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Inside the bear - How Obama policies backfired

The revolution of 1991 overturned the Soviet Union’s political, but like many revolutions in history, it was followed by a restoration.

December 30

0:00
2016

London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 30 Dec 2016 - Foreign Ministry

The revolution of 1991 overturned the Soviet Union’s political, economic and social order and put 15 countries on the map where there had previously been only one. But like many revolutions in history, it was followed by a restoration.

For nearly 50 years after the end of World War II the international system was bipolar. The Soviet Union and the United States were the two major world players and they stood in stark economic, political, and cultural opposition to one another. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s altered the balance of power in the international system and initially ushered in hope for closer ties between these former foes. However, those hopes were never realized, instead the relationship between the U.S. and Russia remains fraught with tension and misunderstanding. Russia and the U.S. leadership failed due to domestic pressures, and international obstacles that have prevented a more cohesive and friendly relationship from emerging. The United States continues to classify Russia as the “unassemblable other,” and differing domestic expectations and limitations for political leaders continue to foster misreadings of geo-political maneuverings. This lack of shared meaning at the individual and domestic levels has led the U.S. to hedge its bets against Russian democracy and remain invested in containment-style strategies at the international level.

In the early 1990s Russia and the U.S. were experiencing a thaw in what was previously a very icy relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. After many years of seeing the other as the ultimate enemy and the only true threat, the Soviet Union ended and Russia emerged in transition, both in culture and economy. America and Russia used this historical period to renew the relationship. Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of the Russian Federation, and George Herbert Walker Bush, President of the United States, met on multiple occasions to lay the foundation for a new chapter in Russia-U.S. relations.

In his address to the 46th session of the UN General Assembly Bush said, "You may wonder about America's role in the new world ... Let me assure you, the US has no intention of striving for Pax Americana. However, we will remain engaged. We will not retreat and pull back into isolationism. We will offer friendship and leadership. And in short, we seek a pax universalis built upon shared responsibilities and aspirations." This address took place on Sept. 23, 1991, Just three months after the USSR dissolved.

Boris Yeltsin hosted American leadership and implemented the suggestions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with the utmost trust. Economic shock therapy was suggested and implemented to swiftly change the economy. Shock therapy was an IMF strategy for reconstructing the economy of a country. It involved the implementation of radical changes within the country including reforming the economy and ending government subsidies. The term was coined by American economist Jeffery Sachs. It was successfully implemented in Poland years earlier, but was not destined to have the same positive impact this time around. In Russia, the economy became unstable and conditions were particularly bad for non-elite population who suffered a massive devaluation of currency and experienced food shortages. Shortly after it was implemented, the negative side effects were deemed too traumatic.

The task of reform in Russia was woefully under supported by the international community and it was too large of a mission to be accomplished by Russia alone. Russia’s new challenge of transition from communism to democracy and capitalism, although pursued sincerely, was not easy. Growth of Russia’s private sector was hampered by a lack of open trustworthy financial institutions. This made it incredibly difficult for businesses to find adequate domestic or foreign investment. It may have seemed that the only choice for the Russian entrepreneur or businessperson was to become involved in criminal activities. On top of economic and transitional problems, Yeltsin was openly wrestling with a very public battle with alcoholism. In December 1999, Yeltsin announced he would no longer continue as president. At that time he was widely viewed by Russians, and sometimes still is, as a weak, drunk, puppet of the West.

On Dec. 31, 1999, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin took over the last few months of Yeltsin’s term. Putin was a drastically different leader from Yeltsin. In health and appearance Putin is the picture of masculinity, strong and virile. Putin was able to pay back the IMF loans in a timely manner and balance the budget. He was an excellent 5 example of Russian strength and leadership.

On May 7, 2000, “Putin had begun his presidency ready to find a way to reconcile Russia’s profound differences with the West and develop friendly relations. As they did, the policies of NATO would become an irritant for Putin.” As that irritation grew, it can be argued that the once amenable Putin became increasingly anti-Western.

