Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia as a failed state

I make no apology for maintaining a string of posts on the subject of Russia. The fact is that Putin's mafia state, nuclear armed as it is, poses an existential threat to the freedom and prosperity of the West and to the peace of the whole world. Russian-sponsored brutality in Ukraine, now thrown into sharp relief by the appalling mass killing of flight MH17, should disgust all civilised human beings.

The initial shock of that act of barbarism may be wearing off somewhat, but its place is emerging a whole variety of questions. From "how could they do this?" has emerged another question: "What does Russia want?", yet as it becomes clear how disconnected and incompetent the Putin regime has become, and even bigger question is emerging: "Can Russia survive?"

At first glance, such a question may seem to be simply absurd, or to play into the hands of the most paranoid Putinista. Yet, the scale of the human rights breakdown under Putin is now so complete, it is legitimate to ask, in the twenty-first century, "if Russia has such a warped structure that it simply can not be a free society, should the country even continue to exist?"

For there is little doubt, that even without the 14 other Soviet Republics, Post Soviet Russia remains an Empire both in fact and in spirit. For example, there are over 185 different national groups, speaking over 100 native languages in the Russian Federation, of which 27 have some official status, although only Russian is designated as the state language. Although Russification, official and unofficial, has continued, the percentage of the population that is ethnically Russian is in steady decline- Russia is growing more diverse and not less. 

That goes for the economy too. Many people, used to the glitz and obvious wealth of Moscow and St. Petersburg can be totally shocked by the contrast, not merely with the seedy and run down state of most other cities, but the dire poverty that exists even in the rural areas close to the capital. Russia has one of the largest wealth gaps ever seen in human history, with brutal poverty literally within sight of the richest individuals on the planet. But such astonishing inequality is the result, not of entrepreneurial graft, but of the capture of the natural resources of the country by a self-selected criminal class. Rent seeking and exploitation are the watch words of this mafia, and it has crushed the vast bulk of the population. The creative and intelligent class are driven to the margin or seek better lives outside the stultifying control of the Kremlin propaganda machine.

The last imperial state, stretching over huge tracts of land, Russia has not been able to deliver its people the prosperity that possession of more land, more gold, more energy, more agricultural land would seem to imply. In fact, it is the reverse, Russian leaders have found it impossible to create a coherent political entity without recourse to a brutal level of violence.

The result of such oppression is a nation of slaves. 

In short, as Max Skibinsky- himself a leading light in one of the most creative places on the planet, Silicon Valley- says in a somber and thoughtful blog, it may well be that Russia as a meaningful social concept has going beyond the event horizon. That in the world that is opening up through technological exchange, Russia in its current form simply has no place. Even if states survive the impact of anarcho-technology, then Russian political primitivism means it can not be one of those states.

I am slightly less pessimistic than that: after all in 1946, German militarism was deemed to be so ingrained into the character of the German state that the Morgenthau plan proposed not merely the dismantling of the political state, but the dismantling of all industrial capacity, so that Germans could only be ostensibly peaceful Yeoman farmers. In fact Germany has emerged as a powerful industrial economy and an admirable democracy.

Yet Germany, of course, has had little choice but to address the horrors of the Hitler years directly. The second defeat gave Germany no option but to change, and change radically. In a way, one might argue that Russia, has been defeated in the Cold War, but not defeated enough. Putin, as Hitler, has been able to claim that Russia was not defeated in the Cold War, but was betrayed. This "Stab in the back" thesis has allowed Russia to evade the moral responsibility for the hideous crimes of Stalin- and it is surely a moral crisis that has allowed the pillage of Russia by the mafia around Putin to continue unchecked. The logic of this argument would be that the West should restore the Cold War policies of containment and slowly strangle the Russian state until they too have no choice but to come to terms.

The problem with this argument is that fighting the previous war may not allow us to recognise the still greater challenges in Asia until it is too late. Although Putin crows about his relationship with China, it is a huge blunder for him to imagine that a resurgent China is anything but a powerful threat to Russia in northern Asia. Yet he is a mediocre mind, and as the disaster in Ukraine now shows, a deeply irresponsible one too.

