Burden of empire: Eurasian ideology ‘a very risky move for Putin’




Oleg Makarenko’s website Ruxpert may not command the viewer numbers of Wikipedia which inspired it, but inside Russia it holds a prominent position in what Makarenko calls an information war with the West, Reuters reports:

As Vladimir Putin has embraced an increasingly nationalist ideology in his third term as president, evidenced by his seizing of Crimea from Ukraine, Makarenko’s anti-Western ideas have become mainstream. His website, designed to be a “Patriot’s handbook”, has mirrored and presaged Putin’s thinking.

“If we fail to win the information war then it will be easy for the Americans to get people on to the streets,” said Makarenko. “Russia has an ideology of traditional conservatism. People have a choice – on the one hand they see the West, where there is individualism taken to the extreme, tolerance to the extreme, gay parades, the lack of a traditional family,” he said.

“Russia has more traditional values. I cannot say that this is a route of development that offers a brighter future, but it is not the dead-end that Western liberalism faces.”

Before, after Crimea

Last year, Putin’s called for a new patriotism to save Russia from Western ideology which was “denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual”.

But Putin’s Eurasian vision is likely to remain precisely that, says an expert observer.

“Under Putin, Russia is now moving along its own neo-imperial path, and the rapidly mounting burden of that course carries serious risks for the country’s future,” argues Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007:

Without exception, every empire of the past — from the Roman to the Soviet, from the Spanish to the British — collapsed for the same reason: the inability to bear what might be called “the burden of empire.” … Domestically, a neo-imperialist policy requires a strong military, significant outlays for the maintenance of colonies and dominions, and a massive bureaucracy.

“This rapidly growing overload could cost Russia not only its long-desired modernization, but even its very existence,” he writes for The Moscow Times, citing 18th-century French political philosopher Montesquieu’s observation: “An empire can be compared to a tree whose overgrown branches drain all the sap from the trunk, rendering it fit only to cast a shadow.”

‘Very risky move for Putin’

Historian Valery Solovei noted Putin’s use of the word “Russky” for Russian instead of the more usual “Rossissky” – a possibly significant linguistic shift suggesting Putin sees himself as leader of all Russians, not just those living within Russia’s borders, Reuters reports.

“He used the word Russky 27 times. This has never happened before,” Solovei said of a word that is used to describe someone by their ethnicity rather than their citizenship. “So the Eurasian Union has been taken over by some kind of vague notion of ‘a Russian World’. It’s an ideological innovation.”

“We are not talking about the former Soviet Union, but the unification of Russians, like a kind of community. The question is how do you interpret this? Is it cultural, ethnic or biological even?” Solovei said.

“The other thing is, is the move ideologically entrenched or not? It’s a very risky move for Putin.”

Russian propaganda ‘worse than Soviet Union’

sovietpropagandaAs the West threatens further sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, critics are warning the message being pumped out by nationalist Russian media is reminiscent of the propaganda produced in the Soviet Union, writes the BBC’s Bridget Kendall:

And on Ukraine there’s one message – that the violence in eastern Ukraine is all Kiev’s fault, that Ukraine is crawling with Russia-hating neo-Nazis and fascists, and that it’s the US government which is fuelling the crisis behind the scenes, while Russia tries to act as peacemaker.

“Aggressive and deceptive propaganda… worse than anything I witnessed in the Soviet Union,” is the verdict of Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Centre, Russia’s most well respected polling organisation. “We’ve been investigated four times this year already. We live on tenterhooks – at any point they could close us down,” says Gudkov.

“And be careful what you write about us,” whispers another academic. “You understand how it is here now.”

So what or who is fuelling this aggressively anti-Western mood? Kendall asks:

DUGIN-150x150On the fourth floor of the sociology department of Moscow University, is a room marked Centre for Conservative Research. This is the office of Prof Alexander Dugin (left) who welcomes sanctions because he wants Russia to split with the West. He also thinks President Putin should and will invade eastern Ukraine.

