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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Cold War resumes: to understand Russia, understand its past

Russia is not yet an enemy, but it is not an ally.

by StFerdIII

Marx was wrong on virtually everything he wrote about including his belief that economics supersedes politics. To Marx economics and class conditions would be the great unifier across states and boundaries. In today’s world the economic and political entity that is Russia easily refutes this belief. In fact by observing Russia we can see that Marx, as usual, had it completely backwards. Politics supersedes economics and uses economic activity to achieve certain political objectives. Politics refashions economic reality. As one Polish wit stated about Russia, ‘Yesterday tanks, today oil.’ This is a pithy and lucid observation about Putin’s Russia.

Russia’s economy is now slightly larger than Canada’s at just over U$1 Trillion in size. Russian GDP thanks to oil and resource values and investments has risen by 30% in the past 7 years. This economic transformation has greatly aided the Kremlin’s political power and its ability to impose itself through state owned media; non-existent ‘democratic’ institutions; and state monopolies, upon the Russian population. It has also allowed the Putin government to stabilize Russia; deal harshly with its war against Muslim extremists in Chechnya; and attempt to recover its ‘near abroad’ in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, to Russian power and control. Oil, not tanks, is the prime weapon of the modern Russian state.

At just over 140 million people and with a low per capita income, Russia is still a very poor country. It ranks between 60th and 70th on income per capita world-wide. The great boon in oil and resource prices has benefited the government, Putin’s gang, and those in business who are allied with Putin and his policies. Infrastructure, hospitals, social improvements and living standards have only improved for a small percentage of the population. Most Russians still live in miserable conditions, on low wages, with little hope for economic advancement. The Russian elite throughout its Oriental-Fascist history has not cared much about the average man or woman or their needs. Their usefulness to the state is the only concern that the Kremlin has about is own people.

So what do the Russians want and what are they doing geopolitically?

First to understand Russia one needs to understand the ego and pride that Russians possess in their state and land. For Russians their empire was the substance of destiny, myth and lore – the eastern citadel of civilization and Christianity. Losing it only confirms their poverty in the face of Western power and wealth. Russia thus suffers from the pain and nostalgia of post-empire collapse. Much as with Germany’s humiliation after 1918 and the end of its ambition at European hegemony, the Russians now view the outside world, post 1991 as hostile, predatory and anti-Russian.

Russian attitudes and beliefs are deeply rooted in history and the creation of a huge extended state that covers Europe and Asia. Starting with Ivan the Terrible or Grozny in the 15th century, through the reigns of Peter and Catherine the Great in the 18th, on to the Romanows in the 19th, Russia expanded from Moskovy or central Russia to Alaska. Through 400 years of unremitting warfare starting first with the defeat and then the rollback of the Mongols, the Muslims or Tartars, and then the Teutons, the Swedes, and the Turks, the Russian empire sprinted across EurAsia, across the Urals, and then on towards China and Japan. At various times Russian armies have also invested Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris. Only the American expansion across the wilds of North America is comparable and only American military might, [with perhaps that of English], has matched the ever present power of Russia in the past 150 years.

To control such a far-reaching and constantly expanding empire, set in an Oriental environment, with an uneducated and peasant population, with a backwards agricultural economy, imbued with the ritual and mysticism of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Russian state was first and foremost a feudal-totalitarian construct. In the Russian mind then and now, only a strong state can control so vast an empire. None of the Western Enlightenment traditions have filtered into Russia in any meaningful way. Under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, there were military, social, and some tepid economic reforms premised upon Western ideals. But such changes did nothing to alleviate or alter the feudal; top-down; oppressive state regime that engaged in extortionate taxation; murderous secret police activity; endless warring both internally and externally; and rampant corruption and fraud.

In short Russian attitudes, even today, to both the state and the market are informed by a long 1000 year history that has almost nothing in common with the Western experience.

So back to the current Tsar Vladimir Putin and his regime. The history of Russia is one of war, violence, the oprinichki [state secret police], poverty, Tsars, centralization and state corruption. Communism in this sense was an ideological break from the past, but it certainly was not a diversion from 1000 years of Russian fascist feudalism. Putin understands that the Russian people want a strong leader; a stable economy; great power status; and national pride. Such ideals permeate Russian history and its peoples consciousness. Putin has expanded state control; dealt with those who oppose his regime through murder and exile; neutered democracy and a free media; and appropriated all necessary resource revenues to rebuild the Kremlin’s budget and power. For this he enjoys approval ratings of over 80%.

In such an environment we should be able to see some obvious facts. Most importantly Russia is not an ally of the West. It wants to sell us oil; register firms; raise capital; and attract investment. But the goals of the West and Russia do not collide beyond investment returns. Russia supports the Arab-Islamic world. It sends billions of dollars worth of armaments to Iran and Venezuela. It does nothing to help topple the mad North Korean regime. It will do little to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It was the largest foreign recipient [$19 billion] of Iraq contracts during Hussein’s rule. It uses the UN and other international fora to challenge the US. It is mute on Iraq, on Hizbollah and on Islamic fascism. It is deeply suspicious of Western motives in the Baltic, the Ukraine and Georgia – areas it considers to be under Russian domination.

Empires of the land can disappear but empires of the mind may remain. Russia is not just a riddle but a brooding and perhaps threatening mystery wrapped in its 1000 year Oriental traditions. Economics will not bring Russia and the West together. Irregardless of Russia’s World Trade Organization membership, Russian politics will dominate any and all economic considerations. Russian self interest in making sure that its Islamic population of 25 million is not restive; that the US is opposed globally and that Islam offers up another Russian controlled ‘pole’ in the geo-political chess match between Russia and the Americans and Jews in Israel are foregone conclusions. As Churchill remarked the key to Russia is its self-interest – as determined by its political elite.

Russia is not an enemy yet, but it surely is not an ally. The Cold War is resuming after a brief warming spell. Welcome back Vlad.