Mike Ungersma argues the West may have made
fundamental mistakes in confronting Putin’s Russia
“Russia is unlucky with timing. Everything that happened 150, 200 years ago in other countries is happening here as we speak. You guys had your civil wars in long-ago centuries. The last murder of your king was in 1649. We killed out Nicholas II 100 years ago.”
Russian industrialist Vladimir Potanin, Lunch with the FT
Imagine a country where your grandparents could speak of their land invaded twice in their lifetimes, two wars that saw tens of thousands of their homes destroyed, their factories looted, their cites wasted, and above all, millions of their young men killed in the worst combat in modern times. It is almost impossible, to think of any nation that has suffered more in terms of loss than Russia. But that was long ago, and while Russia has mostly recovered from the disaster, it did so along a different path than its European neighbours.
Sold on a perverted form of Maxism, led by a series of dictators starting with Stalin, the country’s post-war development stalled, stuttered from one achievement to another – all of them modest and comparatively insignificant – while the remainder of Europe moved forward, first haltingly and then spectacularly with its modified and tempered form of capitalism. But in the East, dramatically and without warning, the “Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics” staggered and collapsed leaving behind a colossal and confused muddle of states.
The events that followed are sadly familiar. Russia moved from a centrally planned economy to rampant oligarchy and the single-handed rule of Vladimir Putin. By international standards the performance of its economy is mediocre at best, and almost totally reliant on the fluctuating demand for its gas and oil exports. And even they, especially oil, face an uncertain future as the world seeks more environmentally friendly alternatives. As President Obama remarked in his last press conference, Russia “does not produce anything anybody wants to buy.”
The question that arises is why? Why did this vast nation end up as it is today? Given the same chances the nations of the rest of Europe had, what prompted Russians to choose the road toward continued tyranny – however disguised? And importantly, what could the West have done to encourage Russians to steer a different course?
“The problem with the Soviet people is our country was like a cell.” It is the comment of one of those oligarchs – Vladimir Potanin, in his luncheon meeting with the Financial Times’ Henry Foy in Potanin’s private country club he built for himself and his friends an hour’s drive from Moscow. “We were cut off,” Potanin tells Foy. “And then we became suddenly open…those who had appetite for risks and understanding and skills of course had an advantage.”
What the “system” produced – if corrupt and colluding government and private interests can be called a system – was a Russia where all of the state’s important assets were sold off in the infamous ‘loans for shares’ scheme. The government callously used the country’s most valuable resources as security for loans that according to Foy, both bankers and politicians knew would never be repaid. It resulted in a handful of oligarchs controlling 50 per cent of the entire Russian economy.
If individual nations have a certain dominant psychological characteristic, then Putin’s response to all of this was highly predictable. Russia was like the person who fails in achieving anything important and then lashes out at others, seeking to draw attention away from his failures. Putin flexes Russia’s military muscles to demonstrate that the country remains a powerful player on the world stage. Moreover he uses the internet’s social media to sabotage everything from Western elections to objective journalism because it is the only instrument short of open aggression available to him. He struts and boasts, and like Donald Trump, tells the his countrymen he is determined to “make Russia great again.”
Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of ordinary Russians, who for centuries have shown no real interest or understanding of representative government. Russia, under czars or commissars, has produced no great political thinkers or philosophers – they are very thin on the ground. Because they are not ‘citizens’ in any Western sense, Russians seem bored with the very idea of democracy with its tedious insistence on wide-spread public discussion and consultation, and its elaborate and complex electoral systems intended to insure the majority rules but only without trampling on the rights and wishes of those who disagree. It’s easier to let Putin decide.
Could it all of this have been prevented? Could Russia at a crucial turning point in its history – the fall of the Berlin Wall – have been steered and nudged toward democracy? Does the West share any culpability for the present situation, what some are describing as a new “Cold War”? The answer must almost certainly be – Yes.
Mikhail Gobachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika were bold moves that ultimately won him a Nobel prize in 1990, but they were met with indifference in the West – NATO continued to regard the now-prostrate Soviet Union as a threatening enemy. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, continued with significant reforms. They failed to work. Confronted with sagging oil prices, corruption and the rise of the oligarchs, Russia’s economy not only stagnated but fell into deep recession.
In her book, The Russian Kleptocracy and the Rise of Organised Crime, Johanna Granville writes: “Yeltsin’s policies led to international monopolies hijacking the former Soviet markets, arbitraging the huge difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities and the prices prevailing on the world market”. Wall Street was busy, seeing a chance to profit from the decaying corpse.
Not only was the West indifferent to the democratizing opportunities that events in Russia threw up, in many ways it sought to exploit Russia’s weaknesses as its economy collapsed. It is what historian Niall Ferguson has called “Western overreach.” One by one, former Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union were invited to join NATO. Writing in the journal Foreign Policy earlier this year, Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, said
Days after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in March 1999, the alliance began a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia — which, like Russia, is a Slavic Orthodox state. These attacks on a brother country appalled ordinary Russians, especially since they were not carried out in defence of a NATO member, but to protect the Muslim population of Kosovo, then a Serbian province.
And the view from the Kremlin? Steil writes: “Moscow knew that its former vassals, by joining the alliance, had now bound themselves to support Western policies that challenged Russian interests. The farther east NATO expanded, the more threatening it would become.”
And where NATO led, the European Union was not far behind. By 2004, no less than eight former Warsaw Pact nations were offered accession to the organisation, the largest single enlargement in the Union’s history. And in 2007, they were joined by two more former Communist countries, Romania and Bulgaria. Russia’s historic buffer against another German invasion had disappeared.
In this context, Putin’s reaction – seen by Professor Ferguson as a “striking impersonation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather – the embodiment of implicit menace” – is hardly surprising.
Now, the West, faced with an increasingly hostile Russia, with its newly re-elected president, maybe it should consider the advice of Vladimir Potanin, the oligarch featured in the Financial Times interview:
Maybe this is why it is so difficult for the western world to understand Russia. I return to this word: tolerance. You guys finished with certain issues many centuries ago. We are living through them. Mine is a generation born in the Soviet Union, and you do not understand what that means. You are asking from us certain behaviour. But we were born in a concentration camp. Do you really expect from us behaviour of kids born in London? When you guys are teaching us, be careful, be polite.
Mike Ungersma, Cardiff, Wales, May 2018