Vladimir Putin Nostalgic Blindness A Critique of the Russian Federation’s Unsustainable Foreign Policy with Ukraine

by / 0 Comments / 136 View / May 21, 2016

Anyone who does not regret the demise of the Soviet Union has no heart . Anyone who wants to restore it has no brains.” This quotation from President Vladimir Putin is indicative of the current Russian approach to international and domestic leadership. Putin’s leadership style contains a neo-soviet vision of a current multipolar world. His nostalgic love of the basic authoritarian principles of the Soviet Union, in tandem with his sense of political realism, is inherently short term oriented. That short term oriented strategy has created chaos within the international community and has weakened the resolve of the Russian domestic political system. With new seemingly hopeless cold war tactics of realpolitik in place, how can Russia and the West work together to create a more stable world order? In order to answer this question, we must analyze the origins of Putin’s strategic calculus, the state of Ukraine as a result of Putin’s actions, the effectiveness of Western tactics to react to Putin, and the way forward for Russia and the West.

Putin’s current belligerent foreign policy is a result of a percepted political expediency to it, but the origins of it lie in the failure of western policymakers to understand Putin’s continual struggle to maintain his legitimacy. In order to prove this hypothesis, one can look at Vladimir Putin’s machiavellian evolution from false reformer to explicit warhawk in his first two terms in office. In his first term, Putin branded himself as an integrationist and semi absolutist public servant. This was a departure from the federalist message of regional autonomy for the individual territories within Russia by Yeltsin and Gorbachev, as Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of the City University of New York explained, “both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were trying to maintain ethnic republics’ support and thereby strengthening the republican elites’ bargaining position. Gorbachev invited the republics to participate in the negotiations over the new Union treaty, while Yeltsin invited republican leaders to sign a Federation treaty, both leaders thus promoting the same discursive frame.” This changed when the economy had faltered and spoiled the regionalist message of Yeltsin, which put the regional governors in support of regionalism in a position of zero leverage. That allowed Putin to come in and expand his “power vertical” agenda, with the regional governors being forced to support Putin, in light of enthusiastic public support for a departure from Yeltsin’s policies.

Despite his focus on state power, Putin realized that the demand for power must also be accompanied by economic rejuvenation, while being guided by the rhetorical function of democratic ideology. According to a 2015 report by the Royal Institute for International Affairs Putin attempted to do this by expanding the Russian Federation’s connections with intergovernmental organizations such as the G-8 and the World Trade Organization. Such a strategy, as adduced by an empirical study by Paul Ingram of Columbia University, has historically expanded the volume of trade between the connected countries. However, instead of proceeding with domestic reform, Putin chose to rely on the price of oil to determine the country’s economic outcomes. The reason for this is because domestic reform would entail the freeing up of economic resources, which could be used to challenge Putin’s inner circle of control. This inner circle, as described by the Economist Magazine is the siloviki, which make up the former Andropov branch of the KGB and the many other parts of Putin’s security apparatus. The siloviki served as a way to consolidate power within the executive and expel the influence of the business oligarchs, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the Yukos Oil conglomerate.

Essentially, Putin was branding himself as a reformer even though he had no incentive nor a desire to do so from his closest line of support. Putin’s macroeconomic policy proved this assertion, with the Carnegie Moscow Center reporting in December 2015 that “in 2008, the Kremlin adopted a list of more than 30 sectors (including broadcasting, fishing, and publishing) in which foreign investment was subject to government approval; this list eventually expanded to include 45 industries.” This action is demonstrative of the proposition that Putin is willing to go very far to ensure that the economy does not interfere with his axis of power. In addition to this, Putin has never been in a strong political position to commit to structural reforms, which that can be traced back to the regional governor’s unwillingness to enforce his policies. According to the Guardian Newspaper 80% of Dmitry Medvedev’s executive orders were ignored by the regional institutions of government in 2011. It may then be asked, why would the regional governor’s ignore the government’s demands? The reason goes back to what I explained earlier as the desire for autonomy of the regional provinces from executive authority. In fact, according to Anton Kazun of the Higher School of Economics, in Moscow Russia, regional systems of law enforcement are incredibly rent seeking and will target small and medium sized businesses through violent corporate raiding as a source of revenue. So, now that a description of the domestic political system is in place, it is quite clear that the only way for Putin to survive in office is to concentrate power in the siloviki, while continuing to find new sources of short term legitimacy among his people.

