The Fall of Empire

Putin and the Crisis of the “Russian world”

 

 

Victor Hvozd
Doctor of Military Sciences

 

In my previous article, “Returning to the Bipolar World. Pandemic and Crisis as Factors of Geopolitics”, I told how Russia, losing its foreign position, gives way to the United States and China. However, as noted in the same article, since this topic is quite serious, it should be paid more attention. Especially as the weakening of Russia’s influence in the international arena is taking place against the background of the deepening crisis of the entire “Russian world” that Moscow is stubbornly trying to build. All this undermines its geopolitical plans to transform Russia into a “great world power,” including by regaining control over Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. It is on this theme that I would like to continue the conversation. Especially considering that Russia has not abandoned its ideas and seeks to turn the situation in its favor. One of its well-known methods is to impose on Ukraine its own, Russian version of the “settlement” of the conflict in the Donbas.

…The weakening of Russia’s influence in the international arena is taking place against the background of the deepening crisis of the entire “Russian world” that Moscow is stubbornly trying to build…

With the help of the Russian lobby, various ideas of “national reconciliation” are being promoted in Ukraine, and it is proposed to create “platforms” for dialogue with the separatists. With the participation of some Ukrainian politicians and the media, the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the occupation of some districts of the Donbas are part of the same Moscow’s plan to build a “Russian world” is being deliberately leveled.

The fact that these plans are on the agenda was confirmed by Russian President V. Putin in a number of his addresses to the Russians in May this year against the background of the rampant spread of the coronavirus epidemic in the country and exacerbation of the problems caused by it. Thus, Putin even called Russia “not just a country, but a distinct civilization”, calling for its active development and strengthening on the basis of new technologies (especially in the sphere of genetics, medicine and education), which would allow it to reach the level of leading states. As in most of his previous speeches, Putin stressed that the Russian Federation has modern weapons that are supposedly better than the West’s today.

Putin’s next maxims on the theme of “Greater Russia” were readily supported by the entire range of Russian political forces, from leader of the International Eurasian Movement A. Dugin, to all-time leader of Russian Communists G. Zyuganov. Both, despite their political differences, confirmed that their views were almost identical to Putin’s. That is, they deplore the collapse of the Soviet Union, seeing it as the “greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century” and the “tragedy” of the entire “Russian world”, which, they believe, includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, which “must be reunited within a single state”. To confirm such prospects, Moscow cited the success of a number of integration initiatives, including the formation of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Union. They also keep talking about the “inevitable revival of Russia”, which won’t be prevented by all the known problems.

…The system of state power created by V. Putin in Russia is based on the principles of building the Russian Empire, the USSR and, in a way, China. However, unlike the Chinese leadership, the current Russian one is following in the footsteps of its predecessors, repeating all their mistakes…

But there are representatives of different Russian political forces, including the liberal-democratic opposition and open nationalists, who are not sure that these ideas can be implemented. In general, experts of some authoritative analytical institutions in the Russian expert community agree with them. Like their opponents, most of these are on the positions of Russian great-powerness, but at the same time, they soberly perceive the deep crisis in Russia as the foundation of the “Russian world”, and identify the internal and external reasons for such a crisis. Such as the inefficiency of the system of state power created by V. Putin in Russia. After all, it is based on the principles of building the Russian Empire, the USSR and, in a way, China, which was supposed to guarantee the stability of the country’s ruling regime. However, unlike the Chinese leadership, the current Russian one is following in the footsteps of its predecessors, in fact repeating all their mistakes. This is evidenced by:

  • Moscow’s imperial policy, which, on the one hand, is based on diktat and military force, and on the other, is populist and irresponsible in nature. As an example — the actions of the Putin regime during the spread of the pandemic in the country, when Moscow was in no hurry to impose strict quarantine restrictions, trying to demonstrate Russia’s “superiority” over other countries. This idea was the main topic of the Russian media in early April this year, when Russia was claimed to “have avoided the epidemic at the time when it was spread throughout the world”. The RF even hurried to exit from the quarantine simultaneously with Western countries, despite the disease spreading widely;
  • building the Russian power on the principle of Putin’s sole governing all key processes in the country. For example, all the most important decisions are actually made by V. Putin personally in a small circle of his closest environment, which includes several oligarchs (in particular, the Kovalchuk and the Rothenberg brothers, former Prime Minister D. Medvedev). At this, the Russian parliament and government, only following Putin’s decision, are de facto excluded from the country’s strategic processes of governing the country. Local authorities are equally disenfranchised executors of decisions of higher structures. This is the basis of the power vertical of the Russian Federation;
  • total corruption of the Russian leadership at all levels, which is one of the main mechanisms of the entire system of government. In fact, officials are allowed to engage in corrupt activities in exchange for their loyalty to the Putin regime. Exceptions may be cases where the interests of different political and business groups intersect and individual officials are prosecuted. Besides, the Russian ruling elite is actively shifting responsibility for its faults to lower-level officials.

