The Putin Puzzle


It’s strangely appropriate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Iran at the moment. Putin is second only to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the race to be the West’s Public Enemy Number One.

Putin is rolling back democracy. He’s a thug an ex-KGB thug, no less. Putin is using his country’s resources to further its power. He’s belligerent. He wants to renew the Cold War, and has had the Russian Air Force resume its provocative Cold War bomber flights.

Vladimir Putin is the most popular elected leader in the world today.

Statements like those in the second paragraph are not difficult to find in the mainstream media. They range from the true (Russia has resumed Cold War-style bomber flights) to the insulting, with a quick stop at the ridiculous (using your country’s resources for power is something ‘we’ would never do). Putin’s popularity, however, is rarely focussed on.

Vladimir Putin

All this has a familiar ring. Like many readers, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. Though it was the 1980s, I can still remember my eccentric primary school principal insisting on showing us that masterwork of 1950s American cinema, Duck and Cover. (He retired not long after.)

I remember the newspaper editorials hypercritical of the USSR but uncritical of quotes from US sources books on what would happen if/when the Warsaw Pact attacked Western Europe or the mutations that would follow a nuclear war; spycatchers and stories of espionage (when Russians were easy Bond film villains) And I remember when East and West Berliners took tools to the Berlin Wall and embraced after decades of separation.

The Cold War, according to the conventional narrative, was eventually won by Ronald Reagan, who used the only skill set he possessed to demand that Mikhail Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ Gorbachev didn’t, but he didn’t stop the Berliners doing it.

Thus was victory won for democracy over the forces of evil.

But now evil has returned, and its face is Vlad Putin, doing his best to manoeuvre Russia back into a position of power to threaten us again.

The truth, of course, bears little resemblance to this Tolkienesque story, but what is really happening to relations between Russia and the West?

After the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union possibly the only peaceful handover of an empire in history Western nations encouraged privatisation of the USSR’s State-run enterprises. What this actually meant was that under President Boris Yeltsin, Russian plutocrats and Western bankers bought assets at fire-sale prices, which amounted to systematic looting of the Soviet economy most estimates of its loss put the figure up to US$300 billion.

The results: poverty not seen in the Soviet era, alcoholism, suicide and a raft of other social consequences (people I spoke to about this in Russia were very quick to say how much better things used to be), accompanied by a humiliating loss of international standing.

Putin ascended to the presidency of Russia, on New Year’s Eve 1999, with a clear interest in rejuvenating the former superpower significantly, through the use of its energy resources. Several of his key moves have been met with condemnation in the West, including his re-nationalisation of the controlling interest in Shell’s Sakhalin-II project and his pursuit of some of the plutocrats who profited from the post-Soviet collapse.

Russia paid its debts to the Paris Club and IMF early, holds large amounts of foreign reserves, and is also rebuilding its welfare system, though Putin himself admits that there is a way to go.

Politically, Putin has seen the slow eastward encroachment of NATO in violation of agreements, and further Western influence in the Ukraine and Caspian Basin, while Georgia and Azerbaijan in a vital position as regards oil are quite enamoured of Western friendship.

Recent months, however, have seen Putin put Western energy policy in Central Asia in disarray with his series of deals through the region shoring up European dependence on Russia for gas supply and transit for decades. Putin will rightly regard this as a significant victory, especially given that Russia currently receives 32 per cent of its revenues from natural resources.

Putin’s economic imperative has worked with high commodity demand to help drive an assertive foreign policy. Most recently, this has included the petitioning of the United Nations to recognise a large swathe of Arctic territory as contiguous with Russia’s continental shelf and therefore granting it exclusive energy-extraction rights.

On energy, we have seen the deal with Australia, secured during the recent APEC meeting, to export uranium to Russia, linked with Australia’s intent to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and Russia’s intent to grow its full-cycle nuclear industry. The US’s professed lack of objection here is interesting; of course, GNEP is a US-centric group, and a cynic might wonder whether the US will at some stage encourage Australia to ‘turn off the spigot,’ or find some more subtle method of interdicting Russia’s energy supply.

