- Historically, russia has vacillated between two extremes.
At one extreme, russia enclosed itself, separating itself from the rest
of europe on every level. At the other extreme, russia opened itself to
the west, absorbing everything western as superior to anything russian.
Russia has found it very hard to find the middle ground between the two
extremes. Each cycle of westernization hollowed out russian self-confidence.
Each cycle of anti-westernism liquidated the westernizers, sometimes physically.
Russia spent the last decade in the most extreme spasm of westernization
ever experienced in its history. We would expect the inevitable reaction
to be equally severe. We expect that reaction in the coming decade.
- It is important to understand that Russia literally turned
itself inside out during the last decade. It is not simply a matter of
learning from the West. For a time, Russian decision-makers gave more credibility
to a Harvard economics professor than to all the Russian economists. Russians
sought to adopt Western party politics, in spite of the fact that Russia
had not been genuinely democratic in its history. Russia abandoned an empire
that had taken centuries to build, including the spoils of a world war
in which it lost tens of millions of Russians, expecting in return Western-style
prosperity and integration into Western civilization. The list is endless.
- The results are not. Russia achieved, in return, less
than nothing. Where in 1980 it was a poor but feared superpower, in 2000
it is substantially poorer, weaker and internationally marginalized. The
question of why this happened is entirely academic at this point. We expect
scholars to debate for centuries why Westernization failed and who was
responsible. For us, it is sufficient to note that the latest Westernization
experimentation has failed, and that this failure is in keeping with what
happened in all previous Westernizing experiments. They always fail. The
more extreme the embrace of the West, the more extreme the later rejection
of the West, and the harsher the fate of Russian Westernizers. The issue
now is to try to map the consequences of this failure.
- Gorbachev attempted to initiate a massive reform intended
to save the Communist Party system. He and those Soviets familiar with
the evolution of technology in the West, particularly those charged with
this within the KGB, were painfully aware that the Soviet Union was slipping
hopelessly behind. They also understood that in order to reverse the situation,
the Soviet Union needed a massive influx of technology from the West.
- Gorbachev knew two things. First, while the Cold War
raged, investment and technology transfer were unlikely. Second, unless
there was major reform in Soviet institutions, no amount of capital or
technology could be absorbed. Gorbachev therefore needed to end the Cold
War, convince the West that fundamental reforms were underway that would
prevent the resurrection of the Cold War and reform Soviet institutions
so that the Soviet Union could take advantage of investment and technology.
- Neither Gorbachev nor the relatively sophisticated bureaucrats
who gravitated to him intended to dismantle communism or the party apparatus.
Certainly none of them expected to be forced to withdraw from Eastern Europe.
The thought of the Soviet Union disintegrating was the farthest thing from
their minds. They badly underestimated the weakness of their own system.
They failed to understand that liberalization of an ossified system creates
uncontrollable forces. By 1989, the situation had spun out of control,
and both the party and the empire collapsed.
- Still, there was no revolution - a critical fact missed
by most Western observers. The Soviet Union disintegrated into its constituent
republics with the loss of only the highest tier of officials. The old
guard retained control of the Russian government and the perestroika economy,
and even held the leash of the extreme pro-Western reformers. With the
old system intact, there could be no sweeping change. Without a revolution,
the "new" Russia was doomed from the start.
- The collapse of the Soviet Union and its institutions
opened the door not so much for reform as for theft. In a country that
had no system of private property, no system of legal documentation for
ownership, no impartial judiciary for adjudicating disputes, property was
suddenly "privatized," whatever that meant. Opportunists seized
control. Some were political opportunists, like Boris Yeltsin. Others were
economic opportunists like Boris Berezovsky. Ultimately, the two classes
of opportunists merged into one. The result was catastrophic.
- Westerners completely missed the situation. Most had
no idea whatsoever what was going on, focusing on grand theories of liberalization
based on a foundation of air. Others participated in the systematic looting
of both the Russian economy and Western investment. In Russia, the distinction
between liberalization and theft became difficult to define, as was the
difference between liberal and thief.
- The opposition to all of this was an unimaginative coalition
of Brezhnevites, Stalinists and fascists. An advantage of incompetent democracy
is that the opposition is as ineffective as the government. Lacking his
own political currency, President Yeltsin approached Russia's problems
on a tactical level, appointing a series of disposable prime ministers
appropriate to the crisis of the moment, as Russia sank deeper and deeper
into the morass. The basic outlines of the opposition remained intact.
However, over time, a new governing ideology emerged to replace the discredited
- The first representative of that new ideology was Prime
Minister Yevgeny Primakov, appointed to mollify the communist and nationalist
opposition in the wake of the failure of Sergei Kiriyenko's economic reforms.
