneous chess against multiple, better equipped opponents.
What was Churchill’s ‘key’? Russian national interest. Currently that means understanding Putin’s personal interests.
The irony of increasing displays of Russia strength is that they are direct proportion to the country’s actual weakness. Vladimir Putin is a dictator who rules of an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government. He manages to get around the country’s apparently democratic system by a constitutional sleight of hand – he serves two terms as President and then swaps out for a term with his gym-buddy, current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
Since the early 2000s Putin’s stongman deal with the Russian population has been a simple one. The political instability of the immediate post-Communist, Yeltsin era would be banished along with political freedoms. Higher living standards were to be the price for the curtailment of people’s freedoms. The relative prosperity that Putin managed to achieve was due to exploitation of the country’ natural energy resources especially in a world of an – apparently – inexorably rising oil price.
Russia was a petro-state, whose economy was massively skewed towards this monolithic industry. In the present context of sharply falling oil prices the bargain with the people is off, and increased living standards have been replaced by a less positive pay-off. Putin now looks to bolster Russian national pride through foreign adventures and stoking fears about external threats. Only last week 40 million people were involved in a nuclear defence drill, with images of people in hazmat suits broadcast on Russian news channels. The self-preservation instincts of Putin, and those around him, are the present-day key to understanding the actions of Russia in the world.
For a an understanding of the way that Russia is subject to economic, demographic and geopolitical shifts you could do worse than watching Parag Khanna’s TED talk on a ‘mapping the future of countries’. The Russia relevant part is from around the 9 minute mark.
Lastly a disclaimer, and an extended chess metaphor.
Criticising Putin and/or the foreign policy actions of the Russian state is not to take the side of his erstwhile opponents. Or indeed vice versa.
What is the prognosis for geopolitical affairs in relation to Russia increasingly belligerent global stance? The difficulty for anyone trying to push back against the war crimes, the invasions and the sabre rattling is that Russia is extremely focussed and long-practiced at this game of chess. Playing on Russia’s terms is no way to victory. Morally Putin’s approach is indefensible. But in terms of realpolitik, he has his pieces well-developed and is goading his opponents to sacrifice position and material in an attempt to overcome him. A patient and consistent approach is what is needed, because Putin – despite the apparent strength of his outward position – has his back ranks badly exposed and these cannot sustain a prolonged and systematic inspection.