Vladimir Putin’s policies have damaged his country’s standing and economy. When will the owners of wealth decide that he is not Russia?
In 2004, the Valdai Discussion Club was set up “to promote dialogue between Russian and international intellectual elite”. Each year, two or three days of discussions involving foreign and Russian scholars and journalists would climax at Sochi on the Black Sea in a dinner with President Vladimir Putin himself. One qualification, at least for a foreigner invited to join the club, was not to be viscerally hostile to Russia’s foreign policy. This led some superannuated cold war warriors to call its foreign members “Putin’s useful idiots”. This idiot was asked to join four years ago, and this year’s event was my second exposure. We met from 22 to 24 October at a ski resort, surrounded by magnificent snow clad mountains, built for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The conference, on “The World Order: New Rules or No Rules?”, was held in the shadow of western sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea, in Ukraine – an awkward moment, to be sure, which thinned the foreign contingent considerably. This time, the Big Boss chose to address the assembled idiots from the podium rather than wining and dining them. He delivered a one-hour attack on the United States for wanting a world based on power (its own) rather than rules; more a polemic than a diatribe. Leading Putin officials such as Vyacheslav Volodin, Sergey Lavrov, Sergei Ivanov and Igor Shuvalov turned up to display their loyalty. For Volodin, “Putin is Russia”.
The tone of the leadership was more regretful than truculent. It followed a well-established narrative line. Putin had offered America a sincere partnership in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Instead, America and its allies, claiming the spoils of victory in the cold war, had been pushing the EU and Nato eastward into Russia’s historic space. In the three-hour question-and answer session that followed his speech, Putin was occasionally spirited, but mostly listless and rambling. His lack of facial animation may have been due to the famed skills of Russia’s embalmers. He seemed exhausted; he sounded like a jilted lover.
Of course, Ukraine was the hot topic of the hour, and one advantage of being at Sochi was to hear in detail Russia’s defence of its actions, which is hardly ever heard in the western media. As the Russians tell it, an illegal coup against the democratically elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych brought extreme nationalists and “fascists” to power in Kyiv on 22 February. Their menacing anti-Russian stance forced the Russian communities in Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine (jointly known as Donbas) to organise in self-defence against persecution and even massacre. Russian “volunteers” from across the border came to the aid of their beleaguered brothers. To the west, this story is a pack of lies: Putin saw in the popular uprising against the corrupt, despotic and increasingly violent government of Yanukovych an excuse to seize Crimea and destabilise the Ukrainian state.His strategic aim was to prevent Ukraine freely choosing to pivot its economy and security system on the west. There was much legal chatter about sovereignties, frontiers, guarantees. One expert claimed that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not illegal under international law because Crimea was not part of Ukraine when Ukraine became a member of the UN in 1945. Such legal subtleties attract lawyers, but are really beside the point. Legal rules cannot create conditions of justice and stability. They are the achievement of history, and Ukraine’s history as an independent state has yet to be written.
This is a conclusion that the west finds difficult to accept. The contemporary liberal credo is that any state, however diverse, can be made or kept whole by a constitution that guarantees democracy, the rule of law and minority rights. Ukraine’s failure to achieve such a constitution must be due to Russia’s manipulation of its neighbour’s politics in its own interests. Russia takes exactly the opposite view: it is America and its allies that have been manipulating Ukrainian politics so as to detach Ukraine from its historic space in the Russian family of nations. The truth is much more complicated than either story allows. As the former Czech president Václav Klaus pointed out in an incisive essay last April: “The state of Ukraine today is a sad outcome of Stalin’s attempts to mix up nations and boundaries, disrupt historical ties and create a new Soviet man by turning original nations into mere ethnic, residual and historical leftovers.” The Ukrainian state set up in 1991 was illegitimate to sizeable fractions of its own population. No common Ukrainian identity has emerged. There was no political transformation: democracy has been a sham, with disputed elections and messy power transfers.
In the economy, wealth is divided and redivided between alternating Russian and non-Russian oligarchic clans, to the accompaniment of stagnation, industrial decay and high unemployment. Ukraine was ripe for the manipulation of its politics by outsiders.The question is: which side had more justified reason to meddle?
This brings us back to the big unsettled question of Sochi: Russia’s place in a world dominated by the US. It is obvious that Russians have felt deeply humiliated by the US “victory” in the cold war and the destruction of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical balancer. They have countered this adverse shift in their position with the doctrine of “multipolarity”. On 28 June 2000, Putin stated that “Russia shall seek to achieve a multipolar system of international relations that really reflects the diversity of the modern world”. He repeated the message in Munich in 2007. “The unipolar world,” he said, “did not take place. . . There is no reason to doubt that the economic potential of the new centres of global economic growth will inevitably be converted into political influence and will strengthen multipolarity.” At first, multipolarity did not imply hostility to America. Putin began his presidency looking for a “strategic partnership” with the US against the common threat of Islamic extremism. Following the 9/11 attacks, he overruled his military to give unconditional support to US intervention in Afghanistan, and military access to central Asian countries bound to Russia by security treaties, while closing down Russian bases in Cuba and Vietnam. He acceded to the Americans’ request to lower the oil price.
