Streetwise Professor

February 4, 2009

“The Past in Russia is Similar to the Present, but What is Even Worse, so too the Future”

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:12 pm

Vladimir Shlapentokh is a sociology professor at Michigan State University (not far from my old stomping grounds).   He’s written some very interesting things, most notably Contemporary Russia as a Feudal Society.   Vladimir sent me his latest piece, which compares three autocracies: Tsarist Russia, the USSR, and Putinist Russia.   It is a very insightful and interesting read.

One important fact that Vladimir emphasizes is that virtually nobody predicted, even immediately before the events, the fall of the first two autocracies.   He quotes Vladimir Ryzhkov saying “They [i.e., both regimes] wore off almost instantly” and Vasilii Rosanov as saying that Tsarist Russia “dissipated in two days, maximum three.” As a result, he concludes that the apparent solidity and popularity of the Putin government could be misleading.

The most interesting part of the article (to me) is this:

At the same time, in both cases, the leadership could have avoided “the period of danger,” if it abandoned its geopolitical ambitions. For the tsar, the Entente (the alliance with France and England) and the victory in the war promised the expansion of the empire. For the Soviet leadership, the structural changes in the economy promised military parity with the West. In both cases, some advisers warned the rulers about their actions. In one case, the pro-German party at the court was against Russia’s involvement in the war; in the second case, party conservatives were against the radical reforms. However, the combination of pure subjective and objective factors pushed both regimes to their termination.

This seems particularly apposite today.   I have noted several times that Russian pugnacity, its cavorting with the world’s most disreputable regimes, its aggressiveness in the near abroad, all at a time of existential economic crisis is foolhardy.   And today’s news brings more evidence of this.   Responding to Russian pressure and blandishments, Kyrgyzstan agreed to deny the US and NATO access to an airbase used to provide logistical support to operations in Afghanistan.   Purely coincidentally, I’m sure, Medevedev also announced a $2 billion loan to Kyrgyzstan and $150 million in aid.   Tajikistan is also apparently attempting to leverage its geographic location to induce the Russians to provide financial support in exchange for not supporting US efforts in Afghanistan.

NATO is apparently is search of a clue (I suggest reading the paper, and then adding two and two):

NATO said on Wednesday it would be a worry if Russia were found to have had a role in Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close a U.S. military air base which supplies U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that the Manas base would be shut after he secured Russian aid at talks on Tuesday in Moscow, a traditional ally of the former Soviet state.

“If it were to be the case that a Kyrgyz decision to withdraw U.S. access to Manas was as a result of Russian engagement that would be of concern,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing.

Moscow has denied a connection between a $2 billion package to combat an economic crisis — the equivalent of about half of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product — and Bishkek’s decision.

Appathurai said any Russian interference would be out of line with Russia’s repeated statements that it supports the international effort in Afghanistan and its position as a U.N. Security Council member that approved the mandate.

“If Russia were found to have a role”?   Are they serious?

Actions speak louder than words, and this kind of action speaks very loudly.   It puts the lives of American (and other NATO) servicemen-and-women at risk.   It strikes at a vital US interest, and one that presumably should be a Russian interest too.   (Just how is Russia helped by a Talibanized, or chaotic, Afghanistan?) It means far more than any nicey-nicey words that Lavrov, Medvedev, or Putin say in Obama’s direction.

The primary motive here seems to be epater les Americans, regardless of the cost.   And again, as Shlapentokh says, pursuing geopolitical ambitions has cost Russia dearly in the past.   And, as the quote by Edward Radzinski that titles this post indicates, the problem with the Russian past is that it too often is its future.   Russia can’t afford its geopolitical ambitions, especially now.

Russia may gain in the short run, as a distracted country with a dreamy President convinced of the power of his mere words and gestures to resolve historically intractible conflicts may not respond to Russia’s reapolitik and reprise of the Great Game.   But that won’t last.     If Russia succeeds in achieving its objective of diminishing American interests while our attention is fixed elsewhere, or while some of us our hypnotized by visions of hope and change, it will attract the attentions of a distracted hyperpower.   And Russia cannot prevail once that happens.   Counting on Obama to be forever naive and overconfident is a dangerous thing, as even the feckless Jimmy Carter eventually awakened to the Soviet threat.

