Trouble in the ex-USSR

20 May 2014

I am trying to make some sense of the news that come out of Russia and (the) Ukraine. I have been listening a lot to radio: Echo of Moscow and other news outlets. Now this is my attempt to sum up what i have heard: .

In some way this meddling is shooting Russia in the foot – if one combines the population and the economy of both Russia and Ukraine then that would make a superpower, whereas taken separately you have two regional powers only. However after the annexation of the Crimea a stronger integration is mostly unlikely to happen within this generation.

How was it possible to push the region into civil war? the population of Easter Ukraine probably feared a stronger integration with the EU – the industrial infrastructure of this region is inherited from the Soviet Union; all the factories are tied to Soviet/Russian industry standards that do not make any sense within the framework of European norms. Germany had a similar problem upon unification and the solution there was to close all East German factories down - the prospect of such a development must have raised a lot of fears.

Russian internal politics to blame?

Mustafa Dzhemilev on the reasons behind Russian intervention in the Ukraine ( see radio interview here ) ; the Russian establishment is very afraid of a possible revolution, afraid of events similar to those that happened in the Ukraine. An so it goes that Russia decides to push its neighbor into turmoil by supporting the secession of the Russian speaking eastern regions, all that in the hope that the resulting instability will set a detering example for the Russian public, this is what should deter Russians from repeating such an exercise at home. Dmitry Bykov says something quite similar in his poem ( here )

At least this makes sense; However that would look like an over-reaction on the part of Russia’s rulers. With a strong economy fueled by high oil prices there would be few causes that could trigger popular unrest. Add to this that many Russians associate political change with social upheaval and anarchy; it seems that Putin’s regime is still within the wider consensus. The Russian state had one strong argument during the pro-democracy protests of 2011/2012 - the message at the time was: don’t rock the boat, now that Russian economy is recovering and Russia has good relations with the west; however now it is the government that is rocking the boat!

There must have been some strong trigger that necessitated strong actions on the part of Russia’s rulers; i guess the Moscow mayoral election of 2013 has been a deep shock to the establishment and this is what has put them into panic mode; In these elections opposition parties picked up some 40% of the vote. I guess it showed that at least in Moscow they managed to question the status quo. It is no longer enough to control the media and to rig the election procedure; nowadays social media has a wide reach, grassroots activists can be organized as local election monitors, now this makes vote rigging much more difficult - the concept of a managed democracy is only possible when there is a politically passive majority, the terms of the game change when people do care; Of course these fears were amplified by the success of the Euromaidan revolution.

Or maybe this is just the long anticipated counter reaction to the Russian protests of 2011 ( here ) .

In Russian history external threats have been frequently used as a pretexts for the tightening of screws at home. Part of this schema is also implemented right now, for example the current wave of restrictions tries to put some limits on bloggers; that is new - they now take them on as a serious threat.

However restrictions alone don’t make it. Up until now Putin’s rule has had a lot of genuine support, it has been understood as the return to order, an order that came after the stormy nineties; also Russia saw a quite impressive growth in GNI (gross national income) during his rule (up until now). However this support might be waning - it would be put into question if the current rulers are widely perceived as corrupt and as inefficient. This is the card that has been played by a new opposition that has been formed around Navalny. The government is seeking ways to discredit the opposition and to renew its support base. And so they decide to push the Ukraine into political chaos, now they blame Ukrainian liberals for the mess, all with the aim to deter ordinary Russians from a repetition of the same experiments.

Also now every action of the opposition can be explained away as outside interference - these are isolationist tendencies.

Alternative explanations

Alexei Venediktov says that Putin wants to leave his mark onto history, to enter the history books as the gatherer of Russian territories; I doubt that this is a sufficient explanation - the price tag of this project is unrealistically high.

Russian power politics can also be used as a justification: Russia has its black sea fleet stationed in the Crimea (on of the peculiarities of the 1991 breakup of the USSR); everything is fine given that the Ukraine is a non aligned state - once the Ukraine shifts its allegiance to the west this status is really put into question. Russian aspiration towards warm seas is often cited as a major motivation of its foreign policy.

Of course there are problems with this explanation: if the Ukraine is about to default on its debts then neither Europe nor the US will be able to bail out a country with thirty million citizens, I think that the Russian establishment knows that a project of driving out the Russian fleet from Crimea by means of asserting influence on Kiev is totally infeasible.

Since the nineteenth century there has been this discussion between western liberals, who see Russia as being part of the west, and the conservatives who stress that a nominally independent path should be taken. In this context the habitual anti American rhetoric of the Russian establishment is turning into the official ideology; patriotism and Ideological factors become very important as the economy crashes. Maybe the Russian rulers tried to cause a wider crisis in order to assert this ideology, this also seems a bit far-fetched.

Less far-fetched is that the current aggression is exploiting the Russian great power syndrome: Russians remember that the Soviet Union used to be a great power, Putin is seen by many Russians to be the restorer of this lost prestige; so this explains (in part) his lasting popularity in spite of the economic crisis that has come out of this mess.

Wider implications

another source of the crisis was the prospect of Ukranian default on its debt; the Ukraine had the option of either being bailed out by Russia or by the European union; I don’t think that the European community would be able to bail out a country with thirty million citizens; I guess the same goes for Russia; The fringes of Europe remain a major source of potential crisis - a hundred years after world war I.

Russia also managed to seriously alienate a large number of people in the Ukraine (instead of containing the crisis) - and that was the only country that was really aligned with Russia; this does not serve Russian interests well. (however i doubt that Putin and his friends were aiming at soft power, i think they are not familiar with the concept)

I find it surprising that all these actions that are supposed to strengthen the rule of the current Russian establishment are achieving the opposite result: capital flight will cause an economic downturn (lots of assets are being moved out of Russia) ; with a bad economy people will then raise the question of Putin’s legitimacy. I guess inaction (or rather effortless action, Wu-Wei) were not an option here; as always there is too much at stake for those who are in power …

It is ironic that it is Putin with his aggressive moves who has ruled out any closer ties that might have been formed some day between the former soviet republics;

Russian relations with China

Russian conservatives like to see China as a potential ally (it is part of the tendency to stress Russia’s different path from that of the west); however Russian liberals who see themselves as part of the west like to stress the systemic risk of such a move: as China is viewed by liberals as a potential regional opponent.

Russian state television argued that a worsening of relations with the west can be countered with a realignment towards China; I guess they did not ask if it is in the interest of China to be put in a antagonistic relationship with the west; these attempts clearly did not work.


Personally i am glad to be watching at all this from far far away;

A municipal election can turn into an important event - on condition that a society is standing at a turning point. The East German municipal elections of 1989 were such a moment (big article in German here )

I guess that this did not escape Mr. Putin, who was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden. This is often described as an unimportant outpost, whoever at the time Dresden was the center of the opposition movement, so Mr. Putin must be very much aware of all this…