Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
The last year has seen considerable change in the U.S.-Russian relationship -- or at least the desire and promise for change. In Washington, the Obama administration has talked of a "reset," and in Moscow, the unofficial publication of a Foreign Ministry document has prompted mentions of a "seismic shift." But the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations cannot be discussed in isolation from wider questions: In what direction is Russia moving? What will Russia be like ten or 20 years from now?
Speculation on the future of nations rests both on near certainties and on imponderabilia, which cannot possibly be measured, let alone predicted. Russia's demographics provide some near certainties: over the last two decades, more than 20,000 villages and small towns have ceased to exist, the immigration of Central Asian workers and Chinese traders has continued, and the Russian birthrate of 1.5 children per woman has stayed well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. A radical reversal of these demographic trends seems quite unlikely. There will be fewer ethnic Russians in the Russia of the future, to be sure. What is less clear is whether Moscow will even be able to hold on to the Russian Far East and all the territories of Russia beyond the Urals.
As for the imponderabilia: if it had not been for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet system -- although doomed -- might have been able to hang on to power for another decade or two. From 1972 to 2008, the price of oil went up from $2 a barrel to almost $150 a barrel (as of the summer of 2010, it was less than half that). In other words, if Russia was still the Soviet Union, the enormous windfall that Moscow has experienced over the last decade would have been ascribed not to Vladimir Putin's wise and energetic leadership but to Leninism and the farsighted successors of the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.
To a large extent, Russia's prospects still depend on the price of oil. The Kremlin must take kindly, then, to the fact that the West does not seem to have a concerted strategy to lessen its dependence on oil and gas imports. And if the more harrowing predictions of global warming are correct, Russia will soon have access to the considerable quantities of rare and important raw materials that are now locked under permafrost. Thus, even if the Kremlin's plans for economic modernization fail, Russia will not face a dramatic economic deterioration and a corresponding political crisis.
The belief in a manifest destiny is part of Russian history, visible in the idea of Moscow as a "Third Rome," the mission of world revolution (or the building of "socialism in one country"), and the contemporary doctrines of "the Russian Idea" and neo-Eurasianism. For the last few decades, anti-Americanism has been another mainstay of Russian politics and culture -- and a force with which Washington will have to contend. In his little-known 1836 essay, "John Tanner," Aleksandr Pushkin was scathing about democracy in the United States, and democracy in general. This breed of Russian anti-Americanism was disinterred under Stalin and is remembered even today, when "democrats" and "democracy" have become terms of opprobrium among wide sections of Russian society. But there is an important difference in motivation -- Pushkin despised the egalitarianism that was part of American democracy, whereas present-day antidemocratic feeling in Russia is largely the result of a few well-placed people in Yeltsin's age of democratization and the years thereafter having used their positions to amass great riches. In the late 1990s, "democracy" became a synonym for "kleptocracy" and "oligarchy."
It took Germany 15 years after World War I to reappear as a major power. Russia took even less time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The oil and gas windfall greatly improved the country's economic situation and strengthened the Kremlin, a process that reached its climax in 2006 and 2007 with a series of speeches by then President Putin. He called his domestic opponents jackals funded by the West and accused them of wanting, much like their sponsors, a weak and chaotic Russia. In Munich in 2007, Putin spoke of the decisive changes in the global balance of power and the decline of the United States and Europe. On another occasion, Putin predicted that by 2020, Russia would be not only among the richest and most powerful states but also one of the most progressive and dynamic. (At present, Russia's GDP equals that of France: $2.1 trillion.) One of Putin's advisers declared that the whole world would be grateful to Russia for serving as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony.
But the global economic recession, which has affected Russia as much, if not more, than the United States and Europe, has changed the mood in Russia and diminished such expectations. Of late, this rethinking has entered the domain of Russian foreign policy and raised various questions: Perhaps Moscow overrated the prospects of the so-called BRIC alliance, that of Brazil, Russia, India, and China? The internal social and political stresses facing these rapidly developing countries have proved formidable, and China and India, for example, do not share many interests. And how, in fact, would the rise of China and the diminished status of the United States and Europe benefit Russia? Perhaps the drawbacks for Russia could outweigh the gains -- after all, the United States is far and China is close, especially to the Russian Far East and Siberia. Lastly, what will happen to Afghanistan after the U.S. and NATO exodus? Moscow sees Central Asia as part of its "zone of privileged interests" -- and thus part of a zone of responsibility. Islamist groups would immediately threaten the Central Asian republics, even if the Taliban, at present, argue that they have no such intentions. And the growing drug problem originating largely in Afghanistan is, according to Russian officials, an even graver danger to Russia than terrorism.