It was only because the payoff from such gestures was so meagre that multipolarity evolved into resistance to US superpower pretensions. Russia was offered neither a fast track into the World Trade Organisation nor a meaningful security role in Nato or the Middle East. America unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, restarting an arms race it knew it could win. Russia retaliated by joining Germany and France to oppose the Iraq war; wherever possible it has tried to create its own “coalitions of the willing”. In 2001, Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, looked forward to a “quasi-alliance” with the US. By 2006 he was lamenting the “decoupling” of Russia from the west. The “reset” of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev – Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 – got nowhere.
It was plain from Sochi that the Russian leadership cannot grasp that Russia is too weak to negotiate the terms of a strategic partnership with America. They fail to appreciate that the USA can choose what partners it wants, and that in America’s eyes, Russia’s authoritarian and corrupt political system, and disregard of human rights, has disqualified it as partner for most purposes.
As a description of reality, multipolarity is thus a geopolitical fiction. The world may not be exactly unipolar, but for most global purposes America remains the indispensable power. Russia has too few assets, hard or soft, to be a rival pole of attraction. From this perspective, the biggest failure of the Putin years has been the failure to modernise and diversify the Russian economy. The post-Soviet leadership dismantled the old industrial system, without replacing it with a new one. As a result, Russia remains dangerously dependent on the price of a single commodity – oil – and its economic dynamics are dominated by the struggle for oil rents.
At Sochi I asked Putin: ‘How do you propose to make Russia attractive for business? What are you going to do to persuade Russians to invest in Russia rather than export their capital, which drives up house prices in London to insane levels?’ In his answer, Putin reeled off statistics of agricultural production.
Although it is a descriptive fiction, multipolarity as a normative proposition has much to be said for it. No single power is wise or disinterested enough to claim a universal sovereignty. The American-led attempt to export democracy by force if necessary has created a shambles in much of the Middle East, with worse to come. A better appreciation of the ‘diversity of the modern world’ would have saved western policy from much error and humanity from much misery.
In my own remarks at Sochi, I suggested that, with the faltering of Russia’s attempt to ‘join the world’, it had in fallen back on an implicit Monroe Doctrine. Like US President Monroe in 1823 it is telling the meddling foreigners to keep off its patch. Significantly it defines the frontiers of the old Soviet Union as the strategic frontiers of the Russian Federation.
A world of Monroe doctrines, spheres of influence, regional blocs is contrary to the contemporary western norms of international relations. It may have more appeal for great powers which find themselves at odds with the ‘universal empire’ championed by the world’s superpower. The Ukraine crisis has divided the world into the western countries which imposed sanctions and the non-western world which was either indifferent to Russia’s behaviour or thought it justified.
However, the assertion of hegemony in the former Soviet space may now be beyond the capacity of Russia. There is talk in Moscow of a ‘Eurasian Union’, but few of its possible members would be willing to cut themselves off from the EU’s own ‘neighbourhood policy’. Asked at Sochi about Ukraine’s future, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov hoped that it would be a ‘negotiated restructuring of the Ukraine state’. Ex-French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who appeared on the panel alongside Putin, made the sensible suggestion to set up a ‘contact group’ of the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK to work to convert the Ukrainian ceasefire, originally signed in Minsk on 5 September, into a settlement. They may be able to negotiate a middle ground of autonomy for the separatists within the Ukrainian state.
But this is starting to look less and less likely. The latest round of parliamentary elections in the Ukraine has consolidated the division of Ukraine into two states, divided by the ceasefire line. On 26 October, parliamentary elections gave President Poroshenko a two thirds ‘super-majority’ to sign an association agreement with the EU and reunite the country. In a ‘rogue’ election on 3 November organised by the separatists of Donbass, a much smaller electorate – reportedly about 5% of those eligible to vote nationally – gave separatist leaders a mandate to break away.
What follows? Their reinforced mandates weakens the incentives for the two sides to negotiate. The Ukrainian army might try to recapture the lost territory by force. But the West will not supply Kiev with the necessary offensive capacity and Russia will continue to supply the separatists with the necessary defensive capacity. So in all likelihood the conflict will be ‘frozen’ along the ceasefire line for the foreseeable future.
If this happens, Russia will have suffered a major defeat. It will have exchanged an implicit regional hegemony, secured by its ability to manipulate Ukrainian politics, for a tiny fraction of Ukrainian real estate, freeing the much larger remainder of Ukraine to pursue the pro-Western alignment which it has been the chief object of Russia’s Ukrainian policy to prevent. And for this meagre achievement it will have incurred huge costs in terms of sanctions and subsidies. At what point will the owners of wealth decide that Putin is not Russia.
Sochi left me with the overwhelming impression of people putting the best face possible on a bad story. The Russians ‘hope’ for the future, others dictate it. Probably Russia will stagger on in a mediocre kind of way, neither very successful nor quite failing, neither devil nor pure in heart, proud of its own values, semi-permanently estranged from the USA and western Europe, resentful but not overly aggressive, until such time as it feels more at home in a world which it will have played little part in shaping.