Geopolitical ambition is an important driver of Russian policy.   It was an unaffordable luxury even when oil was north of $140/bbl.   It is an insane goal when the country is on the financial precipice.   As Vladimir Shlapentokh notes, unrealistic realpolitik has destroyed Russian regimes in the past.   But, since Vladimir Putin et al have learned nothing or forgotten nothing, Radzinski’s lament may soon be illustrated yet again.

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  1. It takes two to tango. If it weren’t for ill-thought out US geopolitical expansionism into Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia, then NATO wouldn’t be facing these problems. After all it was Putin who allowed the US to use Central Asian military bases in the first place at the start of the ‘war on terror’; he opposed the silovik factions to do this, and all he got in return was colored revolutions and abrogations of anti-missile treaties.

    If the US were to give minimal respect for Russian interests (e.g. not supporting its neighbors to attack its UN-mandated peacekeepers and solving the missile shield by basing it in Kabala as both Azerbaijan and Russia suggested) then there wouldn’t be these problems and more resources can be spent on defending global security than pointless posturing. As a Great Power and minimally self-respecting country Russia has no choice but to geopolitically retaliate if it wants to avoid the disintegration of its international influence.

    And exactly what does attracting “the attentions of a distracted hyperpower” involve? The US is going to be massively constrained fiscally in the next few years; some respectable commentators already talk of a possible debt-and-currency crisis. In any case control of international financial institutions is drifting away from the West towards the East and the BRICs. America’s moral allure was severely tarnished by Bush (it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s fair or not; the fact of the matter is that most of the world considers this to be so, and this is all that matters). Even in the military sphere there is doubt over whether the old conventional model of large surface navies and the current US air force structure can prevail over new types of cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes, and the emergent trends in the modern IADS since 1991 (although one hopes that neither side will wish to conduct a real-life experiment on this question).

    One also hopes that Obama ignores SWP’s and similar analyses, hires me as an advisor instead and boldly goes for change that we can all believe in.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 4, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  2. Gotta teach in a bit, but will respond briefly.

    1. This colloquy reveals our very different world views. Re two to tango, Caucasus/Ukraine. WRT Georgia and Ukraine, in each instance new nations wanting to establish their independence, who felt a direct and real threat from their former colonial master–Russia. Nations that wanted to integrate with the West. It is this that Russia perceived as a threat. The US has supported them, and done so in a way that does not threaten Russian security–except to the extent that Russia perceives its security interest to require dominance of the post-Soviet space, and to deny the autonomy of former Soviet republics. Anyone who thinks that NATO represents a direct military threat to Russia is delusional.
    2. If Russia were not so intent on keeping its neighbors under its thumb, perhaps they wouldn’t be so anxious to look West. Just why did Putin get “color revolutions” (the poor, poor dear)? The question answers itself.
    3. Re Central Asia, your scare quotes around War on Terror say it all. Although I am less than enthusiastic about that title, there has been a real war against a real enemy. And, whatever Putin did post-911 (now, in retrospect, purely done for strategic reasons that were disappointed), it is clear now that he has objectively chosen to aid 8th century religious fanatics. Allies, in spirit and ideology, and perhaps in other ways, of the Chechens that Putin regularly demonizes. Also, C.A.–Putin doesn’t want to give up a stranglehold on energy. I support efforts to undermine Russian monopsony power, and am unapologetic about it.
    4. Re your military analysis. Blah blah. Supercavitating torpedoes, wonder weapons, etc. From what rusting hulks is Russia going to launch these weapons? (Which, in fact, are grossly overrated.)
    5. If you think “control of financial institutions” is drifting to the BRICs–in your dreams. They are drifting, alas, to the control of governments in the US and Europe.
    6. As I’ve written before, you catch more flies with sugar than gall. As a “minimally self-respecting” country, you’d think Russia could figure that out. The reason their immense self-respect is not reciprocated is pretty obvious.
    7. Power is relative. Yes, it sucks to be us now. But, it sucks far worse to be Russian. The difference is, the US is more likely to respond to this by looking inward and addressing its problems, albeit imperfectly; whereas Russia seems hell-bent on ignoring its own difficulties, avoiding dealing with them in a serious way, and instead looking for fights elsewhere. That’s the gravamen of my criticism. And, echoing the previous russophobia exchange, I think that’s a tragic thing not because it’s going to hurt the US a great deal (we’ll cope); it is because, as Shlapentokh and Radzinski note, it is another repeat of self-destructive behavior that will impose far more damage on Russia than everybody else. You are, in essence, an enabler of bad habits.
    8. “We ALL can believe in” is an oxymoron since you’ve already admitted that there are other analyses that reach the exact opposite conclusion. In any event, your wishes are more likely to be granted, until the pernicious implications of same for American interests are inevitably revealed.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 4, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  3. And here’s an irony. Just what course is SWP going to teach?–a carbon trading course. LOL.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 4, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  4. NATO’s James Appathurai is either brain dead or reflecting, God forbid, the disarray of the Obama administration. And, just where are the Russians going to get the money now to pay for these financial alliances and adventures? Bottomline is that in the face of this severe financial downturn the Kremlin siloviki will spend down the last kopeck on a failed script.

