When in the 90s the Berlin wall came down and Germany was reunified, the world took it to mean the irreversible end of the Soviet Empire. As Gorbachev and Jelzin opened Russia to western commerce, the global community thought that the icy blockades of the Cold War had thawed for good. In the 2000s at the latest, globalisation had conquered all.
But after two decades of warming relations, the political climate is slowly reverting to its Siberian origin state. The United States and Russia are engaging in a winner-takes-all tug-of-war in Ukraine. Above and beyond, Vladimir Putin has made it his mission to, in his own words, oppose the US hegemony. In turn, US politicians colour Putin as no more than a power-hungry criminal, out for nothing but influence and personal power. John McCain called the Russian Prime Minister “the next Gaddafi”, Hillary Clinton alleged Putin had “no soul” and Republican presidential candidates love equating him to a ‘mobster’. And while cementing a position of power is certainly a key objective for the Kremlin, one needs to dig deeper to actually understand the Russian aversion to American influence abroad.
Domestic demands – What US influence means in Russia
The low popularity of US capitalism in Russia puzzles many westerners. How can such a huge part of the population oppose the opportunity brought by privatised businesses and competitive markets? The answer is that Russians do not forget easily. When the global community celebrated the ‘liberation’ of Russia in the 90s, Jelzin and Gorbachev spelled bad news for most residents of Russia. The nearly bankrupt government started auctioning state-owned businesses to the largest bidder, natural resources were privatised (leading to the further deprivation of state income) and a crumbling leadership failed to make the necessary legislative changes. The efficiency of law enforcement was essentially non-existent, especially with regards to the myriad of new possibilities for corruption. As the government was in dire need of resources, official posts, political favours or judicial goodwill could be bought without worry. Add a broke government and a broken justice system and the result is post-Soviet Russia. Pensions weren’t paid, no one persecuted employers who skipped an employee’s salary and there was no money to invest in schools, streets and sewage. And whenever state employees don’t receive their pay, corruption sprouts spectacularly well.
It should come as no surprise that a great majority of Russian citizens loyally follow the president who has brought oil and gas resources back under state control, rooted out businessman-politicians out of parliament and reinstated a functioning law-enforcement body. Under Putin’s rule, the average wage has tripled, pensions are paid 8 or 9 times out of 10 and the poverty level fell from 40% to 12%. Let that sink in. In 1999, 2 out of 5 Russian citizens had insufficient money to provide food for the day.
The domestic narrative of the Putin administration: as Americans led the charge, predatory capitalism threw almost half a country into poverty. Russia was robbed of all power on the world stage. The Russian Federation is a patriotic nation, and neither being preyed upon nor being made powerless is easily forgotten.
Broken promises, western provocation
Please keep in mind that this article is not meant to detail my personal views and opinions. The next chapter will not delve into the manifestations of Russian foreign policy. Instead, I will take a stroll through the reasoning behind Russian foreign policy. Let us take a look at the Russian side of the story.
In 1990 US officials led by James Baker (Secretary of State at the time) and Jack Matlock assured President Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “as much as a thumb’s width” towards the east. Vladimir Putin calls the informality of said agreement ‘the biggest mistake made by Russian officials in those turbulent times’. Eduard Shevardnadze, who was involved in the negotiations at the time said that the violation of the buffer zone was “beyond anyone’s imagination”.
The rhetoric mastermind he is, Putin takes it one step further. The transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 (conducted in the presence of 13 of the required 27 members of the supreme council) had been made under similar premises. Furthermore, the results of the Crimean referendum clearly pointed to the return of the peninsula to Russia. But while the legitimacy of NATO’s expansion is taken as granted, the secession of Crimea is quickly labelled as evil and imperialistic. And yet, it is not the criticism of said transfer in itself that angered Putin – it is the underlying double-standard. The USA may approach Russia’s borders with its NATO bases – but in return, the secession of Crimea from Ukraine is dismissed as evil. In both cases, the premise are old, semi-legitimate agreements. In both cases, the expansion east/west was made with the agreement of the general population in the region in question (the PEW research centre estimated public support of the Crimean secession to be at 93%-95%). In both cases, the transfer was done with little to no casualties. Such double standards make up a whole heap of ammunition for Russian officials to attack American foreign policy management.