It seems gradually to have dawned on at least some Russian strategic thinkers that NATO in its present form does not really present a major threat to Russia or, perhaps, to anyone. (According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, NATO is no longer a threat, only a "danger," which is presumably less than a threat.) NATO member states have shelved the idea of offering admission to Georgia and Ukraine. At the same time, Washington, following the European example, has toned down its criticism of Russian violations of human rights and lessened its support for domestic opposition groups in Russia and Western-leaning states such as Georgia, which Moscow regards as hostile threats. From Moscow's perspective, the West has largely accepted Russia's claims to a zone of privileged interests -- whatever the fears of Russia's neighbors, there is little Western countries can do to help.
In short, the West's relative weight is declining, but so is Russia's, making a policy of rapprochement appealing for all sides. For Moscow, this new, conciliatory approach is largely focused on economic and, above all, technological modernization. The emphasis of a position paper prepared by the Russian Foreign Ministry and published by Russian Newsweek in May 2010 was almost entirely such modernization. It outlined how Moscow should improve its relations with more than 60 countries, from Brunei to Mongolia, using measures including state treaties and agreements between research institutes.
The document -- and the new policy -- appears to be based on a compromise between various elements in the Russian leadership. President Dmitry Medvedev's faction, which seems to be behind this statement, is clearly willing to take some more risks; it is also possible that Medvedev's supporters are using the argument of modernization to sell a broader policy of détente to various domestic constituencies. The moderate conservatives, such as Prime Minister Putin; his deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov; his deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin; and his foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, understand that Russia's dependence on oil and gas exports must be reduced and that modernization will inevitably involve a political price -- but they are fearful that the price could be too high. Meanwhile, both the right (Russia's ultranationalists) and the left (the Communists) are not, in principle, against modernization but would like it to happen without any political price at all.
The new détente has shown itself in a number of cases: Russia's voting for UN sanctions against Iran, expressing remorse about the Katyn massacre, reaching an agreement with the United States to reduce nuclear weapons, inviting NATO soldiers to march on Red Square on Victory Day, being offered warships from France, proposing a Russian-EU crisis management agreement, and some others. But there are difficulties ahead -- old suspicions and new conflicts of interest will not easily be overcome, and may even derail the new course, just as the détente of the 1970s came to a halt despite goodwill on both sides. In August, Putin said that his anti-Western speech in Munich three years ago had been very useful in retrospect. If so, then how far can the changes in Russia's foreign policy be expected to go?
STRONG LUNG SYNDROME
From his exile in London in the 1850s, Aleksandr Herzen, the most respected and influential critic of the tsarist regime, wrote that if the tyranny in Russia lasted too long, there was the possibility, indeed the probability, that the backbone of the people would be broken and irreparable damage be done. But he also said on another occasion, "our lungs are stronger" -- meaning that the Russian people would be able to survive repression and dictatorship better than others.
Contemporary Russia is a conservative country. The Russian people have witnessed too much negative change during the last hundred years. Putin, it is said, is a liberal compared with much of the public. According to polls, a majority of Russians are satisfied with their political leadership (only in recent months have complaints about living conditions increased, and those have been largely directed toward local officials). This has been Putin's strength -- the Russian people prefer stability to democracy. Putin and Medvedev enjoy higher levels of public support than virtually all Western leaders -- and this support would probably be as high even if Russia had free elections, free media, and an independent judiciary. For this reason, it is likely that the Putin and Medvedev tandem (or another duo of the same political orientation) will continue to lead Russia after the 2012 presidential election, with some form of what Russian commentators have taken to calling "tandemocracy" lasting for another decade after that.
Given the likely longevity of the current political regime, it is worth asking what form of modernization the Kremlin wants and what sort of reform is likely to succeed. This subject has been discussed in Russia since the days of Peter the Great. In recent years, countless conferences, speeches, blueprints, and position papers have discussed various ways to achieve reform. There is not much dissent over whether modernization is necessary -- the country's economic and municipal infrastructure is very poor, and its dependence on the export of oil, gas, and other raw materials is undesirable and, in the long run, dangerous. A lack of economic diversification will make it increasingly difficult for Russia to compete in global markets and maintain its status as a great power.
