Russia and the West: On the Brink

by Tony Brenton

April saw the lowest point in Russia’s relations with the West since the early 1980s – as embodied in three events. On 6 April the US imposed new, tougher, economic sanctions on Russia, battering the rouble and other economic indicators. On 12 April the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that the nerve agent used in the attack on Sergei Skripal was of Russian design, thus in effect inculpating Russia in the attack and validating the expulsion of over a hundred Russian diplomats from virtually all Western capitals. And on 14 April the US, UK and France, despite the presence of significant Russian armed forces in Syria, bombed that country in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.

These events graphically underlined how far Russo/Western relations have deteriorated in the past four years. The catalytic moment was the overthrow in 2014 of the pro-Russian President of Ukraine. This directly led to the Russian seizure of Crimea and support for the (ongoing) war in the Donbass, to all of which the West has responded with extensive economic and other sanctions.  A year later Russian armed forces went into Syria in direct support of Assad’s war against the Western backed opposition, producing serious moments of Russia/Western sabre rattling – some of it nuclear.  Alarmed by the new Russian activism, NATO has stepped up its military readiness.  Meanwhile Russia has launched cyberattacks in Ukraine and elsewhere, interfered via social media in Western elections, and attempted to murder ex-Russian spy Skripal on the streets of Salisbury. Both the US and Russia have now announced the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals.

Russo/Western links are now in tatters.  Russia has been excluded from the G8.  Other routine fora such as trade talks, the NATO/Russia Council and exchanges on security issues have either become formulaic or ceased entirely.  Western investment in Russia has slowed to a trickle. Financial exchanges will be increasingly constrained by the impact of sanctions.  Russia now has more Chinese tourists than European ones. Both sides have said that contacts now are thinner than even during the Cold War.

Unsurprisingly, the picture of Russia in the West, in the media and elsewhere, has become very dark; a revanchist state and kleptocratic autocracy, a regime sustained by a combination of propaganda and fear, a direct military threat to its neighbours, intent on subverting and undermining the West.   This picture has taken particular hold in Washington DC where well established hostility to America’s old Cold War opponent has been given a sharp new partisan twist by allegations of covert Russian collusion with the Trump Presidential campaign.

The aim of this paper is to pick out which parts of this picture are right and which wrong, and to look at where the relationship is now going. This first Part introduces the issues and deals with Putin; the second Part, which will appear on 31 May, with Foreign Policy and the Economy; and the third and final Part, on 28 June, with relations with China and prognoses for the future.

Putin’s Russia, Russia’s Putin

Russia is not a dictatorship, nor Putin a dictator.  The regime is much closer to the “strong man” populist regimes of Turkey or Venezuela.  There is substantial freedom of expression (particularly on the internet) and freedom of movement. There are (often harassed, but functioning) opposition media and political parties.  What is carefully controlled is the output of state television (source of news for the vast majority of the population) and the activity of foreign funded NGOs (viewed as sources of subversion). Elections are manipulated and rigged – most notably by the exclusion of any opposition candidate who might present a real threat. But they are taken seriously by the regime and offer a distorted but by no means totally misleading picture of the state of Russian public opinion.

This system has been shaped and perfected during Putin’s (so far) 18 years of rule.  Although Putin dominates the system, he in fact presides over a cluster of feuding clans (security agencies, oligarchs, state industries, liberal economists etc) and not all decisions go the way he wants.  The system is authoritarian, frequently brutal, and corrupt. It is not a good idea if you are a businessman not to cut the local authorities in on any bid you make for a local contract, and if as a citizen you organise demonstrations against the local Governor’s pet project you could be in for a pretty rough time. At the top there is overwhelming evidence of very senior members of the regime using their official positions for immense personal gain. All of this of course carries high costs for Russian economic efficiency.

