It’s no longer politically incorrect to be skeptical about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In fact, said a leading European expert on Russia, speaking privately in Washington, “Russia is a far different political construct than the one we Europeans thought we were dealing with for the past five years.”
The authority’s other conclusions:
Parts of Russia are still stuck in mid-19th century while other parts of the economy are already globalized. Nothing indicates Russia’s new nomenklatura wishes to emulate the political democracies of the rest of Europe. After the Cold War, it was a “huge mistake” to assume otherwise. Besides, no democracy is possible without a vibrant middle class, and Russia is yet to develop one, let alone a satisfied strata in the middle between extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
The 1990s, following the fall of communism and implosion of the Soviet Union, was a gradual descent into anarchy, not the fast ascent to market economics and democratic capitalism perceived by many experts in the West. It was a society in ruins going through disastrous times. The benign view that Russia’s robber barons were the modern counterpart of America’s 19th-century robber barons was a case of terminal naivete.
Russia’s new oligarchs plundered the country, siphoning out an estimated $220 billion, which went into everything from French Riviera mansions to numbered accounts in the world’s principal tax havens. America’s 19th-century tycoons reinvested ill-gotten gains into growing the U.S. economy. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) reports Russian citizens still hold $219.6 billion in bank accounts abroad — an amount greater than all bank deposits in Russia, even exceeding Russia’s annual budget.
The emerging democracy some experts saw in the 1990s was an unmitigated disaster. Today, Russia enjoys respect. When Mr. Putin took over in 2000, the political order changed drastically from chaos to authoritarianism. It was neither dictatorship nor democracy, but nonetheless welcome in a country that has only known authoritarianism for the last 1,000 years.
Under former KGB agent Mr. Putin, the Russian state became powerful again with oil revenues — and former KGB operatives. Out of more than 1,000 leading political figures, almost 800 are former intelligence or security officials. But Russia is still a far cry from being a global superpower.
Russia’s new ruling elite does not see the world the way Westerners do. For key leaders, it’s the world of the 1920s — a traditional game of power politics. They don’t share the same fears about looming threats, such as the environment. But they are aghast in saying other major powers threaten the unity of Russia by trying to co-opt former Soviet republics into NATO.
What’s happening to the U.S. in Iraq is welcome news in the Kremlin. Russian leaders are not interested in helping to solve or even ease problems that concern the Bush administration. President Bush once gazed into Mr. Putin’s eyes, inspected his soul, and concluded he could trust him. A second, deeper look is now in order.
References to the European Union’s relationship with Russia are also misleading because there is no coherent EU Russian policy. Finland during its recent six-month presidency of EU before Germany took over this month tried but failed to get EU in lockstep on Russia. Besides, EU doesn’t have much clout, bogged down as it usually is with yawn-provoking minutiae.
For anything to happen in the EU, two of the three big ones (Britain, Germany and France) have to get their act together. And that, too, is mission impossible under current conditions. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is a conservative who lived under the brutal tyranny of East German communism. She worries about Russia a great deal. But she has to share power with Social Democrats in a coalition government. And they advocate a softer policy toward Russia. Besides, Germany is tremendously dependent on Russia’s oil and gas deliveries.
In early January, with no prior notice, Moscow suddenly stopped pumping almost 2 million barrels of oil a day to Germany and Poland through Belarus in a price dispute with the former Soviet republic. Mrs. Merkel forcefully condemned Mr. Putin’s decision as “unacceptable,” but she was powerless to retaliate, as was the EU.
France is in limbo pending next April’s presidential elections, widely expected to be a generational change. But whether it will be a right- or left-of-center president will be determined by a small percentage in a second-round runoff.
In Britain, Tony Blair, thoroughly discredited for throwing the U.K.’s full weight behind President Bush’s Iraqi campaign, will step down as party leader next September. No one knows where his successor, Gordon Brown, stands on Russia. But the recent London assassination by poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-FSB officer who worked for a British security firm, widely suspected of being the work of Russia’s FSB, the KGB’s successor, was not designed to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings in Whitehall.
So via-a-vis Russia, EU is dead in the water. Meanwhile, Russia’s power is constantly growing via-a-vis EU — and America, too. Less than two years after blocking such a sale, Russia is now ready to approve export of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone in NATO nomenclature) medium-range rocket to Syria. It has a range of 280 kilometers and multiple warheads. This is a not-so-friendly warning to both EU and the U.S. that Russia is back in the Middle Eastern game of nations — opposed to Western interests.
Thus, Russia is drifting away from Western values, which it never espoused in the first place. There is still a lack of laws to guarantee Western investments. And even if new laws are enacted, they will be unenforceable because of widespread corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary.
The 15 topsiders in the Kremlin not only rule but own Russia. At least, that’s what the prominent European authority on Russia said not for attribution. Listening to him took us back 30 or 40 years. If his assessment is correct, and there is no reason to doubt that it is, why is Russia a member of the G8, the eight leading industrial countries in the Western world?
On balance, he said: “We would rather have them in than out. Russian leaders do not seek confrontation, but when they try to improve their advantages on the global chessboard, it sounds and feels like confrontation. But they definitely do not seek one.” Hence, Winston Churchill’s advice: “I deem it highly important we shake hands with the Russians as far east as possible.” But Churchill still could not “forecast the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.