In the most recent Russia Profile expert’s panel Stephen Blank hits the nail on the head. He points out the (1) complete disconnect between Putin’s (and Medvedev’s) relatively economic liberal/rule of law rhetoric and Tsarist/centralized/statist/autarkic reality, and (2) the delusional threat assessment repeated ad nauseum by Putin and the Russian military high command:
While proposing a bold socioeconomic agenda, Putin leaves behind a state and governing structure which represents the single greatest obstacle to the realization of that vision. Secondly, behind him is a Russia which is stronger internationally by dint of its energy resources, American recklessness, and his own diplomacy, but which is as isolated as before if not more, and still noncompetitive beyond its borders. The governing structure, with its renationalizations “velvet repivatizations,” etc. cannot be economically competitive, except within the bounds of its own increasingly autarchic economy. The uncertainty of property rights and of foreign direct investment (as opposed to portfolio investment) will continue to retard economic development and obstruct innovation. The recent failure of the defense industry to compete is but one example, as is the response to it — more state takeovers. Until and unless the natural genius of the Russian people is allowed to flourish freely, all the inequities cited above cannot be overcome in a meaningful way, because this government, whose structure is the pre-modern Tsarist paradigm, cannot allow for consumer sovereignty, a truly free-market economy, and political freedom of its people. Undoubtedly, progress can occur within this framework along the goals that Putin postulated, but it will inevitably fall short of what is needed.
As for the national security part of the program, this threat assessment is frankly nonsensical. NATO can’t even unite in Afghanistan against an attack on its own members. Putin’s statements about the advancement of troops to the border, dating back a year and a half, are quite false and fallacious, reflecting the government’s continuing dependence upon inflated and self-serving threat assessments. The latter are proffered by the military and intelligence services who remain unreformed and are still fighting in the last lager of the Cold War.
There are signs that this assessment, coupled with the utter ineptness of the military industry and armed forces in reforming themselves, is leading to a situation where we could return to a state of frozen hostility, embodied in a nuclear arms race, because Russia cannot compete in the conventional sphere. In fact it also means that Russia cannot cope with the real threats it faces, not the imaginary NATO threat, but the real threat of losing the North Caucasus to terrorists.
Putin’s call for a new military road in the North Caucasus suggests that Russia might lose control over the Georgian military highway, its main highway to the area, due to the fighting that goes on there. The proliferation of missiles by Iran and China, as some officials admit and others know, is a greater threat than anything Washington or Brussels might do, but these states are Russia’s supposed friends and allies. Thus the gloomy threat assessment and determination to play an obstructive role vis-Ã -vis Russia’s true Europeanization not only isolates Russia, but renders it unable to cope with the real threats to it security, and gives too much power to the metal eaters who, like the Bourbons have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
An autocratic and an autarchic economy will continue to prevent Russia from reaching Putin’s goals as laid out in his speech. Ultimately, it is a consummate historical irony that it is Putin’s own policies that have contributed to this cul de sac, and despite the progress in the economy, ultimately Putin, in his own way, will be seen as a political leader who, to echo Mayakovsky, stepped on the throat of his own song
Regarding the constant invocation of the NATO bogeyman, even at its peak in the 80s, NATO didn’t have the ability to project conventional power into the Soviet space. On a good day the alliance considered itself just able to fight off a Soviet conventional thrust; on other days, it harbored severe doubts about even that. The eastward movement of NATO’s borders hasn’t changed that, due to the other changes in NATO’s military capabilities. A 10 division US Army and 3 division US Marine Corps with world-wide commitments plus various NATO armies would pose no serious threat to Russian sovereignty or territory even if they all redeployed to the eastern borders of Poland and Ukraine (in the event of that country joining NATO). Most NATO armies have devolved into armed social work organizations that, to paraphrase Patton, couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag if they wanted to–and they don’t want to. To build on Stephen’s point, NATO contingents are are facing both a crisis of will and hellacious logistical problems supporting a very modest commitment in Afghanistan; they can’t even scrape together a few helicopters to support operations in country, and several contingents (notably the Germans) have no will to fight whatsoever.
So even if the Russian assessment were based purely on an evaluation of capabilities, and ignored intent altogether, it would be utterly unhinged from reality.
Perhaps the Chicken Little alarmism in the Russian military reflects their intimate understanding of the decay in its conventional capacity as well as oldthink/budgetary gamesmanship/political demagoguery.
The market/rule-of-law oriented domestic rhetoric that Putin and Medvedev are spouting is also hard to reconcile with the reality of Russia’s evolution, especially post-2003.
Given the tenuous connection between words and deeds, it’s better to pay attention to the latter, and ignore the former.