 

…Under Putin, the state-oligarchic control was established over the most important branches of Russia’s economic complex…

Equally inefficient is Russia’s economic system, all the shortcomings of which are inherited from the Soviet economy. As you know, the main ones are:

  • orientation of the economy to the export of energy carriers and other resources. For example, the total export of hydrocarbons in exports of Russian products is about 60 %. In general, they form up to 50 % of the revenue of the state budget. During the Soviet era in the early 1980s, similar figures were about 45 % and 8–10 %, which indicates a significant increase in Russia’s dependence on energy carriers exports;
  • command-administrative methods of managing the country’s economy. Under Putin, the state-oligarchic control was established over the most important branches of Russia’s economic complex. As a result, in the current problems in Russia, the bulk of public financial assistance is received by big business. Medium and small businesses are mostly abandoned to the whims of fate;
  • practical non-existence of high technology in Russia, with the exception of some aspects of the military sphere. And even more so, in this sphere, Russia has lost the superiority of the former Soviet Union, even to China, as evidenced by the changing structure of trade between the two countries. Besides, the Russian leadership actually ignores this. In particular, Russia spends 1.1 % of GDP on the development of science and technology, while the United States and China spend 2.2 %, and Israel spends 3 to 4 %.

 

…After unsuccessful attempts of military reforms by Western standards, in 2010 Russia returned to military building on the principles of the former Soviet Union…

Russia’s armed forces are being formed on the Soviet model. After unsuccessful attempts of military reforms by Western standards, in 2010 Russia returned to military building on the principles of the former Soviet Union. Like in the USSR, it keeps increasing the number of troops and armaments, military force is being demonstrated on a large scale, including in the face of the country’s exacerbating economic and other problems. In particular, even in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic in March this year, Russia was actively conducting military exercises, while other countries were reorienting their armed forces to counter the spread of infection.

Putin’s statements about “existence in Russia of most advanced weapons that have no analogues in the world” were also largely populist in nature. In reality, the Russians have them only on the stage of projects or prototypes. And some of the stated principles of their operation even contradict the laws of physics. Besides, due to financial and technical problems, it is quite difficult to launch into the series even the already developed new weaponry, in particular, the Armata tank and the Su-57 fighter.

 

According to Russian experts, all this affects the health care system of Russia, which has become a natural product of the policy of the Putin regime. For one, due to the major problems of the Russian economy, since 2016, as part of the overall reduction of budget expenditures for social needs, the allocation of funds for health care is reduced annually by 30–40 %. In addition, as in other spheres, Russian industry is unable to produce modern medical equipment or quality drugs.

Moreover, the Russian health care system often participates in various propaganda activities instead of fulfilling its responsibilities. For example, in March–April 2020, Russia demonstratively provided assistance to other countries in the fight against the epidemic, while in its own territory the situation with the coronavirus infection was becoming catastrophic — there was shortage of hospitals, medical staff, drugs, equipment.

 

…The pandemic and falling world oil prices demonstrate how serious the internal problems of the Russian Federation have become today…

All such processes have caused a systemic crisis in Russia in all its most important spheres. Moreover, the pandemic and falling world oil prices demonstrate how serious the internal problems of the Russian Federation have become today. They are eloquently confirmed by the following facts:

  • faults in the work of the Russian government, which can function only in the mode of Putin’s “manual control”. For example, the Russian media report on the escalation of the confrontation around the President of the Russian Federation after his “self-isolation” due to the pandemic. This means, in particular, the struggle for influence on the important political and economic decision making in the first circle of people close to V. Putin. The same struggle has unfolded for the distribution of financial resources in the second circle of the “allies” of the Russian President, which includes managers and owners of leading energy companies, including I. Sechin (Rosneft), A. Miller (Gazprom) and N. Tokarev (Transneft). At the same time, they all had conflicts with Acting Russian Prime Minister A. Belousov.

Besides, as a result of Putin’s expansion of the rights of local authorities in the struggle against the epidemic, the preconditions arose for the weakening of the positions of the federal center in the regions of the country. From the governors’ exceeding their authority in imposing quarantine restrictions (including in violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation), to their failure to comply with Putin’s orders. Among other things, the actual sabotage of the order on the payment of financial allowances to doctors and nurses. Of the 27.5 billion rubles allocated from the state budget, medical workers did receive 4.5 billion rubles;

  • deterioration of the economic situation in Russia, which has become more complicated than in developed countries. This has been repeatedly pointed out in my previous publications, but I would like to provide some facts from a new perspective.

For example, due to the epidemic and falling oil prices, Russia’s GDP is expected to decline by 12–20 %. This is significantly deeper than similar figures in the USA, China and the EU (6 to 8 %). With regard to Russia, such expectations are confirmed by the record financial losses of leading Russian energy companies. In the first quarter of 2020, Rosneft lost up to 156 billion rubles, and Gazprom — 300 billion rubles. Against this background, Russia has in fact lost the duel with OPEC and is steadily losing its position in the European gas market.

