Putin's declared ambition is to restore Russia great power status, how should the west respond to this weak, aggrieved post-superpower?by Thomas de Waal / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The moment that defined for me the sickness of Yeltsin’s Russia came in autumn 1996, at the end of what we must now call the first Chechen war. The Chechen rebels had recaptured Grozny. The Russians were pulling their troops out. One by one, each garrison held a short departure ceremony designed to soften the ignominy of defeat. I turned up at the gates of the shabby army base at Khankala, outside Grozny, in order to find out whether the latest division had pulled out. A well-known Russian television journalist from the NTV channel was standing outside the gate, puffing on a cigarette. He confirmed that the division had indeed withdrawn and that he had watched the ceremony. Then he asked: “Do you want to know how I got to see the ceremony?”
The journalist explained that, before leaving Moscow for Chechnya, he had been to see the then defence minister, Igor Rodionov, and procured a personally signed pass authorising his access throughout Chechnya. When he presented the document at the gate of Khankala, however, the sentry smirked and said: “So the minister gave you this? Well, let him call me up and tell me that.” Only when a large-denomination dollar bill was produced did he get in.
A state is in real trouble when a sentry spurns the signature of the minister of defence. Time and again in Chechnya, it was not the brutality of the Russian forces that struck me, sickening though it was; after all, modern western armies have committed acts of savagery in Vietnam and Algeria. It was the cynicism of these young Russian men which was so striking. What kind of state is it whose young men engage in looting blocks of flats containing the same kinds of Soviet trinkets and television sets as in their apartments back home? Or-most impressively-whose young men routinely sell their weapons to the enemy they have come to “disarm,” again for US dollars? As Russia gets more bogged down in its second Chechen war, such stories are emerging again.
Russia’s lawlessness and Russians’ alienation from their leaders is usually seen as evidence of the “transitional” malaise of a country which lost its way in the world with the end of the Soviet Union. But this sickness runs deeper. This is no quick and violent fever, not 1917 revisited, or another Smutnoye Vremya, a “Time of Troubles.” The corrupt soldier at Khankala was not on the brink of mutiny; he just couldn’t give a damn. The most appropriate image for Russia in the year 2000 is of a swamp, a boloto, into which big projects, good and bad, sink without trace.
Vladimir Putin looks set to inherit this country. He will either be elected president outright on 26th March, by collecting 50 per cent of the vote; or he will go to a run-off and, like Boris Yeltsin four years ago, defeat the uninspiring Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov. In recent months, Putin has been so much the favourite that, as one commentator put it, he has been “running only against himself.” Yet this has been a single-issue campaign, built on Chechnya. When he tackles Russia’s real problems, the boloto will be lapping around his feet. Scepticism still runs right through Russian society; it is even evident in Putin’s seemingly popular pursuit of the second Chechen war. A survey in December asked people how they viewed the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya. Only 3 per cent said they felt “delight,” while 23 per cent spoke of “satisfaction.” A majority-53 per cent of those questioned-expressed “alarm” and 7 per cent said they experienced “shame.”
The Russian authorities have framed the debate about their latest military intervention in Chechnya as a question of the survival of the Russian state. Some say that Russia deserves the support and sympathy of the west for fighting separatist outlaws on its southern flank. This point of view even found an echo of sympathy in Bill Clinton. At the OSCE summit in Istanbul he criticised only Russia’s “disproportionate” use of force in Chechnya, and confessed aloud that he had asked himself how he would respond to a similar threat of “terrorism” within his state borders.
This was also the argument of the Russian official I visited last November. “V” (to whom I talked off-the-record) had been a key member of the Kremlin’s negotiating team on Chechnya. Although half-hearted in his defence of the latest war, he nevertheless told me that there was no alternative to the use of force. There has to be a “limit” to the degree of lawlessness a government can tolerate, he said, and Chechnya had exceeded that limit. Chechnya had become an “ulcer” which had to be excised. But if Chechnya is an ulcer, it is only an acute symptom of a worse sickness raging through the Russian body politic. The two are in deep symbiosis. Moscow’s description of the war as a campaign against “bandits” turns topsy-turvy when you consider that its main Chechen political ally on the ground is Beslan Gantemirov, a convicted gangster. It would be foolish to deny-as some commentators in the west do-that there is a Chechen bandit problem; but Chechnya is Russia’s self-inflicted wound. It can never be solved until Russia imposes on itself elementary standards of economic and political order.