    Oh, and, DR, get real, those with a large navy have a big tactical military advantage. America is the last standing great navy since the Brits dismantled theirs. Trust me, the world is mindful of that. It’s always newsworthy after an international incident as to where the US moved their fleet. It matters.

    Comment by penny — February 4, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

  5. Da Russophile, I find it impossible to follow your logic. A great power requires, at a minimum, a basic infrastructure. Russia doesn’t have one. A great power is not dependent on the United States DOD and its contractors to inspect and secure its dilapidated nuclear sites. If Russia wants to control a US Base in Kyrgyzstan, perhaps they should first stop accepting billions from the US Government in the form of defense contractors like Raytheon… who, incidentally, continue to provide employment to a great many Russians via their regional offices and construction projects at a vast number of Russia’s failing nuclear sites- Attempting to close the base in Kyrgyzstan is simply more high-profile propaganda. It’s nothing more than a distraction from reality. The majority of Russians have no idea just how many billions of US dollars are still being pumped into Russia on a daily basis and just how many of our Government employees are living and working within her borders. Russia is dependent on the rest of the world. Causing political instability within the region is a great distraction from this fact but it does nothing to forward a nation-

    Maybe the US should close the base in Kyrgyzstan? The Professor is right. Let’s see how Russia likes dealing with the Taliban and an entire region of oppressed, angry Muslims who have a score to settle over Chechnya. If I was cruel and inhumane, I would say that it might be fun to watch. But I’m not cruel or inhumane. I’m not Putin. Russia knows exactly what they’re facing and I’m fairly certain they’re not interested in dealing with a bunch of Jihadists right now-

    Comment by RTYB — February 4, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  6. I see that the Kremlin is still paying well to invade assorted blogs, and to spew rooskie sovok theory and propaganda, complete with revisionist history.

    Case in point – Da Russophile, who opines that the color revolutions relied on blaming rasha for their societies’s ills, when all that poor little rasha wanted was mutually respectful dialog.

    Orange Revolution – the focus was Kuchmism, not rasha. Poor little sovok rooskies think that everything is about them. Kuchmism was a totalitarian government which repressed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free elections, and, in general, was not a democracy. The anthem of the Orange Revolution, “Together We Are Many, We Can’t Be Defeated” (“Razom Nas Bahato”) did not mention rasha at all. Nor was the focus on rasha.

    Rather, it was the other way around. To whip up support for Kuchma, political operatives deliberately whipped up stories about the CIA, George Soros, accused the Orange people of wearing hiking boots made in California, and being on narcotic drugs, and morphed Yushchenko into a likeness of George Bush.