Even worse the state of affairs is in the sphere of medium and small business. According to Russian economists, in the summer of this year. about a million enterprises may close in the country, which will lead to mass unemployment. The Russian government has already recognized this problem. According to Deputy Prime Minister T. Golikova, since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of registered unemployed has increased from 725 thousand to 1.4 million people. Another 1.6 million people have applied to the employment service in search of work. And by mid-summer 2020, the unemployment rate can reach 8 million people. And these are only official statistics. The situation is complicated by the presence in Russia of about 25 million people with informal employment, some of whom are also losing their jobs.

  • Putin’s false hopes for intimidating the West by demonstrations of military force and changing its attitude to Russia. Most political scientists believe that in current circumstances, a country’s position in the world and its advantages in the new “Cold War” are determined not by its nuclear arsenal, but first of all by economic potential. Of course, nuclear missiles are a powerful tool of deterring or blackmailing enemies, but if used, all human civilization will inevitably perish. This is quite understandable for all countries of the world, Russia included. Therefore, despite Moscow’s efforts to put pressure on the West, including through training and combat launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with V. Putin’s personal participation, as well as large-scale military exercises, the United States and the EU not only have not lifted sanctions from Russia but they systematically toughen them. Western countries and international organizations have not changed their positions even with the spread of the coronavirus and the Kremlin’s calls to “join forces in the fight against the pandemic”.

 

…Western experts believe that the Russian government is hiding about 70 % of deaths from COVID-19…

The quintessence of all these problems was the state of affairs during the coronavirus epidemic in Russia, which among the first in the world by the number of victims. In the second half of May 2020, more than 330,000 Russians fell ill. Among them are at least four high-ranking officials, including Russian Prime Minister M. Mishustin and the Kremlin Spokesman D. Peskov. The plague has also affected several Russian parliamentarians, one of whom is Chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots L. Kalashnikov. This number also includes about 2,000 servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces and hundreds or even thousands from other law enforcement and security services.

However, in reality the epidemiological situation in Russia may be even worse. According to Russian Health Care Minister M. Murashko, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Russia do not get into official statistics. This is confirmed by Western experts. They believe that the Russian government is hiding about 70 % of deaths from COVID-19. Similar conclusions apply to the current official data, which allegedly indicate a decline in the epidemic in Russia.

 

…The systemic crisis in Russia has also led to a deep crisis of ideas for building the “Russian world”…

As expected, the systemic crisis in Russia has also led to a deep crisis of ideas for building the “Russian world”. According to opinion surveys, today more than 70 % of Russians are indifferent to such ideas and demand an end to Russia’s confrontation with the West and Ukraine. This is in line with opinion polls on Russians’ confidence in both, Putin and his policies. According to such studies, after a certain increase in the popularity of the RF President in 2019, his rating fell again to about 30 %. And Putin’s another touching upon the theme of “Greater Russia” does not influence the situation.

As a result of the above-mentioned processes in the Russian Federation, the integration structures created by it in the post-Soviet space are losing their effectiveness. The failure of Moscow’s plans to deepen Russian-Belarusian integration within the Union State of Belarus and Russia was quite significant. Minsk, reacting to pressure from Moscow using the energy factor, began to actively look for alternative partners. In 2020, Belarus began to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Azerbaijan and Norway.

As once in the USSR, developments in Russia are beginning to resemble the situation on the eve of its collapse, with which the vast majority of Russian experts agree. According to them, it is necessary to undertake a thorough restructuring of Russia, although the consequences of such a process are difficult to predict.

 

What does all this mean for Ukraine?

For one, due to the deepening systemic crisis, Russia’s ability to achieve its goals in relation to our state is declining.

…In different historical times, Ukraine’s desire to become an independent state was the reason for the disintegration of Rzeczpospolita (Poland), the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union. Maybe Moscow should at last draw some conclusions?…

This allows Ukraine to move to a more active, offensive policy in defending its interests, including in Crimea and the Donbas. At the same time, this does not reduce the level of threats to Ukraine from Russia, which will never abandon the implementation of its geopolitical plans. At this, each time losing political, economic, informational and other “hybrid” opportunities in conducting its foreign policy, Russia will increasingly use military force. Therefore, Ukraine should not reduce, but increase its military potential, especially on the Eastern direction. The same applies to the Ukrainian secret services, as one of the main tools of the state in preventing threats to its security.

And to top it all off, I would like to draw attention to the assessment by Russian experts belonging to the so-called cohort of chauvinist forces. To begin with, they believe that there would be no crisis in Russia if, together with Crimea, it had captured so-called Novorossiya. Of course, it is a controversial opinion, but it was the Putin regime’s armed aggression against Ukraine that provoked crisis processes in the Russian Federation. In this regard, it is pertinent to recall that in different historical times, Ukraine’s desire to become an independent state was the reason for the disintegration of Rzeczpospolita (Poland), the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union. Maybe Moscow should at last draw some conclusions?

 

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