There is yet more debate over how to pursue modernization. Advocates of top-down modernization argue that the state should act as the main agent, with a minimum amount of political change. This form of authoritarian modernization is what the Putinists call "vertical state intervention." Russian proponents of this school are certainly aware that Russia acquired nuclear technology, to give one obvious example, without democratization. As they see it, Russia's traditions are not those of the West, and in the country's present labile state, more democracy would be harmful, possibly fatal. They argue that even in many Western countries, the state played a central role in the process of modernization, a fact recently mentioned by Surkov, Putin's deputy. This camp is not against transferring technology from the West; indeed, they strongly advocate it. But they argue that new technologies -- such as advanced information technology -- should be introduced first in the army, which they believe is better prepared to absorb them than the private or semi-private sector. As for Western investment, Putin and his followers believe that this will happen anyway, given the precarious state of Western economies and their eager search for profitable ventures. In any case, Western investors want political stability above all, which in Russia is better granted by an authoritarian regime than by democratic chaos.
Furthermore, this conservative, statist camp argues that modernization, however essential, should proceed slowly. As Putin said of reform in September, "We don't need any kind of leaps." In Russia, the potential victims of modernization are many: state bureaucracy, inefficient enterprises and the many who thrive on them, the Russian economy's numerous monopolies, and the sizable part of Russian society that has an instinctive resistance to innovation. This is not to mention the members of the Russian political elite, who have a personal interest in maintaining the status quo. Of course, the situation would be different if Russia were poor in raw materials and had no oil or gas to export, but since a steady income seems assured for years to come without experimenting with modernization, there is no particular urgency for reform.
Most of those in the more ambitious and daring camp, who favor deep modernization (this camp is comprised of management experts and Russia's economic liberals), do not envisage political democratization along the lines of the European model. But they do want some steps in this general direction: they argue that the modernization of recent years has not worked, partly because it has been limited to certain projects or branches of the economy and carried out without competition. Advanced technology can be bought or borrowed -- or stolen -- but more often than not, Russian industries have been unable to absorb new technologies and make them work. The state bureaucracy is not capable of guiding and directing resources toward innovation, nor have Russian capital markets shown much interest in investing in innovative technologies. In June, Putin told the members of the Russian Academy of Sciences to do more for the modernization of the country; this will not be easy, however, considering that the academy's budget is being cut and many scientists have protested against their dismal working conditions.
This camp argues that a critical mass of foreign investors, meanwhile, will not come to Russia until they feel reasonably confident in and protected by the law. For starters, the Russian courts will have to become politically independent and the security agencies will have to lessen their meddling in commercial activity. More broadly, a comfortable Russian business climate will require the absence of major tensions between Russia and the outside world -- a détente of sorts. The Andropov model of top-down bureaucratic reform may have had its uses combating hooliganism in the streets, but it will not promote the kind of creative thinking needed in a modern information society. The Kremlin heralded the planned opening of Skolkovo, a small campus near Moscow that is meant to be Russia's version of Silicon Valley. Roger Kornberg, an American Nobel Prize laureate, and some multinational companies, such as Nokia and Siemens, have expressed a willingness to cooperate -- but so far, Skolkovo has been entirely a state project.
No matter which camp holds sway -- the more conservative one represented by Putin or the one somewhat more inclined toward reform headed by Medvedev -- modernization is probably inescapable in the long term. But in the short term, its prospects are poor. A change not of policy but of mentality is needed among both rulers and ruled. Such dramatic societal changes do occur, but they usually happen as the result of immediate need and a clear and present danger -- neither of which exists in Russia now. And this leaves Russian policymakers with the temptation to muddle economic modernization with a minimum of political liberalization.
Throughout its history, Russia, much like other countries, has been subject to a variety of mindsets, quite often to different ones at the same time. This is particularly true with regard to its attitude toward the West: Is Russia part of the West, and if not, what is it part of? At present, the belief in a specific Russian way seems to be far stronger than a feeling of solidarity or friendship with the West. Indeed, negative attitudes toward the West go back to the nineteenth century, if not further, first concerning Europe and later the United States. Even 100 years before NATO was founded, more than a few Russians believed that the West would do everything it could to harm Russia. During communist rule, official ideology said that aggressive capitalist robbers were preparing to invade the worker's paradise.
On top of this historical ground lays the specific Russian propensity to believe in conspiracy theories, the more absurd, the more popular. An organization such as the KGB -- in which Putin and other leading figures in contemporary Russia received their training -- tends, by its very nature, to believe in worst-case scenarios concerning the outside world. It is convinced that but for its presence and activities, internal enemies would cause Russia irreparable harm.
Also, to hear Putin tell it, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, and Russia, as Tsar Alexander III said, has not had and cannot have any true friends and allies except its own infantry and artillery. Exposure to the realities of the outside world may have caused some mellowing on this point; it is difficult to argue at the same time that the West is rapidly declining and that it is the most powerful threat.