These differing orientations of Putin fall somewhat neatly into two eras. The first era was from 1999 to around 2008, with the second era being 2008 to the present. From 1999 through 2008 Putin was more open to western cooperation and ideals. While U.S. President Bill Clinton and Putin did not see eye to eye on all issues like the anti-missile defense system, they did engage in some bilateral and international collaboration. On Aug.12, 2000, during military training exercises, a Russian submarine encountered issues and sunk. At the same time this incident occurred, Putin was busy overseeing the Chechen War. Even with those serious problems closer to home, the U.S. and Russia attempted to work together to come to a resolution.

In the Soviet era, one could easily see how such an event could have resulted in damaged relations or even war, but under Putin’s leadership a friendlier and more cooperative relationship forged ahead. He took time to discuss entering NATO and opportunities to participate in other Western organizations. When President George W. Bush met with Putin after taking office, he spoke of his appreciation for Putin’s frankness and dedication to his people and to Russia. Bush could relate to and appreciate these characteristics.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Putin was the first world leader to offer sympathy its assistance. When the Bush administration requested that assistance in the form of a military presence and stations inside of Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin obliged. The U.S.-Russian relationship was on a path of reconciliation. The chaos of the Yeltsin years and the tension that defined bilateral relations during the Clinton era appeared to be dissipating. With the widely unpopular invasion of Iraq underway, without U.N. approval, the U.S. was under its own pressure. It withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Putin offered to amend. In 2002 President Bush began talking with Poland and the Czech Republic for possible placement of a U.S. missile defense systems.

Putin’s actions since 2008 suggest that he no longer views Western cooperation and relations as positively. Russian troops were sent into Georgia in 2008. Russia turned off gas supplies to Ukraine the same year. New long-term economic deals were struck with China, and Russia intervened in Ukraine to annex Crimea. All of these activities underscored Putin’s displeasure with his past dealings with the U.S. and other Western countries. Central to this displeasure was the enlargement of NATO and its influence on states along Russia’s western border.

NATO is a sensitive issue for Russia and for Putin for three primary reasons. First, the organization is a holdover from the Cold War and was designed to band countries together against the Soviet Union. Second, Russian leaders have long defended the concept of a sphere of influence and NATO is increasingly operating within that sphere.

Third, Putin wanted to join NATO early in his presidency, but was turned away. Whether or not his desire to join NATO was genuine not giving Russia the benefit of the doubt does not foster a developing relationship.

The former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, said that Western pundits at the time [of Yeltsin] had an “attitude [that] led many Russians to conclude that “the West” would not accept Russia as a partner but only as a subservient appendage. Therefore, Russia needed a stronger central government to mobilize its resources and prove to the world that its interest could not be ignored. Enter Vladimir Putin.” 

Putin is primarily focused on his domestic audience, not the international audience…He cares about the small group of elites that are in various circles of power in the Kremlin and immediately surrounding the Kremlin. And by his recent actions, he has shown that he no longer cares about the economic internationalists among the elites — the people who were pushing for Russia to join the World Trade Organization, the people who recognize that Russia’s economy is in stagnation and that the only way to get it out of stagnation is to diversify beyond its petroleum dependence and to really become a player in the international economy. Putin has chosen, instead, to throw in his lot with ethnic nationalists

The tsar the Kremlin most admires is Alexander III, who on taking office in 1881 reversed the liberalisation overseen by his father, who was assassinated, to impose an official ideology of Orthodoxy, nationalism and autocracy. His portrait and his famous saying, “Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy,” greet visitors to a revamped museum of Russian history at VDNKH, a prime example of Stalinist architecture in Moscow. Stalin himself has had a makeover too. Gigantic portraits of him line the roads in Crimea, proclaiming: “It is our victory!”

The two main pillars of the Soviet state, propaganda and the threat of repression, have been restored. The KGB, which was humiliated and broken up in the aftermath of the coup, has been rebuilt as the main vehicle for political and economic power. The secret police is once again jailing protesters and harassing civil activists. In September the Kremlin designated the Levada Centre a “foreign agent”, which could be the end of it. Television has been made into a venomous propaganda machine that encourages people to fight “national traitors” and “fifth-columnists”. Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician who once represented Russia’s hopes of becoming a “normal” country, was murdered outside the Kremlin last year.