One key policy enabling these practices this has been Russia’s policy of developing ‘national champions’ in critical areas of the economy; in energy, this has included consolidation of major energy companies.

Russia is also using its wealth creatively; it is forgiving the debts of some nations while paying those of the former Soviet States. One use of this largesse has been to gain the use of Syria’s Mediterranean ports for the Russian navy, which one must assume is related to Russia’s plans to once again project its naval power into the Mediterranean, providing further potential for conflict with NATO. Meanwhile, the recent Tehran summit failed to provide a final declaration on the Caspian Sea, but there are definite designs in the area.

Though energy wealth has enabled these moves, Putin made it clear to the world’s press some time ago that he did not want Russia to be only an energy source, and to this end has been consolidating its technological know-how. Again under the rubric of the national champions policy, major aircraft manufacturers are being consolidated into one major Government-controlled enterprise, as well as buying capital in foreign aerospace firms.

Militarily, some of the latest manifestations of Russia’s rejuvenation apart from the already mentioned resumption of bomber patrols include placing Russian nuclear missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad, and Putin withdrawing from the agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe, allowing Russia to redeploy heavy weapons in its European part a clear response to the NATO expansion and US nuclear posture.

In the East, the wargames with China and other Shanghai Co-operation Organisation members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) in August, preceded some current ‘exercises’ timed to coincide with those of Western allies (including Australia). Meanwhile, the major players, China and Russia look to be forming another pole of global power.

Russia’s military assertiveness continued recently with tests of advanced offensive and defensive weapons, including the September test of the ‘Father of all Bombs,’ the new thermobaric weapon with similar explosive capacity to a nuclear weapon but none of the radioactivity. A new defensive weapon development has been the S-400, the latest in a series of anti-air and anti-missile missiles that the outspoken Vladimir Zhirinovsky recommended be sold to Iran to help defend against a US attack. There is also the unshelving of Russia’s fifth-generation PAK-FA fighter jet, to compete with the US F-22 Raptor.

Of course, the timing of these wargames, tests and announcements is significant tensions with the US have increased in the past year but the weapons have clearly been in development longer. Russia is not only asserting its sovereignty it has been underestimated and has a point to prove.

Crystallised in the Russia-West relationship are many dynamics: direct conflict between two opposing systems, conflict within each system; and proxy conflict. And this conflict, however you dress it up, has always been against the alternative model. Capitalism has always involved the creation of large numbers of poor people, many of whom have fled (or attempted to flee) to richer countries as well.

As a system, capitalism works for a few not just at a national, but at an international level. It is instructive that all of the world’s trouble spots show a minority trying to hang on to resources or territory against a majority.

What lies ahead? Global revolution unseating the great powers? Will the 21st century see the rise of an alternative model, such as the State-sponsored capitalism of China and Russia? Or will we simply revert to a multipolar world, where the rawest form of capitalism again has competition and has to make some concessions like the Welfare State?

Putin, whether intentionally or not, has become a spokesperson for a multipolar world, and whatever his and Russia’s faults we should be glad of this. Can you imagine, for example, a Western leader giving a long interview to dozens of foreign journalists without ‘talking points,’ as Putin did at this year’s G8 Summit? Can you imagine one admitting the areas in which they fell short?

One particularly telling question from the G8 Summit: was Gerhard Schroeder correct to consider Putin a ‘pure democrat’? His answer:

Of course I am, absolutely. But do you know what the problem is? Not even a problem but a real tragedy? The problem is that I’m all alone, the only one of my kind in the whole wide world. Just look at what’s happening in North America, it’s simply awful: torture, homeless people, Guantánamo, people detained without trial and investigation. Just look at what’s happening in Europe: harsh treatment of demonstrators, rubber bullets and tear gas used first in one capital then in another, demonstrators killed on the streets. That’s not even to mention the post-Soviet area There is no one to talk to since Mahatma Gandhi died.

Putin’s laughter gave away the joke about Gandhi, but that’s what we have as an alternative model. Putin has been demonised by the mainstream media but in this information age, unlike the Cold War, there are alternatives to the mainstream.

To link to Philip Annettas blog click here

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