Streetwise Professor

February 6, 2009

Opinion Roundup–Will DR’s Head Explode? ;-)

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:25 pm

I came across several articles today that contained succinct statements with which I am in broad agreement.  The first is by Stephen Blank, of the US Army War College (and a University of Chicago PhD who studied under the amazing Arcadius Kahan, from whom I had the honor of taking two classes while at Chicago.)  Writing of Russian hyperventilating over the Arctic in Russia Profile, Stephen says:

Undoubtedly, Russia’s overly aggressive moves in the Arctic have caused NATO and the associated states to react strongly, raising the possibility of a political and military struggle over its resources, especially as they become more accessible.  This has become a continuing theme in East-West relations, where Russia, driven by resentment over Western failure to take it at its own, self-inflated value, makes an excessively aggressive move that it cannot then back up, except at ruinous cost. (Emphasis added.)

That last sentence is priceless, and encapsulates a theme that I’ve sounded on many occasions.  Nursing an injured ego, the Russian government–and Putin personally–goes walking around, chin thrust out, looking for a scrap.  Needlessly, in most cases.  And stupidly, since as Blank notes, the “correlation of forces” (a standard Soviet concept), military, economic, and political, is strongly against Russia.  Part of this is the “man in a hurry” problem that I wrote about some time ago.  Part of it is the neurosis that Putin et al pretty clearly display, and which I’ve also written about.  

Speaking of neurosis, combined with a ruthless authoritarian streak,  Ralph Peters has some trenchant things to say:

The Putin model –  tolerant totalitarianism  – gave the dying command-state a new lease on life. The new czar saw that most human beings don’t care who governs them, as long as the government minds its own business. And if the ruler can revive the illusion of national power, so much the better.

Shamelessly cynical, Putin goes through the stage-managed forms of democracy. He even permits scripted media criticism of the state (though not of himself).

But there are limits to the new totalitarianism’s tolerance. You can call Putin a baboon-butt monkey-boy over the vodka bottle at your kitchen table – butdon’t  do it in public.

Cross that line and you are, literally, dead. A deal’s a deal.

The breathtaking lack of response from the West as the Putin regime murders uncooperative journalists, human-rights activists, defense lawyers, regime apostates and even foreign critics is a glorious gift to Czar Vladimir. His security services are  permitted  to murder ex-pats in Vienna or London. Even an assassination attempt on an American critic in the Washington, DC, area got swept under the diplomatic rug with remarkable speed.

Putin’s starting to look like a slicker version of  Saddam Hussein, with sharper targeting skills (and Vlad really  does  have weapons of mass destruction). As a result of the West’s cowardice, his ambitions are soaring: The most-predictable geopolitical event of 2009 is an assassination attempt on Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, by a “Georgian patriot.”

Working through the traitorous Ukrainian power-broker Yulia Timoshenko, Putin’s also going to do all he can to “reunite” Ukraine and Russia. And he’ll continue to use natural gas as a strategic weapon, while Europe boldly responds,  Oh, dear. . . One really ought not to do that . . . Really, one oughtn’t. . .”

A friend who’s gotten up close to Putin sees the dictator as a mere  chinovnik– a petty bureaucrat promoted above his station. But that view misses the elementary human reality that greatness and pettiness, courage and cravenness, brilliance and banality, can all be attributes of the same individual.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, Putin  does  have two weaknesses: his temper, which leads the ice-man to attack his neighbors in fits of pique, and economic illiteracy.

The one-two punch of the oil-price collapse and a global depression is limiting Putin’s ability to keep up his half of the “other New Deal” by improving Russia’s quality of life. A serious outburst of unrest could fire his temper and wreck his political Ponzi scheme.

Yet protests to date have been minor and managed. Developments could go a number of ways as the Russian economy crumbles.

But whether Putin continues to reign for decades or falls in an orgy of Russian self-destructiveness, his intellectual legacy will endure: the dictatorship that stops at the front door.

The temper is obvious.  The economic illiteracy is becoming more apparent by the day.  Easy to look like a genius when oil goes from around $10/bbl to $140; a lot harder when it goes back down to the $30-$50 range.  Putin gives speeches about the importance of avoiding government control over the economy, after presiding during a 9 year period in which the scope of government control has widened significantly.  And, this control is expanding apace during the financial crisis (he has company westwards, in that endeavor.)  He also warns against protectionism while his government is implementing a variety of protectionist measures (ditto.)  Not to mention his warnings–given in Switzerland–about avoiding military buildups, while bragging at home about how military expansion and spending will continue despite the financial crisis.  Several Russian economists of my acquaintance are appalled at the economic ignorance of Putin and the Putin team.  Kudrin is a sensible guy, but he’s only one man, and one in a tenuous position, to say the least.

