In nineteenth century Russia a perennial theme of commentators was "What is to be done?".
In pamphlets, articles and even novels, the question "What is to be done?" is endlessly repeated- notably by Lenin. The crisis of Czarism was obvious, and yet the solutions were not so clear, and in the end the breakdown of Czarist autocracy led to the totalitarianism of Stalin and the murder of millions on a scale that would have been beyond the comprehension of even the most absolute of the Czars.
Now in Russia the question "What is to be done?" is being asked again.
The kleptocratic system that has replaced the faded brutality of the Soviet Union is no more responsive to the winds of freedom than its predecessor. All of the KGB instincts of Vladimir Putin, honed under the stagnant tyranny of Brezhnev, rebel against even the most basic of Western Democratic freedoms. On almost every issue, the gangsters and spooks who have shared the spoils of Post Soviet Russia now stand directly against the West. Whether in their determination to support the bloodstained and gory regime of Bashir Al-Assad in Syria, or their attempts to subvert democracy in their neighbours, or their contempt for rule of law, Russia has become a pariah state.
In the past 48 hours alone we have seen the grimly comedic results of the brutal arrogance of modern Russia: a dead man is convicted of trumped-up charges; any aspect of being gay renders even tourists liable to detention on further trumped up charges; Russia has vetoed the establishment of a fisheries protection zone in the South Atlantic. These are just the latest outrages in a country that is now categorized by Freedom House as "Not Free". Meanwhile Mikhail Khodorkovsky has just marked 10 years as a political prisoner in a prison near Murmansk.
Yet despite the clumsy brutality of those schooled by the camps of the Gulag- whether as jailers or indeed as former prisoners, the regime of the Chekists is failing, just as its Czarist predecessor did.
In the end the contempt that the regime shows for rule of law has eliminated most potential investors who could help renew the shattered post-Soviet economy. A reliance on oil and gas, and specifically the use of the "gas weapon" has led to a backlash, and the frantic diversification of supplies by the major markets of Gazprom. Qatari LNG and US shale gas have severely weakened Russia's hold on the EU energy market. Meanwhile ever fewer Western majors regard Russia as being worth the risk, so production stagnates. Meanwhile, after the failure of Gazprom as a super major, the creation of Rossneft as an oil replacement is hampered by the heavy level of debt which has been required to create the group. The company can not expand beyond Russia, and can barely finance the fields that it controls within Russia.
And really Russia only has commodities. Yet coal is far less attractive these days, gold: ditto, even silver and platinum group metals are expensive to mine in a society where almost everything needs a bribe. Meanwhile manufacturing in Russia has to cope with a Rouble made stronger by the sale of oil and gas: Russia has the "Dutch disease", yet unlike the Netherlands it has no strong brands or quality industry that can compete even if the currency was at more normal levels. The Russian economy- far from being a dynamic source of growth- is being crushed by the incompetence and corruption of the Kremlin. Over three million entrepreneurs have been imprisoned in the course of the last ten years, and perhaps another million potential business leaders have fled the country.
All that is left is the increasingly troll-like figure of Vladimir Putin and the Siloviki regime that he fronts, and it is a disastrous failure. Putin, at 60 is an old man in Russian terms. Despite his Berlusconi-like PR stunts- and probable cosmetic surgery- it is clear that the regime is well past its sell-by date. Although the huge protests that greeted his clumsy transfer of power back to the Presidency have died down, there is little doubt that Russian society remains deeply resentful of the stolen election with which Putin intended to cement his grip. At any time- as in the late Czarist times- a new wave of protest could arise to challenge the fragile regime. The "Mubarak scenario" is widely discussed in the parties and salons of the politically connected in Moscow.
So then, to coin a phrase, "What is to be done?"
From the point of view of the West, it seems that, as usual in their relationship with the Kremlin, they always prefer to deal with the devil they know, whether that devil is Gorbachev, Yeltsin, or even Putin. Yet, as so many times before, it is a blinkered policy. The Kremlin under Putin is a proven enemy of the West- it seems perverse to treat such a regime in any favorable light. The increasing repression in Russia will make it ever more difficult for Western governments to ignore popular disgust with Russia among their own electorates. Indeed the militant gay rights lobby is well organised and well funded, and in the absurd "Gay propaganda" laws that Putin has just passed into law, they have a very obvious target: and through a boycott of the Sochi winter Olympics a very obvious means to apply pressure.
Yet these may be mere pinpricks. Now Russia has Edward Snowden, they also have a means to dissuade the US from formal action against them. Nevertheless, as the cold war of spies continues between Russia and the West, the West will be forced to take more public and firmer steps against the Kremlin. Dusting off George Kennan's policy papers on "Containment", would be no bad start. Furthermore, the West should match the tough rhetoric of Putin with some of its own. The frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia allow Russian troops to interfere in the internal affairs of those two countries- they should rise further up the international agenda, if only to embarass the expansionst designs of Russia in the Caucasus. The Russian contention of a sphere of interest in the Post Soviet space should also be resisted, as it becomes clear that Ukraine and even Belarus are now more firmly in the Western economic orbit than the Russian one.
Meanwhile Vladimir Putin might reflect that Czarism was once defined as: "Autocracy, mitigated by assassination", and hope against hope that no one on his own side is thinking the same thing.