This problem grew out of many others. First, there are the historical grievances, capped by the mass Stalinist deportations of 1944, which made “outlaws” of the whole Chechen nation. As the Soviet Union broke up, Chechnya joined in the so-called “parade of sovereignties” throughout the union, encouraged by, among others, Boris Yeltsin, who made a triumphant visit to Grozny in March 1991. When the Union republics broke away in 1991, the bid for secession by Chechnya, which was only an “autonomous republic,” was declared illegitimate, and it became an outlaw republic inside Russia. This made Chechnya different from the rest of Russia. But it also remained very small: its population was fewer than 1m. What gave the rogue republic a significance far beyond its size was the way it became tied to Moscow politics. The duels between Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Chechen speaker of parliament, and then inside Yeltsin’s own administration, played a key part in precipitating the war of 1994.
The economic role of Chechnya has been consistently under-reported. The outlaw state arrived on the scene in 1991, just in time to satisfy the demands of much of the Russian ?lite for a blackmarket enclave. Chechnya was outside Russian law, but with completely open borders and transport links with the rest of Russia. The contempt for state institutions sprang from ancient Chechen tradition, but it was exploited by the modern Russian elite. Chechnya became an entrepot for unregistered oil exports and consumer goods shipped into Russia without customs regulation. The Grozny which I first saw in January 1994, a year before war broke out, was a lurid parody of Russia’s criminalised side-a cheerful exhibition of stolen Mercedes and shifty men in leather jackets selling guns at a market stall. The city had become the biggest illegal arms bazaar in Russia-with the Russian army its biggest supplier. Most of the weapons that disappeared from the western group of forces in Germany went to Chechnya.
All this was exceptionally useful to Russian organised crime and the corrupt bureaucracy-indeed, Chechnya was an illustration of how the two were often one and the same. The evidence of this was bombed to ashes in 1994-5. But we do know, for example, that when Chechnya was an outlaw separatist state in 1991-4, the ministry of foreign trade kept a representative in Grozny. I once questioned Sergei Shakhrai about this, the man in the Yeltsin government who did most to shape Chechen policy and who became a main advocate of military intervention. Yet even Shakhrai, when asked to what extent the roots of the Chechen black economy were in Moscow, replied unhesitatingly “100 per cent.” In 1994, if the Russian state had really wanted to bring the rebel enclave into line, it could have done half the job by arresting a couple of dozen Moscow politicians and businessmen.
All this could have been a temporary phase as Russia and Chechnya emerged from the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The savage war of 1994-6 turned it into a permanent nightmare. The war created an ocean of misery which will endure for a generation; it destroyed the physical and social infrastructure of Chechnya. In a depressing analogue to Afghanistan, war gave power to teenage boys with guns. It disenfranchised the two groups which had made Chechnya an orderly society and kept its culture of violence in check: the elders, with their strict traditions, who had survived the Soviet era and were now marginalised; and the Russified Chechen professional classes in Grozny, who fled abroad.
The social devastation of Chechnya was the main reason for the epidemic of crime and kidnapping which overwhelmed the republic after 1997, when the war was over. A local culture of banditry lay at its root-but even here Russia played a crucial role. The kidnapping industry would never have taken off if Russian businessmen had not paid out multimillion dollar ransoms in 1997; the money provided the kidnap gangs with far more equipment and weapons than the cash-strapped Chechen government. That pushed Chechnya into anarchy. There are other, murkier, questions about the links between the extremist Chechen rebels, led by the field commander Shamil Basayev, who intervened in Dagestan last August, and political factions in Moscow. Several Moscow newspapers have suggested that the Moscow businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky-and not Islamic groups abroad-was their main source of funding. It is useful in Moscow to blame Osama bin Laden and his like for funding the rebels (and there is, to be fair, evidence of Saudi money coming into Chechnya); but the main sources of funding may be closer to home.
The latest war is a further illustration of the gap between declared motives and the actions of the modern Russian state. The campaign that Putin launched in September as an “anti-terrorist operation” turned into another full-scale war against the whole of Chechnya. It was waged by generals, most of whom had fought in the first campaign, and who had openly said that they want revenge for that defeat. Last year many Chechens I spoke to said that they were fed up with the lawlessness. Support for the rebels had fallen. If the Russians had set up a security zone around Chechnya, or even moved troops into the northern plains, many Chechens would have approved. The nature of the invasion soon changed all that. In November, when I visited Chechens in the refugee camps of Ingushetia, they were cursing the rebel extremists-but hatred for the Russian military was much more intense.
The logic of the Russian military strategy means that it has been fought with massive destructive power, and against the population as a whole. Its symbol is the Grad multiple-rocket launcher, which sprays death indiscriminately over an area of 25 acres. However, brute force has proved a blunt weapon. As soon as the Russians had large numbers of troops on the ground, they began to be threatened by a more mobile partisan resistance-the heirs of the nimble Chechen horsemen of the 19th century. Official Russian casualty figures-more than 1,000 soldiers dead in five months-are now running higher than in the first war in Chechnya. After the destruction and capture of Grozny in February, the Russians face months or years of guerrilla war in the mountains.
