“I have conquered an empire; but I have yet to conquer myself”
Peter the Great
Riga. Latvia. 22 September. The news that United Russia, the party President Putin backs won 54.2% of the vote in last week’s elections for the Duma, Russia’s parliament, hardly came as a great political surprise. United Russia now holds 343 of the 450 seats in the Duma, with the nearest rivals having gained only 13% of the vote, whilst the ‘liberal’ failed to surpass the 5% threshold and lost their last remaining seats. President Putin really has kicked the 1990s into the long, long grass of Russian history. President Putin also rules (or is that reigns) supreme and is thus free to further cultivate the Russian strongman image he has carefully crafted both at home and abroad. It is an illusion, but seen here from Latvia it is an exceptionally dangerous illusion.
In reality Russia is growing relatively weaker than most of its European and Western partner-adversaries in every area that matters, save armed force. The facts speak for themselves. According to the UN in 2016 Russia has an economy worth some $1.8 trillion, which is about the same size of that of Canada, and slightly bigger than that of Australia. This compares with a US economy worth $17.3 trillion, a German economy worth $3.7 trillion, and a British economy worth $3 trillion. And yet, SIPRI suggests that whilst the US in 2015 spent 3.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence or $597 billion and the UK spent 2% or $55.5 billion, Russia spent $66.4 billion or 5.4% of its GDP on defence. In fact, the true ‘burden’ of the Russian security state on the Russian economy is closer to, if not more than, 10% of GDP.
Why is Putin committing so much Russian taxpayer’s money to defence and other ‘security-related’ expenditure? For many Russians ‘strength and greatness’ means a strongman leader backed up by armed forces geared for aggression. For them history has taught that forcing supplicant respect from neighbouring others is the only way Russia can be secure. Consequently, Russia is an aggressive isolationist power that sees itself and sets itself apart from contemporary European/Western ideas of mutual interdependence. It is a profoundly Russian sense of isolationism twinned with exceptionalism that runs deep in the Russian soul, reinforced by President Putin’ belief that the disastrous Yeltsin years simply confirmed that closeness to the West simply makes it easier and cheaper for the perfidious West to confound Russia.
However, there are other factors driving President Putin’s over-mighty security state, not least the sheer size of Russia. President Putin is determined to instil centralising political discipline on regional governors and oligarchs in an enormous country that covers 13 time zones, suffers from poor infrastructure, and in which Vladivostok is roughly the same distance from Moscow as London is distant from Chicago. In a conversation I had with Mikhail Khodorkovsky a couple of years back I was struck by the extent to which even the illusion of threat instils a fierce loyalty to Mother Russia.
If there is an illusion of threat, there is also an illusion of power. Russia has simply been unable to come to terms with the twenty-first century and instead reached for those two great comforting balms beloved of many Russians; nostalgia and illusion. President Putin appeals to a sense of false nostalgia that afflicts many Russians outside relatively more liberal Moscow and St Petersburg. An idea that somehow the Soviet Union was the ‘good old days’ when Russia had the respect of the world, even its Western enemies. It is an illusion that President Putin is brilliantly (for the moment) and ruthlessly fostering. It is also why Moscow engages in lethal strategic grandstanding in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, even if contemporary Russia simply lacks the power fundamentals to be a true twenty-first century Great Power over the medium to longer-term.
This illusion of power runs right through the Kremlin. In a recent interview with the BBC Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich warned that Brexit would weaken Europe and that no individual European state could anymore influence world affairs alone. Russia? For example, Britain is an intrinsically stronger power than Russia so why does Moscow think weaker Russia can influence world affairs when stronger Britain cannot? President Putin believes Russia is at its ‘strongest’ outside a rules-based world order and that Moscow’s very unpredictability is Moscow’s strength.
Whilst I am a fierce critic of President Putin I have a genuine respect for the man. Indeed, I find it nauseating when European political leaders express shock at his actions. He is not, and has never claimed to be, a woolly European liberal democrat. He is a Russian nationalist who will act in what he sees as the Russian national interest whatever that takes and we in the West had better come to terms with that. His world-view is the product of Russia’s war-winning, land-grabbing sacrifice in World War Two which fashioned a love of country from the dark, dark crucible of destruction. In other words, President Putin believes he IS Russia and that is all the political legitimacy he needs. He is not alone in this belief. For several years I educated Russian officers and diplomats at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and I never ceased to be impressed by their love of country, their profound belief in Mother Russia, and their determination to defend her.
The Russians have a saying, “umom Rosiya neponjat” or one can never understand Russia. For the sake of friends and allies such as Latvia the West must stop trying to look at President Putin through ‘why can’t he be likes us’ Western eyes and quickly. The very disconnect between Russia’s weak power fundamentals and Russia’s vaunting power ambition that is driving Russian policy means Russia’s power illusion is as much a danger to itself as to its neighbouring others. Unless President Putin changes course Russia will again sink under the burden over its own over-securitized insecurity. The reckoning may take a little longer to arrive than some Western commentators believe because Russians are willing to sacrifice longer for what they believe to be Russian ‘greatness’ than most ‘soft’ Westerners. However, catastrophe will come.
President Putin is hoping that by then he will have re-established Russian influence over its near-abroad to such an extent that his place in Russian history will be assured, and that whatever test Russia must ultimately face durable Russians will outlast weak Westerners. In preparing the ground for this great ‘test’ of strength President Putin sees himself as the natural heir of Peter the Great. However, President Putin should remember that the use of the suffix ‘Great’ was not simply because Tsar Peter understood power. He also understood that to make Russia a real eighteenth century Great Power he had to transform Russia from a fifteenth century state.
If President Putin is to make Russia a real twenty-first century Great Power then he will have to transform Russia from a twentieth century state. At present there is no sign he understands that precisely because he has failed to reform, which is precisely because he has failed to conquer himself and his many prejudices about Russia and the ‘other’. Yes, much of President Putin’s power is but an illusion, but when viewed from here in Latvia it is a very real and a very dangerous illusion.