    Kuchma, of course, was very useful to rasha. He sold them Ukrainian lands for a song, implemented the RosUkrEnergo middlemen in gas deals with Putin, made sure that rasha oligarchs got very favorable business deals in Ukraine – while helping himself to a hefty portion of the spoils and loot of an absolutely corrupt, rotten government. He is very strongly implicated in the beheading of journalist Georgi Gongadze, one of the founders of Ukrainian Pravda, whom the government relentlessly tried to squish.

    Yet, Da Rashaphile, ignoring all facts, spews forth his little version of history – it was all about being against rasha.

    I’ve seen all this little rooskie sovok drivel before – they repeat it endlessly. DR’s English is a bit better than most, but they like to vary their styles, from broken English, to attempted hipness and glibness (eg, Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” – well, maybe the rooshan empire, but certainly not the British Empire. The British noted, through one general, that one can only rent Afghanistan, not conquer it – but it didn’t cause any sort of collapse of the British Empire.)

    DR, noone believes your sovok drivel. Get a life. Find a different – and useful job. Reinventing history went out of style with the fall of the sovok union.

    Comment by elmer — February 5, 2009 @ 12:29 am

  7. PS-Forgot to add. Also, relations betweens Kyrgyz and Americans were not good. A US military vehicle ran over two women in Bishkek and a truck driver was shot dead by an American soldier who wasn’t prosecuted because of diplomatic immunity. So it was also a political liability, though the annual 150mn $ payments were a good salve up till now.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 12:29 am

  8. @elmer (2nd post, because we posted at exactly the same time),

    Although I’ve no wish to enter into prolonged discussions with a bigot whose arguments begin and end with insinuations and associative fallacies, I would nonetheless like to compliment you on making my point about how some Ukrainians (mostly the Orange elites and their supporters) substitute Russophobia for a healthy, inclusive patriotism far more poignantly than I could ever aspire to.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  9. “Black: used for diplomatic passports. These are issued to civilian and military personnel and their families on diplomatic assignments overseas for the government.”

    OK, so you got a black passport. Am I supposed to be impressed? Congratulate you?

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 4:02 am

  10. I guess, by fiddling with the Coalition Afghanistan supply route those
    idiots in Kremlin hope to gain a ground for negotiations with Obama on
    the missile shield and NATO expansion. Nothing that was supposed to
    move Russia up in the new Administration’s agenda worked so far: both
    the threat to deploy Iskanders in Kaliningrad and gas-muscle wrestling
    in Ukraine were largly ignored by the White House, so the Afghanistan
    cooperation ace is the last card left in Kremlin’s sleeve.

    What those sovok “the Great Game” players don’t (or cannot) understand
    is that the White House of Obama is no longer inclined to play
    traditional “bulldogs-under-carpet” diplomacy with Russians. Nor it
    considers Russia to be a super-power anymore. That means that US will
    speak to Moscow only in terms of protecting mutual strategic interests
    and not going to bargain some of them in Afghanistan in exchange of
    others elsewhere. Besides, the card that Moscow holds is not that

    Firstly, the base is not going to be closed before only after 3 months
    (as per current agreement). Second, Uzbekistan shows the signs of
    willingness to reconsider the closure of Karshi-Khanabad air base
    (vacated by US in 2005). Third, Georgian Marneuli air base is
    “delivery-ready” already (it’s been prepared in advance for Israely Air
    Force for the possible strike of Irans nukes). Forth, already annoyed by
    Moscow’s clumsy moves in the Central Asia, Tajikistan will be more than
    happy to cooperate by providing it’s air space (especially so, because
    possible failure in Afghanistan will treaten regime in Dushanbe more
    than others in the region).