The last item is from WindowOnEurasia, where Paul Goble discusses the views of Russian scholar Emil Pain, as expressed in Novoya Gazetta. Pain has several interesting things to say, including this which should sound familiar to SWP readers:

But in less than two decades, all that has changed, a reflection Pain insists of the fact that “Russia is a pendulum. Everything in it changes quickly,” and among the things that have changed are predictions about the future, views about the past, and about the very possibility of still more change ahead.

The Moscow scholar argues that it is quite clear “why there is no demand for democracy in Russia today but there is a demand for paternalism, fatalism, and their ‘intellectual’ defenders.” But intellectuals, who pride themselves on their ability to think critically, should not fall into that trap.

And if such people simply look around, they will see plenty of reasons for why the idea of “a special path” for Russia is a blind alley. The world crisis “dispelled illusions about Russia as an island of stability.” Indeed, it showed that countries that try to live by the export of raw materials alone are more at risk during crises than are industrial and post-industrial ones.
That is because the fate of such “banana” exporters is more closely tied to the rest of the world than are the others, Pain argues. Moscow’s attempt to act as if this is not the case has ended in disaster, not only leaving the country more impoverished but also more isolated as its actions in Georgia showed.

When oil was 140 dollars a barrel, he says, Russians and the Russian state could ignore this reality for a time. But in Pain’s view, now that prices have fallen, “the resources of Russian authoritarianism and imperialism are close to being exhausted.” Already at present, he writes, “there is no ammunition, there remains only ambition.”

In this interconnected world, every country has to be prepared to play by a common set of rules if it is to succeed and to transform itself periodically in order to move forward. That is what the United States has just done, Pain says, having overcome the “cruelest” racism in the past to elect an African American as its president. And other countries have made similar strides.
Pain says that he can imagine the response of his opponents to this observation: “Yes,” they will say, “they can but our thousand-year old history does not permit change.” And consequently we Russians can have no hope for change and must simply and fatalistically go along.

Not many years ago, some of the very same people, during the earlier swing of the pendulum toward democracy, “did not want to hear about the concept of the thousand-year-old history” of their country. They wanted to blame everything on the Soviet system, and they believed that having rejected that, they could overcome everything and become like the West.
Now, however, they have become pessimists and talk fatalistically about historical cycles of reform and counter reform in Russian history, ignoring the reality that this pattern is hardly unique to Russia and that other countries have been able to use such cycles to move forward rather than assuming that nothing can be done.

But Russians now talk only about cultural limits on the possibility of progress. According to Pain, the economic limits the country has imposed on itself are more important. “For 300 years, Russia has lived by selling its natural resources,” first wood and furs and now oil and gas. Countries doing that back the values of empire because territory is “the main resource.”  

“No ammunition, only ambition.”  Concise, clever–and correct.

Pain also says:

Now, he is taking on the perhaps even more widespread conviction that Russia cannot escape its culture or survive without an authoritarian state. That serves the interests of those in power, he points out, but it is ahistorical and dangerously wrong when propounded, admittedly with regret, by members of the Russian intelligentsia.  

Pain begins his essay by noting that in Soviet times, many Russians blamed the country’s climate for the chronic shortages of food. Now, even though the climate has not changed, few talk about it, focusing instead on “the so-called cultural determinism” that supposedly makes it impossible for Russia to be anything by an authoritarian empire.

According to Russia’s current rulers, the country’s current “imperial form of rule, which is called ‘sovereign democracy,'” is the product of Russia’s “special path” of historical development about which nothing can be done, however much some in the intelligentsia may regret that fact.

In the view of “the ideologues of [this] new edition of official nationality in Russia,” Pain continues, “the best periods of its history have been connected with despotism,” whereas “all attempts at liberalization and democratization have taken place during periods when the state was weak and the country experiencing crises.”

At a superficial level, of course, this argument may appear convincing. When things are going well, no one thinks about changes, and consequently reforms always occur when the state is weak, something Pain says that sets off “a new cycle of swings of the Russian pendulum, from the strong hand to freedom and then back again.”