Living in Estonia, I am surrounded by many of what Max Skibinsky, in a happy phrase, calls Euro-Slavs. These Evro-Russky with their acculturation to democratic and free market norms may yet prove to be a vital resource in the resurrection of the democratic and open minded Russian traditions that have stayed dormant since the burning of Novgorod in 1570

Maybe, one day, it is not too fanciful to think of a new Russia, perhaps with its capital in Ancient Novgorod, rather than Czarist St Petersburg or Stalinist Moscow, emerging, like the Bonn Republic of Germany and finally seeking to heal the moral wounds that beset Russia like a cloud of mosquitoes.  


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dishonourable, Disgraceful and Despicable: Putin the Blunderer must pay the price for his brutal incompetance

For the last few months the government of the Russian Federation has been on the offensive on multiple fronts. In cyberspace, in Syria and Iraq, Russian government agents have been active against Western interests. Internationally, through RT and other mouthpieces, official or not, Moscow has created a slick propaganda machine to set out a case against Western policies. Domestically in Russia, of course the free media has finally ceased to exist. Increasingly, Human Rights have been crushed and what passes for Russian political culture is wrapped in a brutal authoritarianism whose strident nationalism strongly resembles those of the Fascist dictatorships of the 1930s.

As this blog has warned repeatedly, Russia has become an enemy power. 

The image of Vladimir Putin has hitherto been one of an ice cold, intelligent, strategist seeking to probe and develop weaknesses in the Western system- a system that he has maintained an unrelenting hatred for. 

Yet as the Ukrainian crisis has unfolded, many individuals, including- most famously- Angela Merkel, have remarked that Putin seems to believe in a vision of reality that is increasingly disconnected from the truth. His increasingly rambling statements might still be said to show a calculating chess-playing mind, for how else could we explain the simple, bare faced lies that he casually drops into his comments on the world scene, especially concerning the Ukrainian crisis?

Yet if we step back a little, what shocks us now is not the intelligence or calculation that Putin demonstrates, but his banal mediocrity. His vision of the world is still rooted in a backward looking nostalgia for the failed Soviet state. He offers only an updated version of the old brutality. A chess player might adopt a strategy that could create feints, offer sacrifices for bigger gains, but Putin does not do that- he simply uses the old uncompromising Soviet steam roller. As a result, even in countries such as Ukraine, where the image of Russia, even post the overthrow of Yanukovych, was still positive, Russia's image has collapsed. Indeed, across the planet, Russian influence is in meltdown.

All that was before, of course, the horrific events concerning the downing of flight MH17.

Now Russia stands accused of complicity in a truly vile crime. The immediate evidence is quite clear- the attack was recorded by a variety of different sources, and all of those sources point unrelentingly to one weapons system, one launch point, one crew. A crew ostensibly fighting to separate the Donbass from the rest of Ukraine, but in fact comprising Russian army and special forces working to the command of the Kremlin. The phone calls from the local commanders to their Russian commanders inside Russia itself, and the boastful tweets-subsequently deleted- that they put out, show without question who fired the missile that killed nearly three hundred innocent people.

I have little doubt that those who launched the missile probably did not intend to down a civilian airliner, but that is not really the point. Moscow gave these weapons to the frankly low grade forces they have created in the Donbas without thought for the consequences. That those consequences have proven to be so dreadful simply underlines the brutal and arrogant stupidity that has become the hallmark of Putin's policy. This is not merely a crime, it is a blunder.

Meanwhile on the ground these same Russian forces have disrupted the gathering of evidence and restricted access to the crash site, while all the time attempting to steal or destroy evidence. This botched cover-up can achieve very little, except increase the agony of those left bereaved. However it also multiplies the global anger at the initial crime. If it is true that such theft has included the looting of the bodies, as has been alleged, then revulsion will turn to something much, much harder. As it is the conversations between Putin and the Dutch Prime Minister, for example, far from calming the situation, have left the West even more furious. Dumb insolence is a pretty stupid tactic in the playground, but on the global stage and in such crisis, it is close to political and economic suicide.

Vladimir Putin is a disastrous leader. He is leading Russia straight off a cliff. Unless he can make an intelligent play in the course of the next week or so, then the scale of punishment that will be exacted Russia will include total isolation and drastic sanctions which will be designed to remove Russian influence as quickly and completely as possible. David Cameron has already indicated that the MH17 catastrophe will lead to a discontinuity in Russian relations with the wider world- and as the EU considers its next moves, even those countries with most to lose- France- or who are most penetrated by Russia- Italy, some parts of Germany- are being dragged along by the determination that unless Russia changes course, then a second cold war is already upon us.