The key sources of Putin’s dominance are his role as final arbiter among the clans (the system nearly collapsed in chaos when it was thought he was going in 2008) and his very high level of popularity among the Russian people (as demonstrated by his overwhelming re-election last month). He has political weaknesses. The educated urban young regularly demonstrate against him. And there is widespread public anger at regime corruption (so much so that Putin’s most visible opponent is not a politician but an anticorruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny). Nevertheless, he is seen by a large majority of Russians as the man who ended the chaos of the Yeltsin years, tamed the oligarchs, rebuilt national prosperity in the years 2000-2008 and restored Russia’s national pride – in particular by standing up to the West.

Many Western commentators have suggested that when Putin goes, willingly or not, Russia will turn into a more tractable neighbour. This feels like wishful thinking.  Putin very much embodies what Russians want from their government and keeps the clans from each other’s throats. So, an unwilling departure is highly unlikely. If and when he goes willingly (not expected before 2024) he will very probably be replaced by someone with similar policies and political approach.

Is the Bear on the Prowl Again?

Russia is not a revanchist state. She is not planning to invade any of her neighbours or rebuild the USSR. The many who use Putin’s quote that “the fall of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century” fail to add the balancing quote (from the same speech) that “those who want to restore the USSR have no brains”.  The two main events offered as evidence of revanchism – the Georgia war of 2008, and the Donbass war and annexation of Crimea in 2014 – were both Russian reactions to external events.  It was Georgia, not Russia, that started the 2008 war, and the Ukraine events were precipitated by the popular overthrow (with, as the Russians saw it, distinct US involvement) of Ukraine’s pro-Russia President.  With the conspicuous exception of Crimea (which has its own very special history) Russia in both cases refused any other possibility of territorial gain.

Not only is Russia not revanchist but she is, and knows she is, weak by comparison with the West.  Her defence expenditure is one-tenth, and GDP one-fifth, of those of NATO.  She is not going to get into a military confrontation which she knows she would lose. The Russians’ view of their current confrontation with the West is that they are on the defensive against a much larger and essentially predatory opponent. They see accusations that they are intent on subverting and undermining the West as deliberately misleading and way beyond their country’s reach.

Nevertheless, Russia is determined to regain as much as she can of the international standing and “respect” that she enjoyed before the fall of the USSR.  Putin’s view, explicitly stated in speeches in 2007 and 2014, and widely shared among Russians, is that the West deliberately took advantage of Russia’s weakness after 1991 to humiliate and marginalise her.  Charges against the West include the economic advice which contributed to the implosion of the early 1990s, Western support for the Chechen insurrections, the Kosovo war, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders (contrary to what the Russians claim they were promised), and Western action on human rights grounds to overthrow various regimes in the Middle East – with implications (in Russian eyes) for similar action against them.

This paranoia about Western intentions is compounded by Russian awareness of their immense conventional military inferiority to the West and was sharply boosted by the Western economic and other sanctions following Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria.  Since Russia has limited scope to retaliate in the economic sphere they seem to have launched an “asymmetric” response through cyberattacks, online propaganda and interference in Western political systems, as well as operations such as that launched against Skripal.  All of this has contributed to a further downward spiral in relations, a stepping up of defence expenditure on both sides, and regular Russian references – given their conventional military inferiority – to the possible use of nuclear weapons.

An Economy in the Crosshairs

Russia does not have a large economy, or population, as a basis for taking on the West.  Her post-1991 demographic collapse has now stabilised. Population is growing slowly but, at about 140 million, is less than one fifth of that of NATO.  Her economy is 12th in the world (just below Canada), heavily state dominated (about 70% of GDP) and dependent on hydrocarbon exports (70% of all exports).

Economic growth has been something of a rollercoaster ride since Putin came to power.  Fuelled by a rising oil price, disposable incomes rose sevenfold from 2000-2012.  This period helped cement Putin’s hold on power, although it was also accompanied by vast capital flight and almost ubiquitous corruption (estimated at up to 25% of GDP).  In 2014 all of this took a big hit, mostly from the collapse in the oil price that year but also from the impact of Western sanctions. Russia’s well-judged policy response (notably a large devaluation of the rouble) enabled her, contrary to the predictions of many western commentators, to weather the storm. After two years recession the economy is growing again, if slowly. Debt has been brought sharply under control and inflation is at record lows. Russia regained its investment grade status in 2017.