Russia’s liberal intellectuals who “angrily reject” the regime’s suggestion that this special path represents “a millennium of the greatness of Russia” are nonetheless quite “ready to accept this very same myth in another form” and view the history of their country as being “a millennium of slavery.”  

One can understand why Russians accept this fatalistic view about their past and hence their future at present, Pain says. Making bleak prognostications is profitable: If they turn out to be true, their authors are viewed as visionaries; if they don’t, “no one will take note and all will be happy.”  

But he goes on to say that such views now are not so much a manifestation of Russian national culture as “a sign of the times.” In the early 1990s, “during the period of democratic euphoria and massive hopes for a rapid improvement in life,” few talked about older historical and cultural factors that would make that task extremely difficult in the short term.

It is more than ironic–in fact, it is tragic–that the “liberal” episodes in Russian history are deemed catastrophes, while the eras of autocratic rule are idealized, and the more autocratic the era, the more it is worshipped.  This attitude gets cause and effect exactly backwards.  The liberal eras occurred because of the utter collapse of autocratic regimes due to their inherent failings.  Those in power during the (relatively) liberal periods were reaping what had been sown by the autocrats that proceeded them.  Case in point: the USSR couldn’t feed itself in the 1980s because Stalin had destroyed Russian (and Ukrainian and Kazahk) agriculture in the 20s and 30s.  When oil prices collapsed, so Russia couldn’t pay for imported food, the entire system collapsed, leaving a shattered hulk of an economy as its legacy.  That is, the autocratic failure ushered in the (relatively) liberal era, and bequeathed it with an existential economic problem.

Now, Yeltsin and the “reformers”/”liberals” made errors, but I doubt anyone could have done much with the catastrophe they inherited.  Blaming them for the Russian economic travails of the 1990s is like blaming the paramedic who couldn’t revive the guy with a gunshot wound to the temple for the victim’s death.  

So, the autocrats get the glory, even though they are the prime culprits behind the periodic catastrophes that Russia has suffered.  

Sadly, though understandably, in the aftermaths of autocratic collapse, Russia has not been able to build institutions that would support the development of a (relatively) free economy and civil society.  Instead, the conditions of chaos have proved tailor made for opportunistic wielders of force to create their own autocratic systems.  

And that is the Russian conundrum.  How to get off the pendulum?  

Or is it a see-saw?  De Custine has an interesting passage about the this “favorite amusement of the Russian peasants”:

The two performers, sometimes of the same, sometimes of opposite sexes, place themselves, always standing, and with legs firmly planted, on the two extremities of the plank, where they preserve their balance by taking hold of the cords.  In this attitude they are impelled through the air to a frightful height, for at every swing the machine reaches the point beyond which it would turn completely over, and its occupiers dashed to the earth from a height of thirty or forty feet, for I have seen posts at least twenty feet high.

An apt metaphor for Russian political history.  

Oh, and DR–just having a little fun at your expense (you’ve seemed a little testy lately).  No offense taken, I hope;-)


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  1. “Hyperventilating” – brilliant! That’s exactly what Russia does and not only over the Arctic. The analogy is precise to the point of possible engine failure and damage the debris of the Bear can do to the observers on the ground.

    Comment by DJ Drive — February 6, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

  2. There are many errors in Peters’ article, but I only have time to call attention to one:

    “You can call Putin a baboon-butt monkey-boy over the vodka bottle at your kitchen table – but don’t do it in public. Cross that line and you are, literally, dead.”

    People criticize Putin all the time in public – in print media, on the Internet, and just, well, in public. (Maybe they don’t exactly call him a “baboon-butt monkey-boy” but that’s not important.) Criticizing or making fun of Putin is not what gets people killed in Russia.

    Comment by Tristan da Cunha — February 7, 2009 @ 4:22 am

  3. TdC, what does them get killed than?

    Comment by DJ Drive — February 7, 2009 @ 6:47 am

  4. “TdC, what does them get killed than?”

    Most frequently: reporting on things that organized crime figures or corrupt local governmnent officials would prefer not to be made public (to quote someone I know: “What gets you killed here is writing about other people’s money”).

    Also, getting involved with a select set of nasty subjects, in particular the North Caucasus (Chechnya), skinheads/neo-Nazi gangs, and the like.

    Comment by Tristan da Cunha — February 7, 2009 @ 7:07 am

  5. It seems that Russia doesn’t need a national president, but rather a national psychiatrist. Ironically, it’s the Russian practice to use that profession to declare “insane” and institutionalize any person who thinks the nation is sick.

