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From: "Vlad Sobell" <Vlad.Sobell@dir.co.uk>
Subject: The re-emerging Russian superpower
Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2006

The re-emerging Russian superpower
Is it to be feared or welcomed?

Vlad Sobell
Daiwa Institute of Research
20 January 2006
vlad.sobell@dir.co.uk

. The Kremlin's unceremonious treatment of Ukraine during the recent spat over the price of gas has revived fears of the re-emerging Russian superpower. Indeed, it could be argued that the growing demand for energy, along with the deepening instability in the Middle East, has decisively altered the global balance of power in Russia's favour. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Western commentary has been replete with alarmist warnings against the coming neo-imperialist bully.

. This paper shows that these fears are unduly dramatising the actual situation, as Russia is merely restoring the balance, following a period of precipitous weakness. At this point, Russia's stance is purely defensive, with Moscow being primarily concerned with the maintenance of federal integrity and stability in its CIS backyard. However, this could change if the West continues to poison relations by lecturing the Kremlin on how to manage Russia's internal affairs and by the promotion of so called "colour revolutions".

. We argue that the "colour revolutions" cannot be considered as genuine democratic revolutions. This is because the underlying socio-economic structures in Russia and the CIS ensure that a nominally democratising regime change leads to little more than the replacement of one oligarchic elite by another. The West should not, therefore, be surprised if Moscow considers such efforts chiefly as a hostile geo-political strategy, designed ultimately to gain control over Russia's resources. Since these revolutions lead to chronic instability and economic decline, they are an anathema to Russia, following the tribulations of the 1990's.

. Russia is successfully evolving its own democracy and a market economy and it will protect the stabilising gains, which have materialised since the arrival of President Putin. Continued Western incomprehension would damage mutual relations, with a truculent Russian bully becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The re-emerging Russian superpower

The tensions between Russia and Ukraine at the start of the year have generated renewed analytical interest in Russia's re-emerging position as a superpower, driven chiefly by its actual, or potential, domination of the global supplies of energy. Along with its role as a swing supplier of oil (enabling it to manipulate the balance of power between OPEC and the industrialised consumers), the episode has highlighted Russia's position as the pre-eminent supplier of gas. Russia controls a third of global proven gas reserves, with Gazprom already becoming the dominant supplier in the EU and Turkey, in addition to Russia's "near abroad", including the energy-hungry Ukraine.

However, the drivers of Russia's potential for becoming an energy superpower are not limited to its own resources. An additional factor is Russia's near monopoly over the Central Asian export infrastructure, which remains unbroken by the single Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (in operation since May 2005). Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the continued instability in the Middle East (which some argue has been deepened, rather than reduced, by the US invasion of Iraq) has boosted Russia's position as the aspiring centre of energy geopolitics.

Add to this several other key factors - such as the long-term outlook for high energy prices, the limited ability of the US and EU to diversify their supply sources and Russia's growing ability to play a China and/or Iran "card" both in energy and geopolitics - and the picture that emerges is one of a global energy superpower, capable in many ways to counter the might of present-day sole superpower - the United States.

Furthermore, there have been significant signs that this re-emerging superpower also means business in the military sphere. Russia has recently commissioned a new generation of missiles (Topol-M), capable of fitting a nuclear warhead and able to evade current US anti-missile defence systems. While not signalling a return to a Cold War style arms race, this development suggests Russia is no longer willing to refrain from a bit of old fashioned sabre rattling, when it feels the need to do so.

At the same time, Moscow has notified those who need to know of its determination to protect its vital strategic interests. While not seeking to become the exclusive great power player in the former Soviet Union, Russia has let it be known that it does not regard Western interests in the region as being on par with its own. It will therefore resist Western incursion in the area deemed incompatible with the pursuit of legitimate economic and political objectives.

In practice this boils down to the promotion of anti-Russian regimes in the region, through so called "colour revolutions". Thus, in an unusual move, Russia's defence minister, Sergei Ivanov has written in The Wall Street Journal that the Kremlin's key objective is the prevention of Western-fomented regime changes in Russia's "near abroad" - the CIS.

Russia is returning to normalcy

Should the world be worried? The short answer is no, not in the foreseeable future; but ultimately perhaps yes. However, the key caveat is that what happens in the future also depends on the evolution of the West's own stance towards Russia. Russia could turn more hostile if the West fails to recognise its legitimate interests, especially the most fundamental ones, such as its right to develop its democracy in line with its own cultural traditions and its right to secure the integrity of the Federation.