But Putin needs the total subjugation of Chechnya in order to vindicate the policy he has pursued. This in turn is leading to a policy where all Chechen males of teenage years or older are treated as suspect; and the horrific “filtration camps,” places of routine torture, have re-opened. Putin has shut himself off from the more sensible options: painstaking negotiations with Chechnya’s legitimate leaders such as Aslan Maskhadov; and attacking the corrupt mafias inside Russia which feed off Chechnya’s twilight status.
Putin’s conduct in Chechnya poses larger questions about how he plans to re-make Russia. His declared ambition (if, as expected, he is elected president) is to reconstitute a strong Russian state. He has said that a European de-regulated model is not appropriate for Russia, a country which can only function well with a strong central state apparatus.
On the face of it, he deserves our support. Russia is in deep social and economic trouble. Life expectancy for men is now below 60. Organised crime is rampant. One estimate for capital flight from Russia last year put it at $2.5 billion a month. A strong central government would be better able to collect taxes properly and replenish the treasury. However, the would-be president’s policy statements so far suggest that he is set on pursuing an old statist vision for Russia which again will set out to build a state without a society: a creature with a monstrous head and an emaciated torso. One of Putin’s first declarations as acting president was that he wants to increase military spending by 50 per cent. Evidently he has a strong commitment to the security establishment, where he spent most of his career. This goes with a continued belief in costly symbols of Russian statehood such as a space programme, and the vast archipelago of prisons and penal colonies which suck up more state subsidy than the health system.
Putin has a model: Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief on whose grave he laid flowers last year. Surveys in Russia suggest a strong nostalgia for the authoritarian Andropov and a belief that if he had lasted longer, the Soviet Union could have had a new lease of life. Some suggest that just as Andropov moved against the clans of the Brezhnev regime, Putin will start to claw back into state control many of the mis-privatised assets of the Yeltsin era.
There are many reasons to believe that if this is Putin’s project, he is doomed to failure. First, there are questions about his own ability and honesty. Putin spent 17 years in the KGB, but mainly as a marginal operative in the former East Germany; he was never an Andropov. Since entering politics he has been closely associated with two politicians accused of serious corruption: the recently deceased mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who fled to Paris to escape arrest but later returned to Russia, apparently under Putin’s protection; and the former Kremlin property manager, Pavel Borodin, who is now the subject of a Swiss arrest warrant.
The deeper flaw in this statist project is that it runs against the grain of Russia’s modest successes of the 1990s, all of which are actually the consequence of a weakened state. A favourable aspect of the boloto of the Yeltsin years is that, where Yeltsin wisely left things alone, the modest shoots of a free society have grown up. National and local elections, however imperfect, are now routine. Large sections of the press are still lively and unshackled. As many as 200,000 voluntary organisations have formed, dealing with anything from disability rights to ice fishing. Regions such as Samara and Novgorod, with progressive governors, have attracted foreign investment. There has also been an unexpected silver lining to the crash of the rouble in August 1998: domestic industry has grown and has become more competitive. In the year that followed devaluation, industrial growth was an impressive 20 per cent. (Although it started from a very low base: in 1999, real GDP growth was 1.5 per cent.)
Should Putin seek to re-consolidate the state in a traditional fashion, many of those freedoms will be threatened. There are already signs of tightened control over the media: Alexander Khinshtein, an investigative journalist who had been exposing Kremlin secrets, was recently threatened by the security services with removal to a psychiatric hospital. Even if the new president uses the apparatus of the state to dispossess the new Russian kleptocrats like Berezovsky-and that in itself is doubtful, given how Putin and Berezovsky worked together for the Yeltsin administration-he will be doing so with the help of the former KGB security establishment, which is hardly less suspect. The omens are gloomy: in January the new acting president made a strategic alliance with the Communists in the state duma. Bad news for the tax and legal reforms which need parliamentary approval to be enacted.
Putin has also made it clear that he intends to project this vision of a strong state on to the world stage. In this respect he is following Yeltsin, whose mantra from first to last was that Russia was a “great power.” At summits and bilateral meetings, Yeltsin always wanted to prove that his Russia could be no less a world power than Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. During the queen’s visit to St Petersburg, for example, he was heard confiding to a British foreign secretary how the world divided into “the big daddies and the little boys,” putting Russia (and Britain, with equal implausibility) firmly in the first category.
Western leaders more or less accepted Yeltsin’s pretensions without demur. They humoured Yeltsin. They made Russia a member of a specially designed G8. They supported one of the most generous IMF programmes ever devised to help Russia through its “transitional phase.” They involved Russia in middle east and Balkan peace talks. Russia’s critics in the west took a completely different view-but based it on the same assumptions. The anti-Russian policy of many American Republicans-and not a few Democrats, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski-was grounded in a view of Russia as a strong power doomed by history to be an aggressive empire. This is the basis of their argument for wanting to expand Nato into Georgia and the Baltic states.
