In the early summer of 2006, Russia’s political class is in a euphoric state of extreme self-satisfaction.
The keyword most frequently heard in the current Western discourse about Russia is “assertiveness,” referring to the immense self-confidence of Russia’s leaders, who are energetically expressing and demonstrating their virtually unconcealed hostility toward the West, and the United States in particular.
These are the same people who, at the beginning of 2005, were suffering from what, in psychological terms, could only be described as a severe anxiety attack. After the tragedy of Beslan, their fiascoes in Ukraine and Abkhazia, and demonstrations by pensioners against the replacement of social privileges with cash payments, they were paralyzed by the imagined threat of colored revolutions creeping toward Russia’s frontiers. That was when they began claiming that, as President Vladimir Putin himself said, standing behind the terrorists in the Caucasus were more powerful and dangerous traditional enemies, enemies that still see a nuclear Russia as a threat, and want to weaken and dismember it. They believed deeply and passionately in the truth of such absurd statements.
But having spent a little time in analysis, the patient reassured itself that no orange revolutions were imminent and that the would-be dismemberers of Russia and their henchmen were encountering numerous difficulties of their own—the war in Iraq, the London bombings, social unrest in Paris, Hurricane Katrina, the governmental crisis in Ukraine and so on. It was emboldened by the events and gradually, step by step, moved from the depressive to the manic phase of its illness.
By the end of the year, it had proclaimed itself an energy superpower and began tentatively to flex muscles now pumped up by the steroids of exorbitant oil and gas prices. There was no lessening of the deep-seated animosity toward the West. Indeed, it became gleefully exultant when it was sure of its own strength and began to conclude that the West was a sinking ship.
Speaking from the mouth of a government minister, the patient announced that it could not “side with anyone in the worldwide clash of civilizations” that was being unleashed, just as its genetic predecessor, the Stalin regime, stated in 1939 that the Soviet Union could not side with anyone in the World War unleashed by the Anglo-French imperialists.
The only problem was that, no matter how much deep sympathy, affinity and solidarity the Kremlin exuded toward the enemies of the West, no matter how many Khaled Mashaals and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads it cozied up to, in the eyes of these enemies Russia remained a part of the West—its most vulnerable part, moreover, and therefore first in line for expansionist targeting.
The 15 to 20 people who run Russia today do not only run it, they also own it—its oil and gas resources in particular. The disgraceful deal that gave Roman Abramovich $13 billion for control of Sibneft and the forthcoming Rosneft IPO make further debate on the corrupt nature of the regime futile. The reality is now blatantly obvious.
The patient’s newfound energy hasn’t been channeled toward the furtherance of Russia’s national interests. Instead, it is assertively exhibiting its anti-Western neuroses and an aggressive prosecution of selfish business interests. Having firmly grabbed hold of the candy in the form of Gazprom and Rosneft, the St. Petersburg brigrade and its leader, formerly the little lad from the courtyards of the northern capital but now a political big boy, are trading like crazy.
Meanwhile, the image of the West as an enemy has become the sole ideological justification of Putinism, that threadbare philosophy of former members of the FSB and the St Petersburg city government who have gone crazy with the advent of sky-high oil prices.
The “capitalist ministers,” who remember the oil-price collapses of the 1980s and 1990s, cannot afford to be passive observers of the vicissitudes of the oil markets. Too much in their present lifestyle of absolute power, vast wealth, global influence and personal prestige depends on a single number: the number of dollars per barrel.
This is a new, important factor that has been added to the traditional anti-Western neuroses and phobias and is influencing the Kremlin’s behavior in the international arena. It is quite clear (in private conversations Kremlin advisers make no attempt to conceal the fact) that Russia’s entire policy toward Iran is aimed at prolonging the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program for as long as possible, and thereby keeping oil prices high.
The delivery of Tor-M1 air defense missiles, if it goes ahead, will render an Israeli preventive strike almost inevitable. It is not hard to imagine the level world prices will hit after such a development leads to the severe disruption of oil exports from the Middle East.
How will the West react to this new assertiveness on the part of the Putin regime? It is not my place to give advice to Western politicians, the more so since the West as an entity is very heterogeneous. It’s much more important that more people both in Russia and in the West understand that.
- The Putin regime is leading Russia into de-modernization and blocking its progress toward the formation of a post-industrial society;
- “Energy Superpower” is a saccharine euphemism for the less euphonious “petro-state”;
- The exultant malice of the Putin team and its spin doctors over the failures and misfortunes of the West, as well as their flirtation with its enemies, is irresponsible in view of Russia’s national security interests;
- In civilizational terms, Russia is part of the greater West, or rather the “Greater North”;
- Russia and the West simply cannot afford to drift apart in a twenty-first century in which they face numerous existential challenges. This is not a question of geopolitical preferences but of their very future.
And finally, that the Putins, Alexander Sechins, Sergi Bogdanchikovs, Alexei Millers, and Roman Abramoviches come and go, but Russia and the Russian people remain.This article appeared in
The Moscow Times on June 2, 2006.