That new cold war is already being fought in cyberspace and by proxy in Iraq and Syria as well as, of course, in Ukraine. The West should recognize this and offer sufficient military assistance to allow Ukraine to first to defeat the so-called separatists and then aid the rebuilding of an open and prosperous Ukraine. 

We will not get back the lives of the passengers and crew of MH17, or indeed those killed in Ukraine as the result of Vladimir Putin's brutality, but we can make sure that justice is done. The leaders of the so-called separatists must receive indictments and face trial, either in Ukraine or in the Hague.  As for Russia, Putin has chosen a brutal and incompetent path. His personal image is trashed beyond repair. Putin is a tyrant, and such men eventually receive judgement too. His despicable lies and brutality have brought dishonour and shame to his nation. Although in such an oppressed environment it is difficult to truly know if he is popular or not, but the West should spare no effort on relaying the truth to the Russian people and encouraging a new civil society to grow, even while the neo-fascist Putinist chrysalis still encases the country. 

One day Russia might be free. but Russian freedom is a subject for another, different blog.
  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Doing what you know

The advent of a significant Ukrainian advance in the Donbas has opened up scads of poorly informed speculation in the Western press. The fact remains that Russia has increased its direct involvement in the conflict, not reduced it. The so-called "rebels" are Russian led, Russian equipped and indeed much of the military personnel is Russian too. The Ukrainian-Russian border is being held open on the Russian side in order to permit the transit of large amounts of heavy weapons to the puppet army that Putin claims to deny all knowledge of.

This is a flagrant violation of international law- it is an act of war against a sovereign nation in the same way that Iraq's war against Kuwait was in 1990. Permitting this outrage to continue is extremely dangerous. 

Russia is a mafia state led by murderous criminals and their contempt for law, both domestic and international is a threat to global peace and security, not merely the health and prosperity of Ukraine. Russia is an extremely hostile power and has aggressive designs in other places, apart from Ukraine. How that aggression is channeled and contained will be the critical question over the next couple of years.

Yet the fact is that Putin's aggression is being driven by simple panic. The domestic economy, already weak has taken a substantial turn for the worse as the folly of Putin's decision to build Russia as a Petro-state is exposed by the shale gas revolution. For all the bombast of "Gazprom to be worth a Trillion Dollars" hype of a few years ago, we can now see that Gazprom is in fact in increasing financial difficulty, while small entrepreneurs that might have been the seed corn for the future have been destroyed and as many as three million Russians have fled the cranky authoritarianism of Putin.

The fact is, as many Russians now say privately, Putin is now trapped by his own system. He only trusts a small circle of informants- and they simply tell him what he wants to hear. Poll after poll shows Russia is now increasingly disliked across the planet, but in the Putinist bubble, it has, apparently, never been more respected. The economy is being mauled by the breakdown in confidence caused by Russian aggression, but in the gilded Kremlin of late stage Putinism, the crisis has yet to break.

"When you don't know what to do, you do what you know"- and Putin's crushing of civil liberties and total subversion of the economy for the greed of his cronies is pushing Russia to the brink of crack-up. The voices of Russian dissent, cowed and stilled in public, are growing more angry in private. The talk around the Russian kitchen tables is sullen and bitter.

The death of Valeriya Novodvorskaya one of the bravest and most uncompromising dissidents both of the Soviet and the Putinist system reminds us that there are many who do not share the Fascist contempt for the individual that lies at the dark heart of Vladimir Putin's system of cronyism. A moral renewal is still awaited- even nearly a century after the criminal Lenin seized power, his legacy remains as abject and as poisonous as ever.

The attack on Ukraine is a turning point, but it is not likely to lead on to fortune. Rather the crushing of dissent is more likely to increase social pressure to the point where Moscow too, could be facing its own Maidan. Whether that happens this year or next or in two years time, is an open question, but 61 year old Putin is only two years off the Russian male life expectancy now, and even if he lacks the vices that cause such a low life expectancy, he is already a distant and solitary figure to many younger Russians. The national conversation is already moving on, and the frustration of the young urbanites is already moving towards contempt. Yes, it is true that the large mass of provincial and rural Russia still looks towards the "Little Father", the Republican Czar, but ultimate power and control rests in Moscow and St. Petersburg- and here, there are many who are already very unhappy indeed.