    So there are two possible outcomes Moscows idiotic move: the Manas air
    base is going to stay open (just a little bit more US money for the
    Kyrgiz government) or relocated elsewhere in the region (available
    options are cheap too). In both cases Russias Afghanistan leverage over
    US will be (if not lost than) considerably weakened. In the long term it
    will mean that for the next (apparently) 8 years Moscow will have even
    less people in Washington willing to listen, than it had before.
    Especially with Big Zbig dominating the current Administrations foreign
    policy design.

    Comment by DJ Drive — February 5, 2009 @ 5:47 am

  11. And here is the hint that I’m right: Potential Closure of Manas Air Base Won’t Disrupt Afghanistan Ops

    Comment by DJ Drive — February 5, 2009 @ 5:50 am

  12. DR, a few things, for starters, have you noticed the skin color of the US President? Enough with your stupid Americans as racists garbage. Give it up. And your friend the Russian “researcher” here in the West that has finally found pride in Russia under Putin simply describes a basic amoral fascist like yourself. Did he go home to endure Putin’s Russia? No. He sits in a comfy free speech zone like yourself not enduring any of Putin’s repression. No OMON is going to crack his skull if he takes his oppositional political views to the streets in the West.

    It’s likely, very likely, that as this crisis winds through Russia the day will come when the clan in the Kremlin uses live bullets on protestors. They’ve been governing out of the old KBG playbook to date. Going to have excuses when that day comes?

    Comment by penny — February 5, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

  13. Actually DJ Drive that’s the point. As I pointed out in my original post, the US has lots of bases in the Middle East and losing one of them is not going to make any real difference to combat capability. (And also the rebuttal to SWP’s idea that this is proof Russia “has objectively chosen to aid 8th century religious fanatics” – which is nonsense, since the Russian government hates the Taliban and was, along with Iran, one of the Northern Alliance’s greatest backers against the Taliban back in the days before 9/11 when the folks at Unocal were merrily negotiating with the Taliban to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan with the support of the State Department).

    The alternative is that the base closure was primarily a Kyrgyz decision based on a) their economic difficulties – Russian aid of 150bn $, another 150bn $ of aid forgiveness, and a 2bn $ loan – trumps the paltry amounts the US pays for the base, and b) their lack of desire to be a US pawn in a region dominated by Russia and China, or to be involved in possible air strikes against Iran and c) what I already mentioned, the base is domestically politically unpopular, and/or d) they want to press the US for more money, which would also not have anything to do with money. (In fact if it’s the latter case then it would be in their interest to give the impression that they were specifically pressured into doing it by Russia.)

    By the way, one more point. Even if it wanted to the US cannot simultaneously pursue two geopolitical campaigns against both Iran and Russia. It will have to accommodate with one to be able to effectively pressure the other.


    “DR, a few things, for starters, have you noticed the skin color of the US President? Enough with your stupid Americans as racists garbage.”

    “Calling them black is a convenient short-hand which all Americans do with their people of color (or African-American for the PC Nazis, Negroes for the old-fashioned and niggers for the racists).” – me

    I simply do not have the words to respond to this idiocy. I’ve got better things to do than than argue with an illiterate troll…e.g. banging my head against a wall. Have a nice day.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  14. “Russian aid of 150bn $, another 150bn $ of aid forgiveness, and a 2bn $ loan” – make the first two mn lol.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

  15. A is very nearly correct, and D is a third correct.

    Everything is relative. While most metrics of quality of life in Russia are lower than in the West, they are superior to practically any country in Asia with the exception of Japan, Latin America and Africa. And the dynamics are positive – to address your specific points, pensions in real terms have more than doubled during 2000-2007 (a factor of 2.3), poverty rates were halved and there is increasing adoption of orphans on the part of Russian families. (Your comment about seniors sifting through trash really does suggest frozen memories of 1998. Feel free to enter the last decade.)

    Now unless you can come up with some objective, preferably statistical, evidence that the plight or poverty of ordinary Russians increased under Putin, please cite it. No one is denying that conditions for some social groups remain unacceptably low, but ignoring trends in favor of emotional rhetoric about seniors digging through trash or exploited children (both phenomena which were much worse in the 1990’s) does Russia and its future no favors.