This is exactly what prompted Putin to infuse his power grab with neo-soviet nationalism during a time of well intentioned but imprudent policy making on behalf of the West. The 2015 Royal Institute for International Affairs report pointed to the Bush administration’s unilateralism and inflammation of tensions on missile defense and reorganization of the process of selecting regional governors as a source of chilling Russian relations. Putin was also given such an opportunity due to the leverage that NATO enlargement and the desire to incorporate new former soviet states into NATO and the EU gave to Russia as a source of anger. The West’s refusal to acknowledge this was as Lawrence Freedman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said “a key moment in Russia’s disenchantment with the post-Cold War security arrangements.” The result was the start of attempts by Putin and his siloviki to return to cold war mindsets through aggression against its neighbors economically and militarily. According to Safak Oguz of Gazi University, the 2008 Bucharest Summit that sought to make Ukraine and Georgia NATO members was perceived by Russia as an attempt to encircle Russia. This led to the Russian support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which led to the 5 day war between Georgia and Russia. NATO’s failure to precipitate Russian reactions, while being indecisive during the crisis emboldened Putin to continue to challenge the western international order. Following this chain of events, on November 18th 2011, Russia created a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan in order to lay way for a relationship that transcends national economic, legal, and military boundaries.

These commitments to the creation of tripolar vision of international order, with Russia as one of these great powers, has a benefit in the form of the continued support from the Russian people in lieu of the perceived effectiveness of Putin to respond to geopolitical threats. According to a 2015 analysis by the Levada Center, following Putin’s aggression in Georgia, Putin at one point had an 88% approval rating. The report also noted that approval ratings in Putin’s Russia have historically risen to high levels when Putin has framed himself as a defender of Russia in military confrontations between former Soviet states supposedly being manipulated by the West. This strategic vision, which was enabled by the West during the conflict in Georgia, is what precipitated the current crisis in Ukraine. David Kramer of World Affairs elaborated in April of 2015 that when the former President Yanukovich of Ukraine caved into a deal with the Eurasian Customs Union, in exchange for a loan, the Ukrainian people’s ousting of Yanukovich prompted Putin to respond with military force including the annexation of Crimea. According to NBC News the resulting economic sanctions in the face of further Russian aggression against Ukraine propagated Putin’s approval rating to 89.1% in June of 2015. However, despite Putin’s short term territorial grabs, Putin does not have a long term strategy for Ukraine and his support of separatism has been a bridge to nowhere.

Vladimir Putin’s support of separatism has pushed Ukraine toward the west and has brought harm to Putin’s only source of long term legitimacy from economic sanctions. The Royal United Services Institute wrote in March of 2015 that back in the spring of 2014 Russia had 3500 to 6000 troops within Ukraine that directly supported insurgencies in the Donbass region of Ukraine. A recent 2016 report from the Fiscal Times documented that over 5000 Russian soldiers have been either potentially killed or injured in the conflict in Ukraine. Even with the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian people remain firm on their opposition to Russian aggression. Just as a Meta analysis of polling data on eastern Ukraine by Dmytro Khutky of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology documented that only 16% of the people of the donbas region of Ukraine supported joining the Russian Federation, 60% did not feel like the Russian speaking population was being victimized in the region, and only 19% supported the use of Russian troops. The data demonstrates Newsweek’s June 19 2016 statement that “Rebels may yet expand their territory a little, but the dream of many Russian imperial nostalgists that great swaths of Russian-speaking Ukraine would flock to join Moscow has faded.” So, why is Putin still maintaining Russian troops in Ukraine?

