Europe’s revisionist power: Russia’s new ideology

RUSSIA NATISTSHow do Russians envisage their country’s place in the world fifteen or twenty years from now? In the afterglow of the seizure of Crimea and the intimidation of Ukraine, there has been a significant change in the mood of the country, notes the celebrated historian Walter Laqueur.

According to opinion polls, most Russians are in a triumphalist mood and think of their country as a superpower and the West as isolated and in retreat, he writes for World Affairs:

The rules of the game, formerly dictated by the EU and Washington, have changed. The expansion of NATO and the EU to the Russian periphery has been halted. Mainstream moderate Russian commentators such as Sergei Karaganov, Alexander Lukin, and others have helped popularize a narrative which holds that until recently Russian dignity and interests were trampled and the country was subjected to systematic deceit, hypocrisy, and broken promises on the international scene. But Russia has now been liberated from false illusions, having given up attempts to become part of the West.

Much of the new Russian ideology that has replaced Marxism-Leninism remains confused, notes Laqueur, the author of many lauded books on Russian politics, history – and much else besides:

Russian policymakers have been advised by Putin to read three of the leading Christian theologians—Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948), and Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900). For Ilyin, Christianity was never the religion of freedom; he was an opponent of democracy and found much to admire in Nazism and Italian fascism, which he believed were unjustly denigrated by liberals and democrats. Berdyaev, on the other hand, wrote that the nationalism of the Russian far right (so much in fashion now) was barbaric and stupid, pagan and immoral in inspiration, full of Eastern wildness and darkness. No one has been more sarcastic than Solovyov about the believers in omnipresent conspiracies, with their hostility toward everyone and everything, imagining dangers that do not exist, indifferent to the damage likely to be caused by their affliction with false ideas. Unfortunately, the theology of Ilyin is far more often quoted in official speeches and seems to have more followers now than Berdyaev and Solovyov.

“Quite recently, with the end of the Cold War, the belief prevailed in the West that democracy was the normal state of affairs and all other forms of governance a regrettable deviation from the norm,” he notes. “That this assumption proved to be overoptimistic is a matter of great grief to Russian democrats, but they have accommodated to the fact, as events during the last two decades have shown, that chaos is much more feared than authoritarian rule and dictatorship.”

Russia welcomed the post-9/11 US ‘Global War on Terror’ as indicating a shared view of the main international security challenges, notes analyst Neil Melvin. Russia: Europe’s revisionist power

FRIDE portada_pub_imagenfoto00001243But as the US-led security agenda expanded into state-building and democracy promotion, including through regime change, Moscow grew uneasy about Western interventions, he writes for FRIDE’s Foreign Policy in 2015: How others deal with disorder:

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and EU enlargement to former Warsaw Pact states, and even some former Soviet republics, was viewed by the Russian leadership as confirming that the promise of cooperative security was little more than a thinly veiled agenda for the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic community at Russia’s expense.

“Nullifying the prospect of pro-democracy revolutions has become a key part of Russia’s neighbourhood strategy and heavily informed the response to the 2013-14 Maidan protests in Ukraine,” he contends.


Russia could blacklist ‘undesirable’ NGOs

Foreign groups deemed “undesirable” could have their assets frozen and their Russian employees could face fines and prison time, leaving human rights organizations deeply concerned, BuzzFeed’s Susie Armitage reports.

A draft Russian law banning “undesirable foreign organizations” is another troubling sign of the authorities’ vigorous measures to restrict any public space for criticism, Amnesty International said after the Duma (Parliament) passed it on a first reading.

The bill will go through two more readings before being sent to President Vladimir Putin to be signed into law, which may be only a formality.

russia_civilsociety_HRW“This law is another sobering sign of how the Russian authorities are quickly closing in on fundamental freedoms and the work of independent civil society groups in the country,” said Sergei Nikitin, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director. “We’ve seen time and again how ideas which threaten fundamental freedoms get railroaded through the Duma and make their way into draconian laws that snatch away the space for dissenting views and independent civil society activism. Sadly, these freedoms can no longer be taken for granted in Russia.”