    Comment by La Russophobe — February 7, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  6. Tristan da Cunha:

    Your comment is totally deluded. There is no criticism of Putin at all in national media, papers that have wide circulation or most importantly on national TV networks. Where criticism does occur, the critics are often besieged by all manner of attacks including denial of service and threatening comments.

    Maybe you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade, but there is NOT ONE SINGLE true opposition deputy in the entire Russian Duma. The only voice of “opposition” comes from the Communists.

    To say, moreover, that nobody can criticize Putin on any topic involving money or Chechnya is to say nobody can ever criticize him for anything.

    Comment by La Russophobe — February 7, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  7. Though I resolved not to make any more comments here (my differences of opinion with SWP are fundamental and irresolute; debating with LR, penny, RBYG, elmer, etc is impossible in a civilized manner; and I’ve got little to disagree about with Tristan or Tim – hence the perceived “testiness on my part), I will make an exception due to being specifically called out.

    Instead of doing the long (and unproductive) task of critiquing the article, I will advance my theory that humanity’s love for fantasy, belief and the existence of good and evil manifests in Western perceptions of the Other, especially Russia. Since life is all about imposing one’s interpretation of reality on others, it is entirely logical that so many texts are written advancing Manichean interpretations of history; for if you write enough texts and relate them to each other skilfully enough, it is possible to construct a matrix that itself becomes reality. This is the millennial project of Western civilization, and one which is succeeding most admirably. A subset of this project are the texts relating to Russia, which portray and build on it as a “dark Other” to the “free” West. Kremlinologists make excellent fantasy writers ( One can only hope that Russia resists the vertigo, the temptation to fall and submit to their texts, and instead continues believing in its own reality; for the consequences of the former coming to pass will be devastating.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 7, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  8. Er, DR, I think you mean our differences are irresolvable, not irresolute;-)

    And I called you out in fun, and believe it or not, with a certain amount of affection and respect, not out of spite or meanness. I know our differences are fundamental, and likely irresolvable, and that as a result, since I agreed with most of what I quoted in that post I knew you would vehemently disagree. Hence the “calling out.” Also, a little attention grabbing is necessary to standout when competing for folks’ valuable eyeball time, and I knew that the site regulars, pro and con, would find the title intriguing knowing the little drama/debate that has been going on here for 6+ months.

    I don’t take the disagreement personally. Indeed, I find you a very valuable foil in many ways. Sometimes, your criticism provides validation to my arguments, in my eyes, and perhaps in others’ as well. Sometimes views are clarified and advanced by contrast. I think that’s the case with us. We certainly give folks a very different take on things, and variety/choice is a good thing. And, I think that should go both ways. You can say to your allies–“See what that neocon [not true actually, but whatever] troglodyte SWP said today! See what I mean! That’s what we’re not, thank God.”

    But, that said, when your response delves into PoMo obscurantism (a la your response to my Russophobia post of last August, and your above comment), MEGO. Don’t really have anything to say because that way of looking at things is orthogonal to mine But I guess that’s just another illustration of our very fundamental differences. Part of the foil, as it were.

    It’s a free world, and if you aren’t getting enough value out of this site, I understand completely. Good luck, and thanks for taking the time and effort to participate here in the past.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 7, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  9. Irresolvable, yes. I find your site useful and interesting, and will continue visiting. (In fact I don’t usually visit or comment on sites that share my viewpoints, since there’s little to disagree on or talk about anyway).

    It’s just that (despite the impression some of my overlong replies may give), I don’t have too much free time and feel that this Internet time could be more productively employed writing more on my own site.

    ”See what that neocon [not true actually, but whatever] troglodyte SWP said today! See what I mean! That’s what we’re not, thank God.” – as you yourself said, a little attention grabbing is necessary to standout when competing for folks’ valuable eyeball time. Rest assured I don’t any negativity towards you even though you are a neo-con bourgeois reactionary. 🙂

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 7, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  10. Ahh did the old fashioned “lets kiss and make up” just happen? 😉

    Comment by Surya — February 7, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