The Russian far right has been frantically searching for alternatives to closer cooperation with the West. Many admire China and its economic achievements, but Chinese power also provokes fear among the Russian right. Neither Japan nor India features highly in these calculations (although trade with India does get some attention). Some Russian political thinkers on the far right advocate alliances with some Muslim countries, above all former enemies such as Turkey. They argue that the two sides have not only a common enemy -- the West -- but also cultural and even religious affinities, Islam being closer to the Orthodox Church than Western Christianity. Yet other Russian experts warn of the "Islamization" of Russia, given the presence of a substantial Muslim minority in Russia, not to mention the ongoing violence and turmoil in the Russian North Caucasus. In short, geopolitical games of this kind are not leading to realistic alternatives. Eurasia is a fantasy, and although normal relations with the countries of the Muslim world are desirable, expectations for more than that will lead nowhere -- at best.
A NEW OVERCOAT
How far will the current foreign policy go, be it a "reset" or a "seismic shift"? Present indications suggest more of the same: greater Sovietization seems unlikely, as does dramatic democratization. Internal discontent may exist, but not to the extent that it will turn into a significant political factor in the near future. Although the Kremlin wants to strengthen and perhaps expand its sphere of influence in the former Soviet states and eastern Europe, any sort of physical reconquest seems very improbable.
To combine the various aims of the Kremlin will not be easy. On one hand, Moscow realizes that it has certain common interests with the West. Russia prefers to deal with EU countries individually, rather than with the European community as a whole. Russia is also likely to push to join the World Trade Organization and to abolish visas for travel to Europe. For its part, the EU has suggested creating a joint security committee to deal with crisis situations. But past experience with such commissions -- namely, the NATO-Russia Council -- has not been encouraging.
On the other hand, Russia wants to maintain normal ties with the rest of the world and prevent a deterioration in relations with newfound sympathizers such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Despite the oil and gas windfall and its return as a great power, Russia remains a relatively weak country -- to use a cricket metaphor, it is batting on a sticky wicket. But Putin has shown supreme confidence, assuming that Russia has little to fear given current global conditions: Europe is in decline, and the United States is weakened by the financial crisis, preoccupied with domestic problems, and, as the Kremlin sees it, under weak leadership. As far as the threats facing Russia are concerned, Putin (much like the Russian far right) still seems too preoccupied with NATO and largely oblivious to the lengthening shadow of China and the growth of aggressive Islamism. Perhaps these ideas are changing. But, to repeat, it is precisely the weakness of the West that makes détente with the United States and Europe more realistic and attractive. Russia needs Western capital and Western technological know-how.
And what will the United States and Europe gain from helping Russia modernize? Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has said that such questions of quid pro quos are not appropriate, but they will be asked regardless. A lessening of international tensions is desirable, but the prices of oil and gas will certainly not come down considerably. There has been a certain change in the Russian political climate of late, with fewer anti-Western speeches, articles, books, and movies, but since most people in the West were not even aware of these manifestations of anti-Westernism to begin with, the shift may go unappreciated.
Some voices in Europe argue that although Europe should take an active part in the modernization of Russia, the lead role ought to be played by the United States, which for a variety of reasons is in a better position to do so. Washington should certainly welcome outstretched hands in the interest of world peace. If it does not do so, it will be blamed by critics for decades to come for having missed unique opportunities. It remains to be explored what these opportunities are.
For the moment, far-reaching political democratization in Russia is not in the cards; it may be an impossible desideratum for now given Russian history. Indeed, perhaps the West should not even press for it, given that the majority of the Russian leadership and the Russian people seem not to favor it. But will it be possible, to give just one example, to have fair trials and legal protection only for foreign enterprises -- something much like the concessions to foreigners China made 100 years ago? Russian leaders who believe in authoritarian modernization might be disappointed when they realize that without true competition their new schemes will not work. Foreign capital alone will not help.
Russia's present situation reminds one in some ways of the dilemma of Akaky Akakievich, the hero of "Shinel," or "The Overcoat," a 1842 story by Nikolai Gogol. (The story is one of the milestones in Russian literature: as Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, "We have all come out of Gogol's 'Overcoat.' ") Akakievich, the owner of an old and shabby coat that makes him the butt of many jokes, decides to buy a new one, although he can hardly afford it. Almost immediately thereafter, he is robbed of the coat, which leads to countless misfortunes and his early death. Today, most Russians, like Akakievich, seem to agree on the need for a new overcoat but not on its size, length, color, where to buy it, the price to be paid, or the urgency of its acquisition -- immediately, or perhaps at some unspecified date in the future.