International support for independent groups in Russia is vital for those Russian seeking to develop a liberal democratic alternative to Putinism, says analyst Leonid Gozman, currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Putin has built a large but fragile constituency of support on the basis of an “archaic and aggressive ideology” that appeals to a people whose experience of Russia’s nascent democracy in the 1990s is now associated with the memory of “national post-Soviet humiliation.”

russia Leonid GozmanThe particularities of the current political system and the Russian mentality have determined the course of the deepest crisis in post-Soviet history, he told a meeting at the endowment (above). Given that Putin and his ‘power vertical’ siloviki associates have no solutions to Russia’s endemic and growing crisis, said Gozman (left), eventual disillusion will likely lead to “radical consolidation” by ultra-nationalists entering the political system, which would in turn raise the prospect of post-Putin fascism and a “high probability” of war.

Taking issue with Gozman’s “alarmist” scenario, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich argued that the ruling elite is by no means monolithic and the state bureaucracy could act as a buffer to revolutionary upheavals. The Russian state was ‘under-institutionalized,” he agreed, but the vast wealth and resources accumulated over recent years gave the elites a compelling incentive to avoid radical change.

It’s also important to recall that the nationalists are internally divided on ideological grounds and both penetrated and instrumentalized by the FSB, said Dr. Miriam Lanksoy, the NED’s Senior Director for Eurasia. Meanwhile, the country’s democratic forces are at last showing signs of developing both a degree of political unity and a shared policy platform that would provide genuine solutions to Russia’s chronic crises.

russiar_putin3_apA Europe-based investigative journalists’ group that follows organized crime and corruption in government has issued a report naming Russian President Vladimir Putin its “2014 Person of the Year,” VOA’s Jeffrey Young reports:

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) editor Drew Sullivan said Putin “has been a real innovator in working with organized crime.” “He has created a military-industrial-political-criminal complex that furthers Russia’s and Putin’s personal interests,” he said. “I think Putin sees those interests as one and the same.”

View the full NED debate here.

The problem with Europe’s view of Russia

russiar_putin3_apPresident Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday Russia must strengthen its armed forces to protect its sovereignty against the “challenge” posed by other countries that might threaten Moscow, Reuters reports.

The most worrying problem with the European Union’s new “issues paper” on relations with Russia is that it betrays a profound lack of understanding of the driving factors of the Kremlin’s foreign policy and their relative importance, analyst Kadri Liik writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Compare, for example, the passages that try to identify Russia’s and the EU’s interests with regard to each other. Russia’s interests are seen as largely formal and bureaucratic: they include resumption of formal dialogue with the EU, trilateral talks on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and recognition of the Eurasian Union (EEU). The EU’s interests, while listed in the same quick and offhand manner, belong to a different world: Russia’s respect for international law and OSCE-based order, an end to Moscow’s destabilizing activities on the EU’s borders and to Russian pressure in the common neighborhood, and improvements in fundamental freedoms and human rights in Russia.

These are not compatible categories.

Vladimir Ionov has become something of a fixture at anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow. And now this could earn him up to five years in prison. The 75-year-old pensioner and activist is the first to fall foul of tough new legislation providing for stiff jail terms for those who repeatedly attend unsanctioned demonstrations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports (HT: FPI).   One of Russia’s leading gay activists has announced he will run against a well-known antigay politician for a seat in St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty adds.   It is absurd to expect that Russia will stop putting pressure on its neighbors in the hope of “resuming a formal dialogue with the EU,” Liik adds:

For Russia, pressurizing neighbors is almost inevitable, because it stems from its chosen identity: Russia wants to think of itself as a great power, and its definition of great power includes having “a sphere of influence” around its borders. Great power status and the ability to control vast areas also legitimize the oppressive nature of the regime at home. Moreover, it would be wrong to think of great power rhetoric merely as a propaganda tool of the Kremlin. No – the idea of other countries being afraid of Russia enjoys true popularity among large parts of the population, who are happy to sacrifice certain freedoms for the sake of this national status.

Therefore, with this paper, the EU is effectively asking Russia to abandon its basic political personality in exchange for some more talking. 


