As Britain’s foreign secretary makes his way to Kiev for talks with President Yushchenko, who has described Ukraine as a hostage in a war now being waged by Russia on most of its immediate neighbours, and as President Saakashvili of Georgia accuses Russia’s leaders of attempting to revive the Soviet Union, it may be useful to pause for a moment and consider what has actually happened in the Kremlin during the last month or so. What has really taken place is the culmination of one stage in a lengthy process of repositioning in Moscow’s stance vis-a-vis the West which began in the early 1990s and has continued without a break through consecutive stages until now.
The apparent failure and collapse of the Soviet Union was an important step in the process of reshaping Russia’s consistently hostile policy towards Western Europe and the United States – a policy that has not really changed in over a century, from Tsarism through Soviet Communism to the present day. It gave Russia’s military, political and security elite time to elaborate and implement a series of moves in the international arena which were essentially aimed at distracting and confusing Western policy makers and strategists about Russia’s intentions, and in masking the true nature of Russia’s social and political system. That system is essentially that of a nineteenth century military dictatorship. The trappings of what became known as “Soviet Russia” were, after all, not much more than a set of pompous and lacklustre decorations disguising the fact that even though the national stock of armaments, like the bank balances of Russia’s leaders, increased and continued to increase, the vast mass of the citizenry was held as before in conditions of social and economic servitude. As Vladimir Bukovsky remarked, the West ended the Cold War one day too early.
Under Yeltsin, a deliberate policy of emulating “capitalism” according to a crude, caricaturized version of the supposed rival to the decommissioned communist system was above all aimed at fostering feelings of acute resentment among a populace which had for decades been heavily conditioned with Marxist-Leninist propaganda. This policy was preceded by a period of “gear-changing” in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” (rebuilding), which was directed less at Russia’s own citizens than at the outside world, and was intended to persuade Western observers that Russia was about to democratize itself. Yeltsin soon put an end to these naive hopes, however, by running the country into the ground economically and persisting with a militaristic policy which included a major war of aggression on Russian soil against one of Russia’s own ethnic minorities. The political elite continued to enrich itself at the expense of the majority of the population – the party bosses of the Soviet era were replaced by the financial “oligarchs”, many of whom , like Yeltsin himself, were former Party members . The “Russian Mafia” was a post-modern arm and extension of the old, Lenin-created Cheka.
Meanwhile in the West, political leaders and public opinion alike began to make believe that Russia really had undergone fundamental internal change, and that the processes underway there were akin to those in the former “satellite states” which had broken free at the time of the supposed collapse of the Soviet system. Various factors were at work in this self-deception, not least the desire among the governments of Europe and the United States to make economies in defence spending. Another factor was a strain of triumphalism, particularly on the right of the US political spectrum, which trumpeted the theme that the West had “won the Cold War”.
All this was called into question, or should have been, when in 1999 Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, as his successor. Carefully and methodically, Putin began a step-by-step rollback of the social and political “freedoms” that had been granted under the former presidency – the “freedom” granted by Yeltsin had really amounted to little more than a state of social anarchy, the result of a deliberate policy aimed against his own subjects. With Putin, the movement back to Soviet norms began – with an added flourish, because as the Soviet Union no longer existed formally, the new regime could additionally extend its sights back into history and, in a sense, take up the slack that Imperial Russia had left behind. The “best” of both worlds – nineteenth century and twentieth century Russia, imperial expansionism and Soviet hegemony – began to shape the new, nationalist idea. Hoary idea-systems dating back to the 1920s and even earlier, like that of “Eurasianism”, have been dusted off and given new life by a group of politically tamed intellectuals who can best be compared to the forerunners of National Socialist and Stalinist ideology. The post-modern “twist” is again in evidence here.
So now in the Russia of Putin and Medvedev the peace of the world has an adversary that is only apparently new and transformed. It is really no more than a recognizable heir and successor to its forebears. This can, however, be the source of some reassurance: for the recommended methods for dealing with a leopard that hasn’t changed its spots haven’t changed much either. A recent article in the Washington Post expresses astonishment mixed with horror that “something far more dangerous than mere authoritarianism has arisen in Putin's Russia. A peculiar blend of political autocracy and corruption, seamlessly fusing political, economic and military power, threatens world peace. Challenging this state of affairs is a strategic necessity.” Yet the challenge is an old one, and it has been dealt with many times before.
Ukraine and Estonia currently face the most palpable threat from the Russia that has finally dropped its mask in Georgia during the past three weeks. With Russian annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia probably a short way off, Estonia’s former ambassador to Moscow has commented that Estonia may be the next object of Russia’s experiments with Western tolerance of aggression, which he thinks may include energy blackmail and the use of an internal fifth column. If NATO were to react swiftly in the case of Russian military action and were to mount large-scale operations in Estonia, the attack would fail. He recommends the freezing of the Russian leadership’s bank accounts in Western countries, and the declaring of Russian government personnel as persona non grata.
The good news is that the challenge outlined in the Washington Post article doesn’t really demand many new ideas on the part of the West – a revival of the policies of military and strategic containment that were developed during the Cold War would probably be sufficient, as the changes in Russia are superficial, and the Kremlin’s planning and thinking remain essentially the same as they were three decades ago. Even the military rhetoric and war hysteria propagated by Moscow in order to intimidate the West remain the same. And given the shakiness of Russia's "Empire" and the fragility of its borders, the threat that Russia poses may not be quite as formidable as some appear to believe. What is required, however, in view of the possibility that a crumbling structure can be more dangerous than a solid one, is a revitalizing of NATO’s original purpose, so that it once again becomes an effective tool for dealing with Russia’s aggressive ventures – and so that it is once again ready, as it was throughout the Cold War, to fight the real war which most people hope will not come.
For the bad news remains as bad as ever.