One theory is that Russia is maintaining troops because of the benefits that the military presence can give to Russia’s short term legitimacy and leverage. Reuters suggested in February 2nd of 2016 that “Putin wants Europe and the United States to feel threatened by a possibility of a larger war with Russia — in order to push them into continuing talks with him. If the talks fail, Putin might want the West to believe, Russia will have no choice but to expand militarily.” However, while this is true in the short term, Russia cannot continue its military adventurism if the barriers are in place to allow eastern european countries to defend themselves against the Russian Federation. In fact, the Irish Times reported that Russia has attempted to disrupt Ukrainian trade liberalization reforms in the past, but failed to do so. The key is that Russia does not have the long term economic capacity to intimidate Ukraine into doing what it wants.

The Russian economy is saddled with sanctions and Putin has shown no sign of steering away from his noncommitment to structural reforms. The current combined US and EU economic sanctions have focused on targeting russian politicians and oligarchs, the defense and energy technology sectors, as well as avenues of debt financing.  From this, Russia’s own Academy of Sciences found that the sanctions could decrease oil production by 10-15% per year, force the Russian economy to compensate for 160-200 billion dollars in deficient borrowed funds, lead to a 20-22 billion dollar economic loss, while the net effect on the Russian economy would translate to a 8-10% loss in GDP. It is true that Reuters attributed the Russia’s economic crisis and weakening of the Ruble primarily to the price of oil. However, while it is true that oil prices make up the majority of short term economic losses, the sanctions are inherently geared to incur costs that increase in value over the long term. This has created an impossible situation for Putin, which is due to the fact that on the one hand Putin has to cater to the domestic security establishment in protecting the existing economic system and foreign policy. On the other hand, because the economic well being of Russia was a key agreement within his social contract with the Russian people, Putin is trying to get himself a way out. Interestingly, the Economist Magazine noted on December 8th 2015 that Vladimir Putin’s recent presidential address shows a softening of tone due to the recent pressure from economic volatility and a willingness among the Russian people, as opposed to the security establishment, to have better relations with the west.

Putin therefore realizes that if he is not able to manage this complex paradoxical dynamic then the sanctions will only increase in cost until Russia is squeezed of its sputtering economic energy. Just as Nicu Popescu from the European Institute for Policy Studies put so eloquently that “The reality is that the longer Moscow’s policies remain unchanged, the more bite sanctions are likely to acquire, for they have in-built multi- plier effects.” The only problem is that University of Sydney Professor Colin Wight pointed out in an interview with Bloomberg that the downing of Malaysia flight 93 is a key example of the fact that Putin cannot control the rebels and can only try to manage the situation from afar. An example of this is the attempt to implement the Minsk  protocol, which was meant to provide autonomy to Ukraine’s southeastern provinces, but could not be contained because of the attempt to create a peace that could not be fully agreed to by the rebels. So, the only actions that Putin can truly take in this situation are short term tactical maneuvers to prop up short term domestic credibility of Moscow’s actions to defend ethnic Russians (or Russian citizens even), rather than taking a true change in Moscow’s conduct of foreign policy.

This transient strategy in the end will continue to degrade Russia’s standard of living and plunge the economy into a deepening pit of despair. The tactic to implement this strategy is through a commitment to a doctrine of military keynesianism, which dictates to increase military spending, while ignoring all of the other facets of the economy. Details include a defense rearmament program of 23 trillion rubles ($723 billion) over 10 years in order to prop up constituencies within Russian defense towns, despite the fact that the defense industry has numerous efficacy issues and may not even be able to make basic quotas. Dmitry Gorenburg of Harvard University reiterated this fact, in three separate articles, by stressing that because budgetary pressures from a 10% cut in expenditures remain with the introduction of import substitution, Russian shipbuilding, stealth fighting capabilities, and cost containment of new armata tanks will have problems meeting existing goals for rearmament.