Countering Russian propaganda: a third track approach


russia todayUnderstanding how modern Russian propaganda works is the key to countering it. An important component of Kremlin strategy is to shift attention away from the Motherland, according to Jeffrey Gedmin, a former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

We have instruments at our disposal, including Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Network. But they are hindered by U.S. public diplomacy’s fixation on new media without proper consideration of content and what our larger aims should be. It’s time that we draw from our own Cold War lessons to fashion a reply, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

First of all, Mr. Putin doesn’t want to talk about Russia. We should. We should talk about how Mr. Putin and his cronies have enriched themselves, all the while doing little to improve the lives of ordinary Russians. We should shine a bright spotlight on the plundering that Mr. Putin and his gang have been committing against Russia, materially, spiritually and intellectually….

Second, we need to advance our own narrative about who we are, what we believe in and what we’re willing to fight for. Whether Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis or the racial turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., America continues to be a country of conscience, vigorous debate and self-correction. And just as we don’t try to hide our problems from the rest of the world, we shouldn’t be shy about pointing out that we’re a healthy society for being able to discuss those problems openly…..Up to now we’ve allowed Mr. Putin to monopolize the values debate.

rfe-rl_logo“We need to talk honestly about history, and speak with Russians in the language of values,” says Russia expert David Satter of the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Beyond a double track approach – the capability of force and the use of negotiations – there can be a third track in this effort, one that involves the recognition that the confrontation with Putin is one have seen before—one over ideas, writes analyst Jackson Janes of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies:

Hence, the third track in dealing with Russia now is one on which a competition of values is presented. It is a track that has always existed and has become stronger and stronger with the rise of the kind of technology that allows individual to connect and disseminate their views and experiences directly to other citizens without governmental regulation. Accordingly, this third track represents interconnection between people. ….

RussiaSoftPower238x339Indeed, we are in a much stronger position when presenting positive alternatives than negative consequences in arguing the case for the values we represent. And the arguments can be delivered most effectively not as we did in the Cold War era, through vehicles like Radio Free Europe. We have a whole range of platforms that exist today to connect millions of individuals with each other.  

“This open window into Russia should not be ignored or underestimated, as it has always been the people inside the regime that have ultimately brought about change,” notes Janes.

A bill that passed the U.S. House and awaits Senate approval would overhaul U.S. broadcasting to make it more effective than ever … [and] allow for a more intelligent and efficient allocation of resources, notes Gedmin, chairman of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service:

VOA would assume primary responsibility for explaining U.S. policy and reporting on U.S. politics and culture. To be effective, this must be done honestly, not as propaganda. The other broadcast networks would be merged into a single entity with the primary mission of providing independent news and information to closed societies and “managed democracies” such as Mr. Putin’s Russia.


Russia’s ‘halfway house’ on governance

russia governanceRussia is a halfway house, says Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti. It has private companies, markets and all kinds of consumer wares, but it lacks crucial institutions that help us enjoy all those material goods. There are no such things as impartial courts, honest law enforcement or respect for the rules, he writes for the New York Times:

The lack of political clout from businesspeople and civil rights groups has allowed the Kremlin to respond quickly to isolated cases of resistance while staving off comprehensive reforms of the judiciary, the police and most public services. The pressure has been low because, paradoxically, Russia’s business community has never really championed private property rights in any substantial way. Most businesses have long been registered in offshore jurisdictions, most entrepreneurs have long ago acquired foreign residency permits, and their money has been safely parked abroad. The elite have learned to use the education and healthcare systems of other nations while ignoring the deterioration of those services at home.

“The people who are the most likely to be upset by the poor quality of governance in Russia are the very same people who are the most ready and able to exit Russia,” the political scientist Ivan Krastev warned in the Journal of Democracy back in 2011. “For them, leaving the country in which they live is easier than reforming it. Why try to turn Russia into Germany, when there is no guarantee that a lifetime is long enough for that mission, and when Germany is but a short trip away?”

Relative ease of access to Western jurisdictions has prevented pressure within the Russian political system from growing. But this safety valve may soon malfunction, according to  Trudolyubo, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia:

Given the half-built state of the institutional system, isolation will make whatever legal protections Russians still possess an even more scarce resource. This, in turn, will lead to a heightened role for informal “guarantors” of property and safety — the Kremlin and the high-ranking security officials it relies on. These guarantees are always ambiguous. If Russia, helped by sanctions, closes its doors, the country will degenerate in wild infighting, the outcome of which it will be impossible to predict.