    Although I am sorry to no longer exist in your mind, at least do us all the favor of answering one question – just what have you done for Russian children’s future? (PS. I’m thinking of charitable works, economic investments, etc – whining about Putin’s totalitarianism or criminality on the Internet doesn’t count and belittling naysayers to your own fantasy doesn’t count).

    Final comment. “Yes, it’s easy to defend Russia from the comfort of the United States or a posh flat in London. (I don’t know many who do)”

    I do, actually. In my experience of those interested in politics, about 75% of 2000’s era emigrants have a positive outlook on the situation there, compared to a much smaller percentage amongst those from the 1990’s (issue of frozen memories and overlong saturation in the Western MSM, I’d say). Heck even the Ukrainians here are, not all of course, but by and large more positive about Putin than about their squabbling Orange leaders.

    When the Russophobe Ed Lucas spoke to Brighton University students (a British university) to promote his stupid book the New Cold War, his motions were roundly defeated. The Russians and some Brits there even organized a leafleting campaign based on my article on Russophobe myths ( to inform people of his lies and half-truths. By helping provide the opportunity for Westerners to see other viewpoints on Russia and reconsider their distorted perceptions of it, I am helping to provide a service for not only Russia but the US and the entire global community – for free and with pride.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  16. Thanks for drawing my attention to the last two spam comments, penny.

    If RYTB wanted to she could send me her questions (or truths, or whatever) via the Contact page on my blog, in English or Russian. Refraining from handing out one’s e-mail in public so as to not get spam mail is not indicative of anything sinister (except perhaps in the minds of paranoid Russophobes).

    And what have you got against Communism? I for one would love to live in a stateless and economically superabundant utopia. Reaching it is the hard and problematic bit.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 5, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  17. Da Russophobe написал(а): “the Russian government hates the Taliban and was, along with Iran, one of the Northern Alliance’s greatest backers against the Taliban back in the days…”

    Well, judging from the above and the mother-Moscows inexhaustible desire to help Iranian mollas build their “мирный атом” (rus.: peaceful atom, often euphemism for nuclear weapons development), Kremlin clearly prefers Shia fundamentalists over those of the Sunni school.

    Comment by DJ Drive — February 6, 2009 @ 4:21 am

  18. Dude if Moscow really wanted to help Iran get a nuclear bomb they would have had it eons ago. There have been spats between them due to (purposeful) slow Russian progress on building up Bushehr and Russia has repeatedly proposed plans whereby Iran is allowed to generate nuclear power without getting access to the super-enriched uranium that is the real matter of concern. It’s just that they don’t think sanctions are going to work (they almost never do) nor do they wish to see an Israeli or US strike on Iran which will just further radicalize and destabilize the Middle East without changing its underlying dynamics for the better.

    PS. While I’m certainly no fan of Iranian Islamism, it is nirvana compared to Taliban tyranny. It is also, in things like democratic participation and women’s rights, far better than Saudi Arabia or even some moderate Arab countries like Egypt.

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 6, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  19. And one more thing…(yes, I really do spend too much time on this thread. I’ll desist from posting in any new topics after this one, it’s not as if my input is much appreciated here anyway).

    “8. “We ALL can believe in” is an oxymoron since you’ve already admitted that there are other analyses that reach the exact opposite conclusion. In any event, your wishes are more likely to be granted, until the pernicious implications of same for American interests are inevitably revealed.”

    We can all come to believe in change, even if we’re against it in the first place. Also, I don’t consider better US-Russian relations to be pernicious for American interests (i.e. because American interests are not equivalent to the interests of its ethnic lobbies, military-industrial groups and oil companies).

    Comment by Da Russophile — February 6, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  20. […] be a bribe, a snub to the US or in some particularly nutty cases open support of the Taliban – as SWP put it, “objectively chosen to aid 8th century religious […]

    Pingback by Hubris in the Heartland | Sublime Oblivion — February 17, 2009 @ 2:22 am

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