After nearly a decade of economic growth spurred by the market reforms of the 1990s and by rising oil prices, the Russian economy has descended into Soviet-era stagnation. Competition has been stifled and the state’s share in the economy has doubled.

The military-industrial complex—the core of the Soviet economy—is once again seen as the engine of growth. Alternative power centres have been eliminated. Post-Soviet federalism has been emasculated, turning Russia into a unitary state.

Reactionary restoration at home has led to aggression abroad. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, two of the most democratic former Soviet republics. It has intervened in the conflict in Syria, propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It has attempted to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions, backed right-wing parties in Europe and tried to meddle in America’s presidential election. And it is once again using the threat of nuclear arms to blackmail the West.

After the defeat of the 1991 coup, Russia was widely expected to become a Westernised, democratic, free-market country. This special report will explain why that did not happen, and ask whether the West has a Putin problem or a much deeper and more enduring Russia problem.

Mr Putin was originally chosen for the top job by Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, not least for being on the “democratic” side in 1991. When he came to power in 2000, he was expected to consolidate the country. Instead, he has reinstated an archaic model of the state.

It was naive to expect that after 74 years of Soviet rule, and several centuries of paternalism before that, Russia would rapidly emerge as a functioning Western-style democracy. But this report will show that Russia’s relapse into an authoritarian corporate state was not inevitable. It was the result of the choices made by the country’s elite at each new fork in the road. And although those choices cannot be unmade, they do not predetermine the future.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a massive change to Russia. The creation of private ownership launched industries that did not exist before, such as private banks, restaurants and mobile-phone networks. People are free to make money, consume and travel on a scale never seen before in Russia’s history. They consume not just more goods and services but more culture and information. The state no longer dominates people’s lives. Although it controls television, the internet remains largely unconstrained everywhere, and radio and print still have some freedom. Even Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician, admits that “despite the curtailing of political and civil freedoms, the past 25 years have been the freest in Russian history.”

People are becoming increasingly alienated from politics, as demonstrated by the low turnout in the parliamentary elections in September, but they are finding other ways of expressing their views. Although few Russians remember quite how the Soviet regime ended, many enjoy the results. Russia has a vibrant urban middle class which, until recently, was richer than its equivalents in eastern Europe. Russia’s cities, with their cafés, cycle lanes and shopping streets, don’t look very different from their European counterparts.

A new generation of Westernised Russians born since the end of the Soviet Union has come of age. The children of the Soviet intelligentsia—a vast educated professional class that supported Gorbachev—dress, eat and behave differently from their parents’ generation. They have a spring in their step.

Many of these young, educated Russians owe their comfortable lives to a decade of economic growth that began in 1998 and ended with the economic crisis in 2008-09. The impact of that crisis exposed the limits of Mr Putin’s model of governance. And although economic growth recovered fairly quickly, trust in Mr Putin’s model of governance declined sharply, from 35% at the end of 2008 to 20% in early 2012, whereas support for Western-style democracy shot up from 15% to 30%.

Those who felt that Russia needed both economic and political modernisation pinned their hopes on Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012. The Russian elite wanted him to stay for a second term, but in September 2011 he announced that Mr Putin, who was then prime minister, would resume the presidency, while Mr Medvedev would become prime minister. He indicated that this job swap had been planned right from the start of his presidency. Many people felt they had been duped. When three months later the Kremlin blatantly rigged the parliamentary elections, they took to the streets, demanding the same sort of respect from the state as citizens as they were enjoying as private customers at home and abroad. They wanted Russia to become a European-style nation state, an idea formulated by Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who had galvanised the protests through social media. His definition of the governing United Russia as a party of “crooks and thieves”, and the mood of protest, spread across the country.