Primakov turned against the oligarchs, backing a series of investigations
and indicting two of the most prominent oligarchs for economic crimes,
and he stiffened Russia's opposition to Western politico-military pressure.
Primakov's political offensive was premature, and he fell victim to the
powerful oligarchs and to Yeltsin's need to secure further IMF financing.
- Primakov's successor, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin,
was the last gasp of the Yeltsin Kremlin. The decision to sell out Russian
interests in Yugoslavia just to continue juggling IMF debt drew a cry of
"Enough!" from the Russian security apparatus. When future histories
of Russia are written, the Russian army's dash to Pristina will mark the
beginning of the new order - when nationalists in the Russian military
and intelligence community seized control of the Russian foreign, and eventually
domestic, agenda. The sea change was complete when Stepashin, unwilling
to take appropriate steps to defend Russian territorial integrity in Dagestan,
was replaced by Federal Security Service Director and KGB veteran Vladimir
- Prime Minister Putin was tasked with one immediate mission:
to stabilize the Russian government and prevent its complete collapse.
Appointed in the wake of Russian humiliation in Kosovo, Putin understood
that two issues remained on the table. The first, obviously, was the economy.
The second was Russian national security, or to put it more precisely,
Russian patriotism. Putin understood that he could do little about the
economy, primarily because the Yeltsin regime was so intimately tied to
the Russian economic oligarchs. Any attempt at cleaning house would quickly
bring him down. He therefore concentrated on the single area where he had
a degree of control: patriotism.
- He launched a war in Chechnya that was designed to do
two things. First, it would draw a line in the sand, showing that Russian
disintegration would stop, no matter what the cost. Second, he would move
Russia into a more confrontational position with the West, knowing that
this strategy would increase his popularity in a country tired of being
treated with contempt. He therefore created a situation in which he tried
to co-opt Russian nationalism for Yeltsin's regime, building popularity
and thereby evading the economic questions he could not answer.
- Like Gorbachev before him, Putin tried to find a solution
that would stave off complete collapse without requiring fundamental changes.
In doing this, he has, like Gorbachev, unleashed forces that he will not
be able to control. The extraordinary popularity of the war in Chechnya
led his faction to a much greater victory than expected in recent elections.
But in unleashing Russian nationalism, he triggered a process that took
on a life of its own.
- Russians are far more open to conspiracy theories than
the complex economic and social explanations that might be expected. This
is particularly true, because part of the explanation of events in Russia
can be traced to a conspiracy: the conspiracy of Russian oligarchs working
with Western banks and other institutions. The theory that Russia lacked
the preparation for capitalism does not resonate nearly as well as the
not completely untrue explanation that foreign elements and their Russian
agents combined to weaken, rob and humiliate Russia. Throw more than a
little anti-Semitism into your explanation and you have a theory that is
both satisfying and, to some extent, true.
- Putin, by tapping into Russian nationalism, is trying
to stabilize the political foundations of the regime. But in legitimizing
Russian nationalism at the level of the prime minister's office, he generates
not only a desire to end the disintegration of Russia, but an inevitable
backlash against the West, a backlash aided by Western moralizing on Chechnya.
Now, if the justification for retaining Chechnya is that it is integral
to Russia and is being subverted by outsiders - with a broad hint that
the outsiders are not just Georgians, but the Georgian's American masters
- then a number of things follow.
- First, it follows that if Georgia is the root of the
infection, something should be done about Georgia. Second, if Georgia is
merely the puppet of Washington, then something ought to be done about
Washington. Finally, if Moscow is doing something about Washington in Chechnya,
then Moscow should be doing something about Washington wherever it is acting
against Russian interests. That obviously includes the other areas of the
former Soviet Union where Western influence is generating threats to Moscow.
And it involves those inside of Russia who have sold themselves to their
- In other words, we feel that Russia is primed for another
round of anti-Western frenzy. It is not clear that this could have been
avoided under any circumstances. But Putin's attempt to co-opt nationalism
on behalf of the Yeltsin reformist government both speeds up the process
and guarantees that it will boomerang on him. Gorbachev tried to save the
Soviet Union with internationalism and lost the Soviet Union. Putin is
trying to save the reform government of Russia with nationalism and will
lose that too.
- The issue is whether the current constitution will be
able to preside over the witch-hunt that is brewing in Russia over who
sold Russia to the West. We rather doubt it. The constitution has as much
legitimacy as Yeltsin: very little. Moreover, Westerners confuse the holding
of elections with democracy. Russians feel completely powerless. In the
countryside, outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, they feel completely
alienated from the government, which is regarded as, at best, irrelevant
and at worst, harmful.
