THE DARKNESS CLOSING IN ON PUTIN’S RUSSIA
by Harry C. Blaney
The deepening darkness of fear has accelerated with the take over of Crimea, especially with the threats of military aggression against Ukraine. This darkness is belied by the poll numbers showing the recent 70% approval rating for Putin’s leadership among Russians. The cold winds of despotism and reckless policies are, in fact, a growing burden for the Russian people.
This darkness falling over the Russian society has a long suffering history. Its recent strong manifestation is seen in a line of actions by Putin and his United Russia party and the security services clamping down on any alternative voices. This includes the increasingly complete control over the media and the execution, incarceration, and abuse of critics, dissidents, alternative leaders, and feisty oligarchs. Demonstrations are essentially banned, people with more liberal views have been called traitors, and NGOs and human rights groups with external ties or funding have been shutdown and harassed by the security services and Justice ministry.
Much of this, as we have made clear in earlier posts, indicate more weakness than strength, fear over confidence, and a single-mindedness to hold on to absolute power at all costs. There can be no doubt that Putin’s strategy and aims are deliberate and ruthless. There seems no concern for the well being of the Russian people or even its joint and individual security. Just the opposite. With his autocratic actions, he has taken real, personal security away from the Russian people.
The sad part is they are sliding back to the old Soviet Union, and even Tsarist, regime ways of using force and coercion to completely dominate the thinking and behavior of Russian citizens. This time it is not with the use of communist ideology, rather of so-called Russian nationalism and an especially dangerous type of racial supremacy and cultural claim of singularity that supports the worst elements of the old Tsarist system.
On the external side, Putin’s call for a new extreme nationalism and denigration of “Western values” and the danger of the so-called West has exacerbated external expansive and aggressive actions. Each feeds on the other in a way that reinforces dangerous, perhaps uncontrollable behavior that can take on its own dynamic.
Sadly, in the short run we have little leverage over these actions, which, for the moment, have engendered a wave of super nationalism not only in the Duma, but in the population at large with only a certain concern among those most educated to their real meaning and the benefits of a Russia that is more engaged with the rest of the developed world.
This domestic trend may be an effort to defuse opposition due to the harsh reality of future daily life in Russia for most of its people. Future prospects for the Russian economy, health care, jobs, housing and over all poverty are endangered by the take over of Crimea. Other dangers include increased use of scarce resources for the military as in the old Soviet Union, lower income from energy exports, and the elimination of links to the outer world and its many benefits. Putin’s aggressiveness has already resulted in huge cost in terms of the Russian stock market, inward investments, credit ratings and uncertainties for future action by Russia. Any risk analysis at this moment would show a yellow or red flag for anyone contemplating Russia as a reliable horse on which to bet.
Even before these aggressive external actions, Russia was already a problematic place to live and invest. The Oligarchs have shown this awareness by putting as much of their resources abroad in places like Cyprus, Switzerland, London and the many money laundering islands that live off of ill-gotten gains. London is filled with Oligarchs’ houses and apartments in the ten million pounds and above range, as is also the case in other countries.
The reality is that life expectancy, health care quality, housing, access to good education for the poor and those in neglected rural and small town areas are appalling compared with any country in Western Europe, and even in many of the more advanced developing countries. Other metrics of a responsible, caring state are absent. Widespread corruption, inequality, a pliant and controlled judicial system, a brutal security and police force, and a lack of vibrant civil society all conspire to darken a country that greatly needs reawakening, openness, free media, and more democratic governance. Frankly, these are not likely on the immediate horizon.
It is crucial that we do not lose sight of the most important long-term goal of helping Russia become a “normal” state with citizens enjoying all the rights that others in Europe, North America, and elsewhere enjoy. The security and peace of the entire world depends on Russia moving, in time and as soon as possible, towards an integrated and cooperative relationship with the rest of the world. Much has been written about both the “justice of Putin’s actions” in Crimea and the cold warriors’ views that seek confrontation as a permanent policy over even a more passive and benign George Kennan “containment.”
I think we need to be firm to deter Putin’s expansive urges and worst instincts, but at the same time we need to act now in order to clarify our desire for a Russia that steps into the sunshine. This entails that the Russian people know we care about them, seek their welfare, and will treat them with respect and welcome them to the larger global community. There is little political reward in America for this message, but it is the right message to communicate. Above all we should not isolate the Russian people in Putin’s desired Russian-only “cage” where there is no contact with the larger world beyond isolation, repression, and darkness.
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