Mr Putin was rattled and angry, but having witnessed the failure of the 1991 coup he knew that tanks were not the answer. Instead he trumped civic nationalism with the centuries-old idea of imperial or state nationalism, offering the idea of Russia as a besieged fortress. In 2014 he annexed Crimea. The tactic worked. The protests stopped and Mr Putin’s personal approval ratings shot up from 60% to 80%. By attacking Ukraine after its own revolution in 2014, Mr Putin persuaded his country and its neighbours that any revolt against the regime would be followed by bloodshed and chaos.

The Soviet Union had many faults, but postmodernism was not one of them. Mr Putin’s Russia is a more slippery construct in which simulation and bluff play a big part. Nothing is what it seems. Elections are held not to change power but to retain it; licensed “opposition” parties are manufactured by the Kremlin; Mr Medvedev’s modernisation was an illusion; doctorates awarded to scores of Russian officials, governors and even to Mr Putin himself were based on plagiarism or cheating, according to Dissernet, a grassroots organisation.

In 2014 Russia put on a remarkable show with the costliest winter Olympics ever staged, in Sochi on the Black Sea. The host country’s athletes got the largest number of gold medals, not least thanks to a massive doping operation in which the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor and Russia’s main security organisation, swapped urine samples through a hole in the wall between an official laboratory and a secret one next door. (That caused many Russian athletes to be banned from this year’s Rio Olympics.) In the same way that Russia has been doping its athletes, its state media have been doping the population with military triumphs and anti-American propaganda, conveying an artificial sense of strength. But unlike those sport victories, Russian violence in Ukraine and Syria is real enough.

Since Obama took office, the relationship between the United States and Russia has continued to decline. The two countries have collaborated on very few international issues. What little has been exchanged has not been positive. Russia is often treated like it is a nuisance. Putin and Obama have not made any public attempts to reduce the increasing hostility.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Putin said, "President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia, and your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone, either."

The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, or measured with the common yard stick, she has a unique stature, one must simply believe in Russia.” Russian culture is a unique mix of old and new in every aspect. It 19 blends both in a way no other in the world could be. The land has been conquered and revolutionized, closed and opened. Russian literature reflects the contradiction and darkness they have endured. Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky are both artists who reflect the Russian soul in their works of art. In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina’s opening line was, “ All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”20 This is an apt Russian thought. It evokes the feeling of being doomed and alone together.

The idea behind the Russian soul is closely related to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is connected to everything and it is everywhere. The Russian soul is light and darkness, suffering, and love. Gogol and Solzhenitsyn had the same sentimental understanding. Today Russia is more stable and richer than it has been in the past but, it is still volatile and corrupt. Human nature still has a large role to play in the action of leaders, and the long history and powerful culture continue to have considerable influence on how the government operates and the motivations of its stakeholders.

Today, Russia is on a path the leads to an authoritarian government and poor relations with the rest of the world. It is a path of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Russia is testing its limits with military maneuvers in the air, land and sea. It can be said that the US-Russia relationship is the world’s largest frozen conflict.

NATO expansion in the region was at best a miscalculation. It both angered Russia and weakened the alliance, showing weakness in both Georgia and Ukraine. Sanctions on key Russia figures have done little to improve relations or alter behavior. The best action to take might be continued negotiations and culturally aware diplomacy.

This is a lengthy and cumbersome process and one that might not yield result for a long time. But if it should work, it will help to build relations that last. It will create a bond with trust and understanding. Negotiations are what truly brought about the end of the Cold War and while the relationship has suffered since then, hopefully negotiations can reverse the tension and help Russia and the United States move forward.

A common thread runs between the current Russian move, deepening its role and using military force in Syria, and the crises in Ukraine since 2013 and Georgia in 2008. In those cases, Russia also used confined military force to pursue broader strategic aims. Russia’s activity in Syria thus has significance far beyond the Middle East and is closely connected with its quest for supremacy in both the Caspian Basin and the Black Sea area.

This was recently illustrated by Russia’s attacks on Syrian targets using cruise missiles from vessels in the Caspian Sea. Putin’s current move in Syria is another link in the chain of Russia’s strategy, aimed at changing the geostrategic balance in this region. The Kremlin is using Syria as a foothold for substantiating its position in the broader Middle East much to the detriment of the West.

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