- The institutional question is, however, irrelevant. Putin
or someone else, under this constitution or some other administrative form,
will have to pay for what was done to Russia. In no other country could
everything have gone to pieces as catastrophically, without a day of reckoning.
The idea that the regime, which presided over this catastrophe, will continue
to govern indefinitely is preposterous. Now, it is possible that Putin,
with his roots in the KGB and his relations with the military, will be
able to preside over the complete reorientation of the Russian state. But
personalities notwithstanding, the reorientation is underway.
- We expect the reorientation to include a terror. Not
only is this fairly traditional in Russian recoils from the West, but there
is an institutional requirement in this case. Wealth and power is in the
hands of the oligarchs and the Mafia. No new regime can emerge that does
not liquidate these entities. Such liquidation is impossible through legal
means. Russia does not have the institutions needed to arrest, try and
expropriate the Mafia. Indeed, the Mafia may turn out to be an extremely
dangerous opponent. Although, like all criminal groups they have the weakness
of being easily split by a brutal enemy. But a brutal enemy is the only
thing that will break the oligarchs and Mafia. Therefore, there will be
a terror that will focus on criminals, and then, in grand Russian style,
will sweep on to ensnare entire classes.
- Putin, the Gorbachevite, is unlikely to preside over
a terror. He is more likely to engage in a series of partial, stabilizing
measures. The name is unknown of the man who will use Russian nationalism
and xenophobia to unite Russia and crush Westernizers of all sorts. But
he is out there and he will, fairly early in the decade, make himself known.
The complete failure of liberalism in Russia, its very real victimizations
at the hands of Western schemers and dreamers, makes a massive house cleaning
- Along with this house-cleaning, of course, will come
a new foreign policy. The frontiers of Russia are irrational. Apart from
pure military geography, a century of empire has created economic dependencies
that were torn apart when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was a rationale
to the old Soviet borders. Now, there is no doubt there is deep antipathy
toward Moscow in many of the former republics, and deep nationalism supporting
a desire for independence. But there are substantial, if minority, forces
in these countries that want reunification. The remnants of the Russian
security apparatus remain active enough in these countries that with a
powerful, even ferocious, government in Moscow, resistance can be overcome,
in many cases on a voluntary basis.
- We do not think this will happen quickly. We expect Moscow
to spend most of the next generation simply trying to rebuild its empire
to the borders of the former Soviet Union. The task will be difficult and
in some cases bloody. Moscow will not become a superpower for several decades,
if by superpower one means the ability to project forces globally. It will
be hard enough to project forces into the Baltics, Caucasus, Ukraine or
- But this campaign holds out economic hope as well. Defense
expenditures can kick-start an economy. Germany went from a deep depression
to an expanding economy in five years between 1933 and 1938. Massive expenditures
on defense had a great deal to do with it. Defense spending, like all public
works projects, can increase economic activity. But defense spending, with
its particular emphasis on advanced technologies, can have sustaining effects
on the economy. At any rate, the Russian economy really has few other options.
Therefore, increased defense spending will probably have a greater impact
on Russia's economy than any other single cause.
- Russia's attempt to reconstruct itself will inevitably
face opposition from the United States. A recreated Soviet Union, however
organized, is not in the American interest. The economic interests pursued
by United States in the post-Soviet power vacuum in both the Caucasus and
Central Asia have shown little financial promise, but great strategic significance.
The region's oil promise may not be panning out, but the desire for Western
investment is serving to keep several countries in the region oriented
away from both Russia and Iran. However, the United States has relatively
few options in the region, particularly if the Russians were to attempt
to use direct force - as they have in Chechnya.
- Nevertheless, American hostility to Russian aspirations,
while it may be useful in generating political support in Russia, poses
a problem that Russia will find difficult to deal with alone. The process
of building equilibrium in the international system is of particular interest
to the Russians, who will seek to build a coalition to limit American power.
The central player in that coalition is China. China is, of course, somewhat
more cautious in allying with Russia, simply because it sees the threat
of alliance as useful in extracting concessions from the Americans. Nevertheless,
we foresee a serious attempt by the Russians to work with the Chinese,
an attempt that we think will be successful. China has a particular interest
in securing Xinjiang from Islamic influences based in neighboring former
Soviet Republics. It is therefore quite interested in seeing increased
Russian presence in the region.
- We can see clearly that Russia is utterly de-synchronized
economically from the rest of the world. It is also deeply involved in
coalition-building designed to limit U.S. strategic power. But the most
fascinating dimension of the next decade about Russia will be watching
it wrestle with its internal demons. The pendulum is hurtling away from
its love affair with the West. We expect the other swing of the pendulum
fairly early in the next decade. The only question in our minds is how
deep and how bloody the house- cleaning will be.
- (c) 1999, Stratfor, Inc.
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