As part of his 2018 election platform, and responding to popular unhappiness over the austerity of preceding years, Putin has promised very substantial increases in pension and other social expenditure. The economists advising him (in particular former Finance Minister Kudrin) have been clear that this can only be afforded if accompanied by significant and disruptive economic reforms including privatization and a crackdown on corruption (as well as a “less confrontational” foreign policy).  The biggest domestic challenge facing Putin is whether he is willing to take the political risks associated with such a programme. The alternative is likely to be economic stagnation for Russia for many years to come, almost certainly accompanied by diminishing popular support for the regime.

Putin’s decision is further complicated by the impact of Western economic sanctions. These have been the West’s weapon of choice in dealing with Russia since 2014.  They have been adopted by the EU, the US and a variety of other Western allies.  Mostly they have been directed against individual Russians, in particular members of Putin’s inner circle, but have also extended to take in some major state companies, and to include limits on technology transfer.  Their economic impact is disputed (perhaps up to 2.5% of GDP) but, at least up to the latest round, has been dwarfed by the impact of the fall in the oil price.

Sanctions have so far had absolutely no effect on Russian policy with regard to either Ukraine or Syria (or indeed anything else). Security considerations heavily outweigh economic considerations in Kremlin policy debates, and it would be a huge humiliation for the regime to be seen to be bending to Western pressure. Given their experience of the decades it took for cold war era sanctions to be lifted, the Russians also question whether, even if relations did get better, the US administration could or would lift sanctions which are mandated by Congress and some of which are transparently protectionist in intent.

Meanwhile the political effect of sanctions has been exactly the opposite of what was hoped by their authors.  They have reinforced support for Putin rather than undermining it.  This of course is a familiar phenomenon from Russian history.  At moments of external pressure Russia coalesces around its leader.

Tony Brenton joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1975 and, in the course of a 33-year career, served in the Arab world, the European Union, Russia and the USA. He has dealt with such issues as the Arab/Israel dispute, global climate change, international energy policy, and the Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. He was a senior official at the British Embassy in Washington DC following 9/11 and at the time of the Iraq war. He served as British ambassador in Moscow 2004-2008 during the most difficult period in modern British/Russian relations. He has written a well received book on international environmental diplomacy, The Greening of Machiavelli, is a regular commentator in the Times and other British publications, a senior advisor to Lloyds of London, director of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce, and a fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge where he is writing a book on Russia at the time of Peter the Great. Reprinted, with permission, from The Ambassador Partnership.

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  1. If you are gonna do propoganda, at least put some effort in to it .

  2. In his analysis the author mixes real life events with Western anti-Russian hoaxes. Listen to this phrase for example:

    “[Russia] attempted to murder ex-Russian spy Skripal on the streets of Salisbury.”

    Do you even realise how absurd that sounds? What does Russia stand to gain by poisoning some retired spy?

    To me it sounds like something the British government would concoct in order to convince its own people that Russia is evil – portraying its adversaries as irrationally evil is a central tenet of western propaganda after all. If “Skripal poisoning” sounds to you like something that Russia would actually do, that’s probably because you’ve been consuming Western propaganda for too long.

  3. What I know is that one country rampages around the world blowing human beings to smithereens, and that country is not Russia.

  4. This author lost me when he dragged out the old tired Western toy Navalny as the “most visible opponent.” The most visible opponents to the neo-liberal policies implemented by Yeltsin and now promoted by Kudrin have been communists, who would’ve won in 1996 (had it not been for actual, well-documented Western meddling) and who scored some 15% (vs. Navalny’s 2%) – without much campaigning. This former ambassador wants us to believe the Western self-serving narrative instead of the actual facts.

  5. This is the most succinct and accurate picture of Russia I have seen published. As someone who has recently lived there, this article rings true.

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