Fatalists in the Kremlin

In this column for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, journalist and military expert Aleksandr Golts sums up Putin’s first year of foreign policy upon his third return to the presidency – one dominated, in more ways than one, by international isolationism.

Results of the Year: Fatalists in the Kremlin
By Aleksandr Golts
January 2, 2013
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

The foreign policy of the first year of the third term of President Vladimir Putin was characterized by several common tendencies. First: a belief in realpolitik. But this is not the civilized realpolitik of Henry Kissinger. It is the simple – if not primitive – realpolitik of the 19th century. Different states, those egotistical animals, barter back and forth in an effort to further their own national interests. To that end, they create unions aimed at weakening the other main players. This bartering takes place during secret diplomatic conferences, when secret agreements are developed. Holding talks on democracy and human rights during such conferences is simply a joke. Putin sees these talks as propagandistic tools to weaken Russia. He is certain that he understands the rules of the game.

If one had to define the most important tendency within Russian politics on the international stage in 2012, it would be increased alienation from the outside world and less of a connection to reality. In the 21st century, there is less and less realism in the Kremlin’s professed 19th-century realpolitik. Putin’s single foreign policy goal is to prevent Russia from having a “colored revolution.” Our head of state genuinely believes that protests are the result of conspiracies between other powers, particularly the US, whose goal is to weaken our Fatherland, strenuously rising up from its knees.

Therefore, the main blow has to be against our enemies. And the State Duma, intoxicated by its own impunity, has stamped one monstrous law after another. Non-governmental organizations that risk telling the truth about the state of political freedoms, human rights, and corruption are synonymous with “foreign agents.” And if someone with American citizenship works at an NGO, that organization will be closed. And any citizen who talks to a foreigner can be charged with treason – here, it is enough for the security services to suspect a foreigner of belonging to an organization that wishes to harm Russian security. God knows how this chimes with the professed need for intellectual exchange with the surrounding world. Most likely, it does not chime at all. It is obvious that the essence of Putin’s international policy is maximally isolating the country from its insidious external surroundings.

The further it goes, the more this policy is going to harm Russian citizens instead of any cursed foreigners. The most striking example is the response to the Magnitsky Act, the American law banning corrupt Russian officials (most of all, the ones from the so-called law enforcement agencies) from indulging in the joys of the American state. More precisely: from going to the States, keeping money there, or buying property there. The response was definitely asymmetrical: for attempting to punish corrupt Russian officials, Russian children are going to foot the bill.

Our national diplomacy also works according to this same logic in discussions of one of the main conflicts of this past year – the one in Syria. It was announced a hundred times that Moscow is not holding out for Assad – and indeed, why hold out for a regime that will inevitably fall within the next few months (or even weeks). However, Russia has spoken out “decisively” against foreign meddling in its domestic affairs. And Russia has provided Assad with “entirely legal” services, giving weapons to a regime in the throes of death. If Moscow actually followed realpolitik, it could have just built up a relationship with the Syrian rebels in order to save its military contrasts and base in Tartus. Instead, Moscow has supported Assad in his insane war against his own people. Because, in reality, countering colored revolutions actually means countering the will of people who are sick to death of leaders who have taken it upon themselves to rule forever.

As a result, Russia today is the main international warrior not for the people, but for authoritarian and totalitarian rulers – in Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Russian diplomats scared to death at the prospect of winding up on the Magnitsky Act list threaten the US with a break in diplomatic relations. And Putin’s year-end press conference, full of absurd anti-American rhetoric, demonstrated that our national leader is entirely full of genuine indignation towards the United States. Washington, for some reason, is not playing by the rules. At least, not by the rules that Vladimir Putin thought up for himself. And that, I suppose, is the main problem in Russian foreign policy – its strategy exists in a separate world. A separate one from that of their partners. To put it bluntly, they are playing chess, but they think they are playing checkers.

And it is precisely here, I suppose, that the new trait of Putin’s foreign policy manifests itself: fatalism. Two years ago during his annual television show, Putin agreed that he was lucky. It appears that he indeed believes in his own incredible luck, helping him slip out of any situation.

Just like the Politburo elders in the Kremlin at the end of the 1970s, Putin is certain that oil prices are never going to fall. All leading states will be doomed to purchase oil and gas from Russia, regardless of how good their relations are with the Kremlin. If the market climate is good, these tools will allow Putin to implement his grand idea to reintegrate the former Soviet republics. I would like to note that these plans also fit nicely into the creation of unions as part of the realpolitik of the century before last. That is the case even if these projects, such as the Customs Union, for example, have an obviously harmful effect on Russia’s economy. Under these circumstances, the country’s leadership falls under the illusion that it can act on the international stage without any boundaries. The future is unpredictable, says the Kremlin. We cannot rule out that, as a result of forthcoming cataclysms, Russia’s place on the international stage could fundamentally improve. Moreover, the economic crisis engendered the illusion among Kremlin strategists that some kind of “new world order” could allow Russia to start from a blank slate and become a superpower once again. This is exactly what the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was talking about in his speech before the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy: “A majority of factors testify to the fact that a new historical milestone is beginning… Given such a radical ‘do-over,’ there’s a lot, probably, that can start from a clean slate, and far from all of the rules that define the international hierarchy today are going to apply in the future. There’s no ruling out that what’s going to be significant is not the place where this or that technology is created, but the ability to use it best. In this sense, Russia, with her intelligent and audacious population and vast resources enjoys obvious advantages.” The logic is stunning: because of forthcoming changes, Russia will be able to use the achievements of others on account of “audacity.” At the same time, there is no hint of how the country will mystically be able to solve its demographic problems or what these vast resources are that can be harnessed. This is not the logic of an analyst – it is the logic of a gambler in a casino.

In effect, the Russian government is admitting that it has no rational plan on how to “raise the country up.” All its bets are hedged on the idea that, when people standing in a line turn around 180 degrees, the last person becomes the first. These policies, obviously, will lead to nowhere. Which is to say: to international isolation.