The reason for saying "no" is that the presently unfolding restoration of Russia's global power is primarily defensive rather than offensive. Although critics of President Putin's regime tend to depict the Kremlin's concern over the risk of disintegration of the Russian Federation as an excuse for "authoritarianism", the fact remains that Russia, unlike any other country undoubtedly has been facing such a risk. Having shed its Soviet empire, the centrifugal process continued in the 1990's, driven not by the yearning for independence but chiefly by corruption and greed of local oligarchic mafias. Russia did not (and still does not) have a modern army able to deter a potential aggressor, while possessing a lot of exceedingly tempting resources on its large, and probably indefensible, territory. In addition it has a long border along the global "arc of instability", making it vulnerable more than any other power to the menace of failed states and terrorism.

President Putin's "authoritarianism", the clampdown on Western-oriented "democratic" oligarchs and the greater oversight over the regions may well look like the traditional Russian paranoia over security. But from Moscow's point of view it is better to be paranoid than sorry, a point which surely would be appreciated by any self-respecting Western planner.

In the Soviet period, security paranoia certainly did serve as a pretext for imperial expansion and the promotion of communist regimes throughout the globe. However, the critical condition making this possible was the existence of messianic communist ideology, which held that the Soviet Union was engaged in an irreconcilable, epic battle with the capitalist West: as a bicycle which no longer stands upright when ceasing to move, Soviet failure to expand, or at least maintain its imperial possessions, immediately spelled the risk of the entire edifice crashing to the ground (which, in fact, is what eventually happened in 1991). Today, Russia (meaning its governing classes, not the fringe politicos) is completely free from these impulses, with the former superpower continuing to suffer from a post-imperial hangover.

The apparently unashamed resurgence of Russian power, therefore, is no more than a recoiling to something resembling normalcy, following a period of dire weakness in the aftermath of Soviet collapse in the 1990's. Viewed from Washington, this can conceivably be regarded as an impudent re-assertion by a "defeated" former communist superpower, and hence a menacing and destabilising process. However, it should more realistically be seen as a natural and healthy development, ultimately actually helping to underpin the global stability. A persistent weakness and/or disintegration of the Russian Federation would hardly turn out to be stability enhancing.

The phantom of "colour" democracy

It is a telling indictment of recent regime changes in the CIS (which have occurred in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) that they are widely being referred to as "colour revolutions", albeit with the strong inference that "colour" stands for "genuinely democratic" (or at least more democratic than the ancien regime). If a revolution is being described chiefly in terms of something as superficial as a colour (or the name of a flower), rather than in terms of an irreversible, structural change, then it is not really a revolution. The enthusiasts for colour revolutions may well believe that such fundamental change has taken place, but these beliefs cannot be sufficiently solidly grounded.

Rather than deep and permanent structural change, the colour revolutions seem to amount to little more than the replacement of one oligarchic clan by another, while unfortunately generating a lot of instability in the process, thereby further impoverishing the liberated masses. Even observers sympathetic to revolutionary leaders such as President Yushchenko and Saakashvili might admit that this seems to be the case, with Ukraine having a particularly bad time of it since its "orange revolution" in late 2004, as its economy and investor image have nose-dived.

Unlike the developed Western societies, where wealth is relatively well dispersed, a condition supported by the existence of robust middle classes, the post-Soviet societies are relatively homogeneous. At the same time, however, they are heavily skewed, with relatively few fabulously wealthy individuals uneasily co-existing with the impoverished populace.

This has created a situation in which politics is underpinned chiefly by conflict among rival oligarchic clans, competing for the available streams of revenue, rather than by the class-based political parties with competing worldviews and ideologies. To put it crudely, politics tends to be essentially gang warfare at its highest level of development, with rival organisations competing for the control of the state. (Incidentally, in this environment corruption is an inescapable way of life, rather than an aberration; conversely, it is the absence of corruption that would be extraordinary). A figure such as President Yushchenko in Ukraine may well make a heroic attempt to push his country beyond the morass of oligarchic politics. But he has no realistic chance of success, unless he has at his disposal impressive, Putin-style "siloviki" machinery, ready and able to deploy methods proportionate to the task.

Since the authentic democratic change had already been accomplished in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, the supposedly democratising "colour revolutions" can achieve little more than install nominally "genuinely democratic", but actually anti-Russian, regimes in the countries concerned. But whatever their orientation, they must of necessity have been mere puffs of colourful smoke in comparison with this earthshaking event.

This is not to deny that post-Soviet countries with seriously oppressive regimes, such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and, to a lesser extent, Belarus do not face the potential for genuine revolutionary change. However, even in these cases it needs to be acknowledged that regime changes would inevitably bring chronic instability and/or disintegrative pressure (as in the case of Iraq, now held together by external intervention, rather than Saddam Hussein's terror).