Once a fringe figure, he is now seen as the ideologue at the heart of Russia’s new conservatism. His long grey beard makes him look like Solzhenitsyn – another Russian thinker who wanted to reunite all Slavic-speaking lands. But Alexander Dugin speaks the language of postmodernism not religion and his focus is politics not spirituality.


Ukraine ‘shoots down Kremlin’s imperial ambitions’

ukrainesolidarnoscAn army assault on pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine will not have taken Vladimir Putin by surprise, but the ferocity of the clashes could be a game-changer if they spin out of control, Reuters reports:

In the last two weeks, with Western sanctions starting to bite, the Russian president has softened his tone against the pro-European leadership in Kiev and promised to pull troops back from the frontier with Ukraine. The likelihood of Russian forces pouring into east Ukraine to capture mainly Russian-speaking areas has receded, and Putin appears to have settled for the gains he has made so far in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

But Putin’s careful planning could quickly unravel under one circumstance – if a large number of civilians are killed in a single incident, putting public pressure on him to send in the army to protect Russian speakers. The deaths of more than 50 pro-Russian separatists in a Ukrainian army assault may not be that moment, but it underlines the dangers inherent in Putin’s strategy.

“Sticking by the sidelines and doing nothing will risk a public backlash at home, of leaving ethnic Russians in Ukraine to the mercy of the administration in Kiev,” Ukraine analyst Tim Ash said. But “formal intervention by Russia will now risk new, more sanctions from the West on Russia.”

Country risk analysts IHS said Poroshenko was “taking a hard line towards the separatist movements in the east in order to secure his public legitimacy and build on the firm majority he received in the 25 May elections.”

“Russia does not look like it is inclined to intervene at this point,” it added.

Ukraine’s announcement Tuesday that it is quitting the Commonwealth of Independent States would be the last nail in the coffin of the Kremlin’s Moscow-centered integration project built on the bones of the Soviet Union, analysts said:

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has filed paperwork on the country’s departure from the CIS with the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, acting ministry head Andrii Deshchytsia said, Itar-Tass reported….Russia has alternative integration schemes for the post-Soviet space, but in the absence of Ukraine, they are likely to remain opportunistic alliances whose members — mostly Central Asian nations — would be looking for Russian money but not strategic affiliation with Moscow, experts said.

“A neo-Soviet Union without Ukraine is nonsense,” said independent political analyst Sergei Shelin. “This is shaping into an Asia-oriented alliance where everybody expects material benefits from Russia, which would struggle to feed them all,” he said.

Rather than allow itself to be sidetracked or outmaneuvered by Moscow, the West should concentrate on and increase its efforts to strengthen the Ukrainian government’s ability to uphold the rule of law, deliver services, realize the country’s economic potential, and defend its borders, say analysts Richard Kraemer and Maia Otarashvili.

In the immediate future, the West’s role is threefold, they write for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:

 The U.S. and other, willing NATO allies must help prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory by better training and equipping of Ukraine’s army through regular joint exercises with Ukrainian forces, bolstered by the provision of appropriate material and systems.

 Western governments and international organizations must strive to best ensure that the May 25th election takes place in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner.

 A realistic economic stabilization and growth program must be formulated in a multilateral and inclusive manner, whereby Western governments and international financial institutions together with the Ukrainian government and business leadership achieve strategic consensus.

The events in Ukraine since February 28 have also provided a stark reminder for Georgia and Moldova (as well as some of the Central European post-communist states like Poland, Latvia and Estonia) of their weakness and vulnerability when it comes to dealing with Russia, they write:

And as we have seen of late in the Middle East, Putin’s aggressively assertive Russia behaves in an equally opportunistic manner there. Aid packages, trade deals, diplomatic postures – these and other instruments at the West’s disposal stand to be significantly more effective if its governments are proactive and consistent in showing their continued support for its allies and partners. Without the West’s vociferous commitment and consequent action, an emboldened, authoritarian Russia will readily take advantage of crises and their aftermath, leaving the international order less democratic and secure, and Western influence greatly diminished.


