Loss in war frequently leads to revolutions and other political perturbations. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not over yet, however Putin’s foreign political fiasco is obvious. The issue is how it will end for him and his regime. What happened is what the Kremlin was trying to avoid: the strategy or separating the US and Europe failed, which was considered necessary for achieving the more or less sacred goal – building some multi-polar world. Regardless of the contradictions regarding concrete means of counteraction to Moscow’s expansion, the Western countries are united in that this expansion has to be stopped.
The NATO has a new raison d’être. The perspective of new big contingent of armies of member countries of the alliance appearing at the Russian border became real. Russia’s position in the post-Soviet world has become cardinally worse. Ukraine is completely justifies in viewing Russia as an enemy and is striving to provide for its own security in reinforcing the military-political ties to the West. The idea that seemed so real to the Kremlin dreamers just half a year ago that the Russian Empire might be recreated fell: without Ukraine any options for “Eurasian integration” are simply senseless.
Minsk and Astana once more comprehended the threats coming from Russia and are trying to protect its sovereignty by all means, though so far they are not risking challenging Moscow. And behind the Kremlin wall, its seems, they are making nice faces despite playing a dirty game. They claim, in particular, that Putin’s visit to China was a foreign policy victory for Russia. But in the end document regarding the Kremlin’s key issue, Ukraine, the Chinese vague position is reiterated: calls for moderation, national dialogue, search for political solutions. Meanwhile they condemn the intervention in internal affairs, “unilateral sanctions,” financing and encouraging “activities directed towards changing the constitutional order of a foreign state,” and so forth.
All of this fully regards, for example, the Russian intervention in Donbas and the demands for Ukraine’s federalisation. The economical results of Putin’s visit to Shanghai also do not give grounds for such relations. Russia might received 25 billion USD from China and spend a minimum of 30 billion of its own money in order to investigate the sources and build a pipeline with the sole goal of supplying gas to China at the brink of its own sustainability. It is unclear how Moscow intends to lower the negative saldo in trading with China, which constituted on average 16 billion USD annually in the last four years.
In other words, having backed itself into the humiliating international isolation, Putin is trying to get out of its by giving a lot of leeway to Beijing, the consequences of which for Russia may turn out to be quite painful. All of these circumstances are being discussed in detail in mass media which are independent from the Russian government; therefore there is no need to examine them. But we can pose the question: is the game worth it?
Pro-Kremlin propagandists assure both the population and the government that “Crimea is ours,” Russia has gotten off its knees and “we have finally shown them.” Russian soldiers are turning the peninsula into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” in order to threaten other states from there. But this is a weak assurance: tens of billions of non-spare dollars have to be spent on Crimea’s upkeep. And the growth of the military potential of Russia in the Black Sea basin will be neutralised by the reinforcement of the military presence of NATO member countries on land and at sea. Such is the nature of the new strategic relations between Russia and the West. But the worst part is that when making key foreign policy decisions which touch on other countries’ future, neither Putin nor his closest associates – formerly average KGB workers, – are able to predict even the short-term consequences of their actions, and their knowledge of the world are far from reality.
Putin, when explaining the annex of Crimea with the fact that some “NATO fleet” will be based in Sevastopol, was possibly very much convinced of it himself. But this is either a scandalous misinterpretation of world politics, or obvious paranoia. If the US really does need a military naval base in the Black Sea, it is much easier to set up not in Sevastopol, but in some Romanian, Bulgarian or Turkish port. But this simple conclusion cannot be reached by the residents of the Kremlin for some reason.
What is more. It looks like the Kremlin is sure that the West is unable to counter Russian aggression. What they want is being presented as what is real. The Russian invasion in Ukraine, appointed for the very beginning of May of 2014, was stopped by the looming threat of response on part of the West. Russian Minister of Defence Shoigu called the growth in activity of the US and NATO armed forces at the Russian borders “unprecedented” quite consciously. Andrey Illarionov, who analysed the events at the time, writes that this activities stopped the “unfolding new war in Europe that was being developed.”
It looks like the US and Europe have understood that Moscow can only comprehend the language of force, and will use this language in speaking to it. We, of course, don’t know what the “unprecedented” growth in NATO military activity means. But we can suppose that in case of new aggression against Ukraine, the plan Eagle Guardian in Poland and Baltic states, not far from St. Petersburg would be enacted, and nine full-blooded divisions and several squadrons of fighter aviation of the NATO countries would appear. And 40 thousand Russian soldiers, practically all militarily capable units of the Western and Southern military districts, would be stuck in Ukraine. The Russian generals couldn’t have been optimistic in the face of such perspective. Another example is the EU’s de facto prohibition to construct the gas pipeline “South Stream,” which the Kremlin gives foremost strategic significance.
Up until the very last moment the Russian government was sure that the EU commission would concede and remove this gas pipeline from the demands of the third EU energy package. But Brussels decided otherwise. One can only guess how many such surprises are being prepared in Washington and European capitals. The Ukrainian machination has not yet touched on the proletariarised majority of the population nor the Russian middle class. The latter are mass-celebrating the annex of Crimea, cursing the Ukrainian “Benderites” and… continues to go on vacation and holidays in Europe. But the establishment, at least part of it, cannot ignore the fact that the high and uncontrollable government in Russia ended up in the hands of a small group of people who are unable to predict the consequences of their decision, which are governed by silly and paranoid perceptions of the world. This brings about the main threat to the Russian establishment, the population and Russia in general – the unpredictability of the government and its inclination to make irrational decision.
In Soviet times this was called “voluntarism.” “Voluntarist” Khrushchev in October of 1964 was deposed from the Kremlin throne. One of the reasons was the initiation of the Cuban Crisis; it was a miracle that it did not lead to nuclear war. It was difficult to get rid of the impression that Stalin’s stroke was not exactly natural: his associates in the Politbureau probably did not approve of the preparation of another round of mass repressions and World War III. The “nice joke” of Germain de Stal comes to mind, that “government in Russia is self-government limited by a hangman’s rope.” History frequently repeats itself. The Russian establishment, just like before, has something to lose now.
Yuriy Fedorov – foreign policy expert
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina