Russia Isn’t Making a Comeback

Russia Finds Herself Being Shoved Around on the World Stage

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The past three years in the U.S have been rather successful in creating an image of a powerful and formidable Russian state. Not surprisingly, this public relations campaign emerged through Democrats’ nefarious attempts to remove President Donald Trump from the White House. Instead, Russia has somehow emerged as a serious existential threat to the global balance of power. The truth of the matter is despite of President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive posturing, Russia as a nation finds itself from a familiar place. Economically weakened and geopolitically irrelevant on the sidelines of the global chess board.

Inept Power

Perhaps the most accurate depiction of modern Russia is found from the 2014 December edition of the Economist. The cartoon aimed at President Putin’s annual press-conference tradition, where Putin takes citizens’ calls and questions for 4 hours. The cartoon depicts shirtless Putin riding a wild Russian bear making clear to everyone “no one pushes Russia around.” In the image the seemingly muscular bear is sitting in a wheelchair hooked up to oil-feeding IVs. Ironically, the rather clever caricature illustrates the sharp difference in how the nationalist wing of Russia and rest of the world sees Putin’s regime. In the eyes of Putin’s defenders his ability, willingness, and commitment to allow citizens of Russia to grill him for 4 hours exhibit remarkable statecraft strategy and transparency.

Nothing is further from the truth. Most of us realize that the questions have been pre-selected, fabricated, and thus exclusively designed to bolster Putin’s strongman image. As a result, the sense of reality among Russians has been drowned in the rhetoric of nationalism and unrealistic nostalgia. Furthermore, according to a popular view among Russia’s political elite, Western provocation will one day awaken this fierce Russian bear with solemn consequences. Putin and his seemingly powerful nationalist bear are more likely to head towards a rest home than respectable and influential role in multipolar global affairs.

Apparatchik Nostalgia without Purpose

Putin has been particularly fond of blaming the United States and NATO for reinforcing the era of imperialism. Russia’s own inability to inject their influence into global power politics is not the fault or consequence of Pax Americana or NATO’s voluntary security coalition. On the contrary, Russia’s inherent inefficiency is a direct result of Putin’s desire to look history backwards and through old-fashioned ideology.

As a matter of fact, Putin’s regime approaches every decision through the prism of USSR’s foregone role as America’s only challenger. Apart from handful of Marxist failed states and Senator Bernie Sanders, the world has buried everything that the USSR represented. Putin, though, strongly believes “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Consequently, Putin is on a quest to recapture Russia’s role and influence by invoking the nostalgia of breadlines corruption among the Russian people.

Russia in Isolation

By doing this, Putin has isolated Russia and subsequently forced himself to look for alliances from rather questionable parts of the world. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book Strategic Vision such isolation has resulted in a detrimental situation. Russia is incapable of defining herself a clear role in world order. Quite frankly, Russia has never succeeded in balancing her ambitions and role in global diplomatic game.

First and foremost, during her rather tumultuous history, Russia has not been able to successfully conduct delicate soft-power diplomacy the same way as for example Great-Britain has. Secondly, Russia’s hostility and, perhaps even, bitterness towards the United States prevents Russia from reaching even a fraction of America’s prosperity and wealth. The US has achieved both via free-market capitalism and liberalism (in its traditional form) instead of state run crony capitalism.

Finally, Russian mentality, or soul as Fyodor Dostoyevsky prefers to call it, suffers from serious lack of self-control and impatience. Such spontaneous act-first-think-afterwards style of governance dominates Russia’s foreign policy ventures. Consequently, it is increasingly difficult to pass on the blame of Russia’s inabilities and failures to others when Russia herself is yet to exhibit any sort of commitment towards a better future.

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In Russia Reforms Are for Quitters

According to Putin’s biography, “The New Czar: The Rise And Reign of Vladimir Putin,” he was selected by Boris Yeltsin to become Russia’s next president. This was because during his past career in the Soviet bureaucracy, Putin was known to have an eye for reforms, which would not jeopardize the delicate political power structure. A more accurate reason for Putin’s rise to Kremlin was his pledge to protect Yeltsin and his family from prosecution for corruption and deadly, unforgivable rivalries. Putin, however, promised reforms.

Instead, he delivered concentration of power to his hand-selected circles. His second reign wiped the table clean from any sort of crucial economic reforms. For example, Russia’s energy production dependent economy needed to avoid the destructive consequences of resource curse (see Dutch Disease) and gradually shift towards innovation-based knowledge economy. This was unacceptable for Putin and his cronies.

With the massive revenues from Russia’s energy industry Putin bought himself more influence, loyalties, and thus political survival. Putin is well aware one cannot purchase political loyalty from a competitive, free market-based economy as easily as from state-owned energy enterprises. Former Vice-President Joe Biden should know this by now.

Perhaps Putin relied on his ideological allies to come to his rescue when global economic cycles hit Russia’s energy industry. However, a quick glance at the list of Russia’s “brothers” makes one laugh. Venezuela, Iran, Belarus, Cuba, and North-Korea are these allies. None of them are particularly influential or wealthy allies. They also do not have the geopolitical power or economic resources which could extend Putin’s political lifeline.

Flailing on Every Stage

He then worked to establish a development bank comprised of Russia alongside Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. The acronym for this group is BRICS and their goal was to rival the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This would put them in a position to challenge the dollar’s role as de facto international reserve currency. In this effort, Putin built alliances with unreliable states. His military’s action of shooting down civilian planes is hardly the strategy to expand influence or dethrone America’s global hegemony. In other words, Russia is all alone.

Pushing through vital reforms is not going to work by sitting around with a bottle of vodka, blaming the West, and gunning down silencing opposition leaders.

Although Russia’s geographical sphere is vast and undeniable, size is by no means a guarantee for influence and success. Russia’s socioeconomic situation is rather depressing. Pushing through vital reforms is not going to work by sitting around with a bottle of vodka, blaming the West, and gunning down silencing opposition leaders. Russia should and can do much better! Losing all her potential is far more tragic to the Russian people than the collapse of the USSR.

Diplomatic ineptitude, excessive nationalistic pride, an unsustainable economic model, and corrupt leadership are corners of the platform on top of which Putin wants to build a new Russian empire. One could take a simplistic view and compare Russia with other influential states such as the United States of America, the European Union, and China. It becomes crystal clear the Russian model has utterly failed despite her size and vast natural resources.

Consequently, Russia finds herself standing on the edge of the cliff. By now this shouldn’t be shocking. Don’t call it a comeback, because there won’t be any.

Henri Erti
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