For those who have been following foreign relations rather closely, the frequent airspace violations are one of the key symptoms of Russian aggression. But again, this is not a game that only the Russian Federation has been playing. As Putin pointed out at a press conference two years ago, in the 1990s Russia ceased all air force manoeuvres outside its own airspace. Military airplanes did not even enter the legal, international territory. Meanwhile, US aircraft continually infringed with Russian airspace. For twenty years, the Kremlin’s jets stayed within the own borders, and for twenty years, US fighter planes ignored that same set of rules. Then, five years ago (under Putin’s administration) Russia expanded the reach of its patrols and manoeuvres. Quickly, the Obama leadership called the violations a ‘blatant provocation’. Just this week, the Kremlin took a lot of heat for a Russian righter plane that buzzed by a US reconnaissance aircraft. The catch? All this happened in international airspace. By international law, the pilot did nothing to deserve the verbal attacks from the pentagon.
Stomping on the Russian economy
Crimea and airspace-violations are relatively modern manifestations of an alienation-policy targeted at Moscow. But even twenty years ago, Russia was not given a chance. In the first chapter I covered the economic mess the Russian Federation was in, trying to pick up the political pieces of the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, agriculture had been regulated and production had been centrally controlled. Then, the country was suddenly expected to switch toward a completely new operational model for its primary sector. If the west had seen the Russian Federation as a potential partner for the future, development-help would have been appropriate. But rather than invest in the worn-out agricultural machinery, the IMF put a cap on the price the Russian government was allowed to pay for grain. The message: pay no more than 10,000 Rubel per ton of grain or receive no more loans. The IMF – known for its expertise in monetary matters – must have known that that let Russian farmers operate at a loss, no matter how great the yield. In protest, the rural producers threatened to burn their crop, unless prices were adjusted to a more reasonable level. The International Monetary Fund didn’t budge, and Russia lost near half its domestically produced grain. The deficit in an essential resource had to be compensated – and for a deeply indebted country, that meant more loans. The government ended up paying 40,000 Rubel per ton for American grain – financed by American loans. The IMF seemed to have done its best to ruin agriculture in a country with 2% of the world’s population but nearly one tenth of the world’s agricultural land.
Back in today’s world, the west sanctions Russian oil – once again shattering the economic power of the Russian Federation, to the dismay of Russian people. And yet, foreign policy pundits and international politics experts are confused by the prospect of the Kremlin looking to do business in Asia. As of 2012 the oil-and-gas sector accounted for 16% of the GDP, 52% of federal budget revenues and over 70% of total exports. Self-evidently, Moscow is absolutely dependant on its oil – and on selling said oil internationally. That is the explanation for the 400 billion dollar gas deal between the People’s Republic and the Russian Federation.
It also shines a light on Putin’s efforts to seal a pipeline deal with Germany. The flourishing central-European nation would make for an excellent trading partner. And while Russian oil does fuel a good lot of German cars already, most of the current pipelines run through – you guessed it – Ukraine. The oily relationship between Kiev and Moscow is a turbulent one. Neither country has forgotten how Julia Timoshenko, beneficiary of the ‘Orange Revolution’ and former champion of the west, decided to take a lion’s share of the Russian energy transit. Russia offered Kiev oil at less than a third of the global price, in exchange for unperturbed transit. Timoshenko saw an opportunity for personal profit and started diverting some of the black gold on its way to Europe into her own pocket. She made a fortune selling it at western prices. The former president is now hailed as an icon of freedom by the west, and at the same time her jail-time is perceived as political corruption, induced and championed by the Kremlin.
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is too complex to be summarized in a single paragraph. Yes, Moscow wants to secure smooth and cheap transport for its natural resources. But the ties between the two nations (between which there is no Visa requirement for travel, Ukrainians/Russians may stay in the other country without any kind of registration for three months) go deep into social and historical themes. Half of the Ukrainian population favours (re-)introducing Russian as a formal language. In Crimea 97% of the population are natively Russian speaking, in Donetsk it’s 93%, in Luhansk 89%, in Odessa 85%. Russia accounts for a fourth of Ukrainian exports and imports. Around 720,000 people fled into the Russian Federation to escape the chaotic conflict in Ukraine. Completely freeing Ukraine of any Russian influence (a goal which John Kerry and Victory Nuland keep advertising) would be both impossible and illogical. Yes, a compromise between east and west will be necessary with regard to Ukraine. But excluding Russia, as the US foreign affairs officials propose, is not an option.
Feel free to criticise Putin. Feel free to criticise Russia. But do not, I beg you, paint the Russian Federation as the source of all evil, as an inherently villainous empire. I hope I was able to draw your attention to the possibility of another perspective today. By no means accept this text as the ultimate, unchallenged truth. Consider it critically. Criticism and disagreement (as long as they are respectful) are very welcome to me. But this respect is what is crucial. Do not paint Russia as the source of all evil before you understand Russia.
Noone seems to have grasped this verbal agression more accurately than an English musician:
There is no monopoly on common sense on either side of the political fence
– Sting, “Russians”