Both sides in this debate chose to overlook the evidence that Russia is in strategic retreat. It has promised to close its last remaining military bases in Georgia and has withdrawn completely from the Baltic states. It can barely afford to maintain its peacekeepers in the Balkans. Yes, Russian paratroopers seized Pristina airfield, but within days Nato troops were supplying them with mineral water and cigarettes. And for all its size and population, Russia’s economy is the same size as Denmark’s: if there were to be a club of economies according to weight, Russia would qualify for the G38, not the G8.
Since the economic crash of August 1998, the west has begun to withdraw from close engagement with Russia. But if the ascent of Putin is a good moment to try again, how should a western government respond towards the new Russia-this weak but aggrieved post-superpower? In the first place, this seems a good moment to move away from a tradition of particularism, popular with both Russians and foreigners: the idea that Russia, because of its size and history, is special-and different from other nations. At its worst, this relies on selective quotation of certain Russian writers. A phrase of Fyodor Tyutchev’s, that “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, Russia has to be believed in,” has been especially deleterious. And there should be a ban, in all speeches on Russia, on the metaphor of the speeding troika from Gogol’s Dead Souls; only last year Strobe Talbott, American Deputy Secretary of State began a lecture in Stanford by flogging those three long-dead horses.
If Russia is not a country with a great destiny, it is also time to stop saying that it is a “great power” and call it merely a large country on the edge of Europe. This means that the G7 should not invite Russia to be part of a G8. It means winding down the special IMF relationship: there is no precedent for a group of big countries intervening so directly in the economic policies of another big one. But this cuts the other way too: it is absurd to think of enlarging Nato towards the borders of a weak and blundering country; this only feeds the insecurities of the military establishment. And where Russia is genuinely threatened by militancy it cannot control-such as extremist infiltration from the middle east into Dagestan-the west should be offering its technical support.
Russia should be treated as a country which must play by the same rules as everyone else. The only proper dialogue Washington and Moscow have left is about arms control; the EU is closer and better suited to dealing with all the other issues. Russia’s place is best seen within a wider Europe. This means telling Russia that it should aspire to participate in the European institutions of the next generation-and told precisely what standards it must meet in order to become a member. Its behaviour towards its citizens now is beyond the European pale. It should be suspended from the Council of Europe forthwith for what it has done in Chechnya. And in a Europe where national sovereignty is no longer an absolute principle, the OSCE must be allowed into Chechnya, to help pick up the political pieces there.
What does this leave out? Perhaps the most important problem: the forgotten and disillusioned middle layer of Russian society. The Hungarian financier George Soros has understood, perhaps better than anyone, where real regeneration must come from in post-communist societies. It is in that elusive concept, “civil society”-doctors’ surgeries, libraries, judo clubs, environmental groups. My own most positive recollections of Russia between 1993 and 1997 are of small human associations: an artists’ shop in Samara; a private farm outside Nizhny Novgorod. The communist state had broken those horizontal links which form the web of other European societies. The $250m that Soros has spent on propping up Russian education and science in the past decade has arguably been much better spent than all the IMF billions.
Russia still has a very good, if underfunded education system, and an extremely well-educated professional class. Opinion polls show that, despite its hostility to Nato and Bill Clinton, this country has a strong sense of affinity with an idea of Europe which has become old-fashioned even in Europe itself. (How many western visitors to Russia have found themselves embroiled in a detailed interrogation about their views on Dickens, or Fellini, or Nietzsche?) And yet these teachers, doctors and musicians are the people who have done worst in the post-communist era and the policies of Yeltsin and the IMF.
In short, westerners should think more creatively about how to help re-invigorate the lower levels of Russian society, not its top-heavy state. If other philanthropists had matched Soros’s millions in efforts to help the Russian school system, healthcare system, orchestras and theatres, then Russia would be a much less introverted and angry place than it is today. This is not so much a question of foreign policy-the west must still maintain a level of engagement with the Russian state, however fruitless a task that is-but of the priorities of aid. The tragedy is that this would have been a much better programme to embark on in 1991-when levels of trust in the west were at their highest-than now, when the Russian-western relationship has degenerated into bitterness.
If we quote a Russian writer, let it not be one of the messianic thinkers thundering about Russia’s destiny in history, but the sceptical Petersburg Jew, Osip Mandelstam. Writing in 1921, he espoused a street-level view of Russia’s development. Noticing the shoots of grass in the cracked pavements of his city, he wrote: “Truly Petersburg is the most progressive city in the world. Speed, the pace of modernity, is measured not in a metro or a skyscraper, but in the cheerful grass, which pushes through the city paving-stones.” This kind of revival of Russia-literally from the grass-roots up-would be the best start in a very long and difficult process.