The perils of democratic orthodoxy

Since countries are (rightly) recognised as having genuine democracy only when they meet a raft of universally valid criteria, it tends to be assumed that these exacting standards cannot be met unless countries closely replicate the models, which have delivered the originals in the first place. Over time this has matured into a near-orthodoxy, which holds that the surest path to genuinely democratic outcome is the closest possible adherence to the Western path - which in practice tends to mean the US path.

In a similar vein, it is believed that a country can be classed as democratic even if it actually fails to meet these standards, simply because it has (for one reason or another) managed to secure a sanction by the West/US. In the real world, such attributes of "quality approval" tend to be dispensed to geo-politically friendly regimes, such as the "colour regimes" in the former Soviet Union, while being denied to regimes deemed hostile, or indifferent, to Western interests. "Democratic" thus becomes synonymous with "Western-oriented" and vice versa.

This kind of thinking and conduct is not only misguided, it is in fact dangerous. It is misguided because it rules out the possibility that the same, if not superior, democratic outcomes can eventually be produced by alternative means, and that genuine democracy can evolve through different genealogical paths. It is commonplace (for example in engineering or architecture) that there are different, in fact multiple, solutions to the same problem, while natural selection is replete with examples of same complex functions (such as the eye-sight) being delivered by radically different methods and systems. The imposition of orthodoxy forestalls the beneficial, free competition among the different solutions and delivery systems.

The orthodoxy is dangerous because it creates opportunities and incentives for abuse by the democratic metropolis, with cultural and/or political imperialism being often concealed under the guise of the promotion of democracy.

Russia's democratic evolution

These considerations are significant in the Russian context, as the building of Russia's democracy clearly necessitates unorthodox, "out of the box" thinking and practice, ready to consider alternative and novel solutions. Since Russia has traversed a very different path from those of Western Europe and the US, its political and cultural "genetic make-up" is too different for it to qualify as the same species (although it remains closely related to them). This is due to a variety of historical and geo-political factors, including the Christian schism (with Russia falling into the Orthodox, rather than the Roman Catholic camp), the Tartar conquest, Tsarist absolutism and last but not the least the seven decades of Soviet totalitarianism.

This does not mean that, as is frequently argued, these differences prevent Russia from developing its own version of democracy. It simply means that in order to build genuine, truly functioning democracy, Russia must pursue its own path and must be left at liberty to do so.

Although the Putin regime has been patiently repeating this mantra, its efforts have unfortunately been ridiculed by mainstream Western commentary, influential pundits and politicians. It has been assumed that, just because the Russian progression (inevitably) follows a path not previously trodden, or not demarcated for it by the West, Russia must be going in circles, forever stuck in sterile authoritarianism. Whenever the regime takes steps to ensure stability and federal integrity, the move is automatically depicted as "increasing authoritarianism". (At the same time, the absence of such steps would surely be seen as the failure to rein in chaos, as was the case with Yeltsin's Russia in the 1990's). Similarly, the defence of legitimate geo-political and economic interests (such as in the case of Gazprom's spat with Ukraine) is immediately interpreted as nothing but crude neo-imperialism.

Yet Russia has unmistakably taken significant strides towards democracy, and is now light years away from the repressive Soviet system.

Democracy as a system of governance or political culture, is made up of so numerous building blocks and components, that it would be impossible to form a consensus as to which is the single most important one. Indeed, democracy is more than a simple sum of all these constituents, being a system, as well as an environment, to which they all contribute in their unique ways.

Nevertheless, for the present purpose it may be possible to suggest that the irreducible, bottom line of a functioning democracy, is the population's ability to peacefully remove a deeply unpopular or widely hated leader/regime. The other standard trappings of democracy (such as the free media, judicial independence and the rule of law, competing political parties and so on) may well be very important, but they are not indispensable in this ultimate democratic act. (As long as the fundamentals are in place, the other trappings are bound to prosper, sooner or later).

Whatever one might say about Putin's "authoritarianism", it would be impossible to credibly argue that the president and his regime are in office against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the population. In fact, the situation is exactly the reverse, with the president (if not his government ministers) persistently enjoying very high popularity ratings. The exponents of the authoritarian school like to point to alleged anti-democratic machinations (the use of so called "administrative resources", the clamp-down on the opposition and the media and so on). However, it would stretch anyone's imagination to believe that these methods would succeed in compelling the majority of the electorate to re-elect Putin in 2004 against their wishes. Such a feat would necessitate terror and propaganda systems equal to those created by Joseph Stalin.

Even granted that no credible rival to Putin emerged (or was allowed to emerge by the regime), the fact remains that the Russian electorate exercised a form of plebiscite - it had the option to abstain from voting, or voting in favour of Putin's competitors, however unimpressive they may have been. The electorate will have another opportunity to exercise this democratic power in 2008, when Putin must leave office.