All the while, Russia continues to suffer from chronic budget deficits and weakening productivity. The Central Bank of Russia Q2-Q3 2015 report showed that the average utilization of the productive capacity of small to medium term businesses was down 2.6%, the economy is suffering from weak demand, and the Reserve Fund and National Wealth Fund will be exhausted by early 2019. The World Bank also noted that Russia’s private sector debt has increased by 15% to a grand total of 59%. Russia’s response to this has of course not been to commit to reforms that will improve Russian innovation, but rather the opposite through data localization requirements and privatization of state firms, which will only slightly delay or even worsen Russia’s economic productivity and budget situation. And while all this has been happening, it is clear that based on Putin’s past behavior he will continue to let Russians suffer for his for his kleptocratic system at the expense of his long term legitimacy.

It may be the case that Putin’s impossible economic situation has pushed Moscow closer to China, but this push toward China cannot solve Russia’s economic problems nor will China push Russia to continually pursue an aggressive foreign policy. According to the Economist Magazine foreign direct investment from China collapsed from 2014 levels in 2015 and Russia does not even make China’s top five trading partners. Furthermore, Morena Skalamera of Harvard University wrote in an article for the Diplomat that China does not have the capacity to resolve Russia’s lack of access to advanced energy technologies. Even though China can still commit to energy deals to buy Russian oil and natural gas that will mean that China will have a greater hold over Russian policymaking. This should actually be a cause for optimism, because according to Marc Lanteigne of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology China’s stake in their relationship with the West forces China to not allow their relationship with Russia to damage existing partnerships with the West. That is why former national security advisor for president Jimmy Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that “In the short term the geostrategic interests of China favor stability over conflict.” So, rather than helping Russia’s ability to pursue its current course, China will only constrain Russia’s ability to maintain its foreign policy.

Now that it can clearly be established that Russia cannot sustain its foreign policy, it should be asked what is the future of Ukraine? Well, if the West wants Ukraine to become a strong democracy, then it must help Ukraine reverse course from its current predicament. Michael A. McFaul of Stanford University explained that because Putin has extended himself into Syria, that gives the west and opportunity to bolster economic programmes (including debt sanctions), anti-corruption initiatives, and defensive aid to Ukraine, while Russia is preoccupied on multiple channels. The West at the same time cannot condone Ukrainian human rights violations because they will only harden the ideological resolve of the rebels in eastern Ukraine. If a peace framework can be negotiated between Russia and Ukraine, which is not likely, then the West should go by the geopolitical framework of Henry Kissinger, which would involve a policy of military nonalignment for Ukraine. But even when western policy is utilized, it can only do so much to help Ukraine. Ukraine must commit to structural reforms if it is to maintain IMF support for its economy. However, even deeper than this is Ukraine’s deeply polarized civil society because Mykola Riabchuk Academy of Sciences of Ukraine pointed out that “Ukraine’s main problem was not the divide inherited from the past but, rather, the inability of the consecutive national governments to address the problem and offer a comprehensive policy of national integration.” This problem of national integration is indicative of an ideological struggle between neo soviet and anti soviet identity politics within Ukraine, which might require a policy of historical ambivalence within the education system in order to bring Ukraine back from this divisive political state.   

Henry Kissinger wrote in his book World Order that the formula for long term political order is a harmonious relationship between power and legitimacy. Such a relationship cannot be achieved in Russia if President Vladimir Putin continues to confuse power as an end in and of itself rather then a means to an end. Putin’s zero sum game is resultantly nostalgically blind to the new rules of geopolitics. Russia must attempt to create an integrated framework with the West in order to contribute to the stability of the liberal democratic order that Franklin Roosevelt started after World War II. Instead of attempting to destabilize Europe, Russia must try to strengthen Europe and Ukraine for the benefit of the international community. This is when Russia will depart from being a marginal power, as well refrain from living in another world, and finally take its place as a responsible and rational actor on the world stage.