  11. As my daughter would say–Eww.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 7, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  12. Hey, Da Russophile, are you saying something about civilized manner? Are you civilized enough daring to say so cynically about doubling of pensions in Russia? You are a trouble free American getting your salary in USA dollars. It is the same like to say: The retired people were paid 1 dollars and now, how greatly positive, they are paid 2 dollars 30 cents. You are such a “great” expert of Russian life – compare at least the milk and bread price in 1998 and today. To enlighten you properly I inform you that bread was 2-3 rubles and milk was 4-5 rubles in 1998 and in 2009 bread is 20-30 rubles and milk is 25–35 rubles. And now compare the same in the US.
    Do not speculate about Russian people as population of animals or guinea pigs! Russians are the same human beings like you who deserve to live not worse than you.
    Do not even dare to say about sweet life and better changes of seniors and children in Russia. What do you know about it? When did you come to Russia for the last time? Come over today! Get your own statistics – go to typical Russian towns, villages, rural areas in the Urals, Siberia, Far East, somewhere father from Moscow and Sochi (the best, subtropical, climate in Russia). Talk to ordinary people in the territory of Russia not the USA: teachers, budget doctors, engineers, workers farmers and peasants and especially with seniors. Smell for at least one month the air of such industrial towns and cities like Nijniy Tagil, Novokooznetsk, Argoyash, Ekaterinburg! Wash your body with the yellow stinking water which flows from water supply system pipes all over Russia in the eastern areas and in the most western areas in Russia! Live for a few day in the apartment without hot water when the temperature is +8 degrees C inside and -20 degrees C outside! When your wife gets pregnant and the term of this pregnancy is less than one month, rush to the local Children Defense Board and register in a huge line for your future child in the age of 3 years to be cared in kinder garden! Stay in so called budget Russian hospital far from being free and pay for every pill and every polite phrase from a nurse or doctor! Start your own business without any connections in state authorities and without lots of money on the base of bank loans with the annual rate 26 percent! I would like to meet with you in six months of your peacocky business efforts. If you kept your house you would be blessed!
    What do you know about Russia having the US citizenship and residing in a warm American state?
    Russia is not Moscow and a few more big megacities. The visibility of the better life of some people of a very fragile middle class of Russia happened to a huge extent because Bush was left a president of the USA in 2004 and provided Russia with this horrible chance to fill in the country with heaps of priceless oil and gas money not supported by the real economical growth. A typical representative of middle class who used to have a salary $1000-23000 rubles with the rate 23 rubles per $1 in May of 2008(oil barrel was $145) and now because of crisis his/her salary has been reduced to 10000-15000 rubles with the rate 36 rubles per $1(oil barrel is $40). How much is 10000-15000 in USA dollars now? Would you like me to tell you the level of foodstuff prices while such a horrible devaluation of rubles? Do you know this type of statistics?
    What do you know about adoption in Russia? It has been zero for more than 5 months by Russians. Even earlier it was really rare. Russian people have never been sure in their future to deliver children not saying about adoption. A Russian mentality is not ready for adoption and for more than one or in better cases two biological children in the family. Foster care in Russia is the only way to survive for foster parents because they are not able to find jobs other than foster parenting. Russian foster parents are far from genuine love to children. What do you know about the life of children in foster families when they are always under the threat to be thrown off back to orphanages because the state may stop paying foster salaries any time? What have you done for these Russian orphans without any successful prospects in Russia? Have you adopted anybody to rescue at least one? Shut up in your primitive attacks against Americans who really help Russian children.
    By the way, when did you throw trash in Russia last time? In 1998, in 2004, 2008? I do it every day and is aware pretty well how scrap-heaps looked in 1998 and how they do now. Never in 1998 the garbage containers were empty and all trash was thrown nearby. Today every morning trash containers are empty and all area around is covered with this garbage because there is much more starving people now (than it used to be in 1998) who scraped out the garbage to find something to eat.
    I am questioning you again and again when did you come to Russia for the last time to learn anything of it not saying about proportion of the good and the bad in Russia?

    Comment by Russianwitness — February 8, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

  13. […] relates to those differences, and their meaning.  Today “Russianwitness” contributed a very passionate comment that deserves the attention from those interested in this debate.  Here’s the comment in […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » A Comment Well Worth Reading — February 8, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  14. A new price on Russian gas for Ukraine is about $230 for thousand cubic meters. Nobody will say more precisely today. A word «about» is a new know-how of the Ukrainian government, that hides the unwillingness of Julia Volodimirivna to acknowledge that she handed us to Russia.

    During the first four months we will pay $360 for gas. And that is exactly twice as high, than paid until now. And Timoshenko’s «about» means a kind of an average annual price. Such a convinient gap : nobody knows its size, so no one will notice, someone will grab a piece of pie from there.

    Comment by Alex — February 25, 2009 @ 7:09 am

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