Furthermore, Putin's regime, and the political environment the regime has created, do not inhibit the growth of the middle class and the development of social stratification conducive to the evolution of civic culture and, eventually, of genuine political parties representing these diverse interests. On the contrary, the regime is promoting such evolution, as it understands that this is the only guarantee of economic health and political stability in the long run. The sceptics might argue that these are mere declarations, with the reality being very different. But, again, the prevention of social stratification would necessitate the return to the hugely repressive Soviet system and its destructive, levelling ideology - which clearly is not happening.

Ultimately, genuine civic culture cannot be somehow manufactured from above. It has to develop spontaneously from below, and gradually appropriate political power and responsibility regardless of the wishes of those at the top. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that, as Russia's socio-economic structure grows more complex and sophisticated - an outcome no dictator can prevent - its civic culture will gradually supplant the present day oligarchic mafias, with class-based political parties making the system sufficiently balanced and self-sustaining.

The Kremlin's "colour aversion" is understandable

Those who recognise the above description of Putin's Russia as being closer to reality than the opposing interpretation (namely, that the regime is building an indiscriminately repressive apparatus, in the service of its corrupt private interests) would surely understand that Moscow is bound to resist destabilising "colour revolutions" not only in Russia, but also in its backyard.

They might also understand that the regime will try its best to protect Russia's internal stability, even if these moves appear as authoritarian. For example, given the regime's conviction (whether or not misguided) that such senseless instability is to some extent fuelled by externally financed NGO's, it is not surprising that it has taken steps to monitor and regulate these organisations' activities and sources of finance.

Russia's potential for abusing the energy weapon is limited

Russia's return as a serious global player noted at the outset should be seen in the context of these considerations. Although its economy has been growing at a fast pace, it suffers from serious structural distortions, with economic welfare destined to remain well below the developed Western countries in the foreseeable future. While enjoying areas of excellence (such as the weapons' production or aerospace), Russia lags technologically behind the West in most other areas, and will continue to do so.

Under these circumstances, the Kremlin is bound to remain preoccupied with the preservation of the Federation's integrity and security, not imperial expansion. Russia actually is not a budding superpower - it is merely a former superpower re-emerging as a credible, equal partner of the other global powers - the US, EU and China.

Like any other power in its predicament, Russia is undoubtedly using its "energy weapon" to the best of its ability to advance its geo-political interests. It could hardly be doing the opposite - unless the world has entered a blissful state of all-round altruism. Yet even with its control over CIS transport infrastructure and influence over the use of CIS resources, there is a limit on how far, and how effectively, this weapon can be used. Over the long term, the markets will tend towards a broad balance between the supplier and consumer - excessive Russian power, and/or an abuse of that power for geo-political ends, would accelerate efforts to diversify supplies and/or develop alternative sources of energy.

It must also be remembered that, while the consumer becomes dependent on supplies, the seller gets accustomed to the inflows of revenue. Ultimately, it is in Russia's, as well as the West's, best interests that the relationship is balanced and well insulated from potential abuse, with each party having in place a diversified system of buyers/suppliers.

Russia's re-emergence is a correction that should be welcomed

It is in Western interest to accept - in fact, to welcome - the re-emergence of Russia as a Euro-Asian power, even if it means having to deal with a difficult and un-obliging Moscow. Surely, internal and external weakness in the large territory of the Russian Federation, with its considerable natural resources and energy, would spell global instability in the long run. Power vacuum is a potentially destabilising and dangerous condition.

It is conceivable that Western and domestic proponents of "colour revolutions" in the CIS, and eventually in Russia itself, might have precisely these objectives in mind. That is to say, that, under the guise of "genuine democracy", Russia and the CIS become governed by oligarchies taking cues from the Western capitals, ultimately from Washington. This, at any rate, is how Moscow sees it - not without some justification. If this is the case, then the world could indeed be faced with an increasingly suspicious and hostile Russia, ready to use its energy weapon in anger, while allocating more of its windfall proceeds to re-armament.

The present analysis has argued that major, self-contained civilisations such as Russia (or China), can build democracy only by their own internal dynamics. It has also pointed out that identical, if not ultimately superior, outcomes may materialise through unorthodox paths and systems. The fear of the resurgent Russian bully stems from the disbelief that this can be the case. It also stems from the fear of the unknown, as never in modern history has the world had to deal with a former totalitarian superpower, returning to the stage as a fundamentally reconstructed, but increasingly confident, player.

As long as these Western fears and incredulity persist, and as long as they continue to translate into pressure for a "colour revolution" in Moscow, the Russia-Western relationship will remain poisoned by mutual distrust. The re-emergence of the Russian bully could then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.