Richard Kraemer is an associate scholar at the Project on Democratic Transitions at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. Maia Otarashvili is a research associate at FPRI, and the program coordinator of its Project on Democratic Transitions.

Russian rights groups targeted by ‘foreign agents’ law

russia_civilsociety_HRWA Moscow court has ruled against two prominent Russian human rights groups who challenged government orders to register as “foreign agents,” Human Rights Watch said today:

The ruling came several days after Russia’s lower house of parliament approved in first reading a draft law empowering the prosecutor’s office to register independent groups as “foreign agents” against their will. In the weeks before the vote, government agencies in St. Petersburg questioned and inspected several independent groups.

In spring 2013 the prosecutor’s office ordered Memorial Human Rights Center, Golos Association, and Lawyers for Constitutional Rights (JURIX) to register as “foreign agents.” The groups filed a complaint with a court challenging the order. Court hearings on the complaint had been postponed at least three times, until the May 23, 2014 ruling.

Memorial and Golos said they will appeal this latest ruling to the Moscow City Court. If they lose, the groups must either register as “foreign agents,” implying they are somehow anti-Russian, or face a range of possible sanctions, including suspension and fines. The court postponed issuing the ruling on Jurix until June 17, citing the need for additional documents.

Russia’s “foreign agents” law, adopted in July 2012, requires groups that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term commonly understood in Russia to mean foreign spies and traitors. Not a single advocacy group has registered, and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to do so. The latest amendments, if adopted, would empower the Ministry of Justice to register the groups without relying on a court ruling.

“Russia is tightening the noose around groups that are critical of the government, propose reforms, and promote human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems intent on suffocating prospects for independent scrutiny.”


Method to Putin’s madness

Putin_Sechin_0Vladimir Putin wanted to accomplish at least two tasks by annexing Crimea, says a leading analyst.

First, he needed to restore his legitimacy andimprove his plummeting ratings, notes Leonid Gozman, the president of Perspective:

He therefore set out to reinvigorate his “charisma factor” by leading a witch hunt against “internal enemies” — homosexuals, foreign agents, opponents of the Russian Orthodox Church and anyone else falling outside the loyalist pale…..Putin’s second goal was not political, but existential. After 14 years in power, any leader naturally begins thinking about his place in history. According to Putin’s remarks and judging from the people he quotes and most admires, it seems that he wants to be known as the ”consolidator of Russian territory.”

“Moscow’s annexation of what was legally Ukrainian territory dealt a devastating blow to the foundation of global security and stability,” Gozman writes for The Moscow Times. As a result, many leaders in the West no longer consider Russia a potential partner, but an unpredictable potential threat…… But this time around, the West wants to contain Russia not for ideological reasons but as an unavoidable global imperative.”

Russian belligerence has been turning Central and Eastern Europe into an anxious and confused mess, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

In Bratislava, I attended a recent gathering of leaders and sundry pundits from the region. On the subject of Ukraine, the temporising was striking. It starts with Crimea. Did the Russians perhaps not have a point in this instance about cultural and historical links? he writes for The Huffington Post.

By any measure, the March 16th referendum that awarded the territory to Russia was a farce. There were no negotiations between stakeholders preceding the vote. There were no international observers. There were no voting booths for Crimea’s indigenous Tatar population. For those who did vote, there was no option to select the status quo. Yet Russia snapped up Crimea, and we’ve all moved on, including most who live closest by. Now we’re all hoping the Kremlin doesn’t swallow Eastern Ukraine.

There’s method to the Russian madness. “We know this ploy,” says senior State Department official Victoria Nuland, who participated in the Bratislava conference: “You light the fire, then come in as the fireman and then occupy the building.”

There’s more to the method. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been up until now about money, violence and power. That’s appalling enough. But now an insidious ideology is starting to come to the fore. Putin and his cronies have been evolving as kleptocrats with values. That’s why so many right-wing demagogues across Europe find this Russia so attractive. It’s the same in America……