Those of us who obsess about the Middle East tend to overlook the current situation regarding Russia. With the title “Russia: a new state with old enemies,” Eyal Offenbach, an Israeli attorney who is an articulate expert on Putin’s Russia, spoke at AACI Netanya about how the situation in Russia changed after the collapse of communism and how it has evolved into the state of Russia today.
Russia under the Czars and under Communism was an Empire, and its people feel that they have been robbed or cheated when they consider how little power and influence they have in the world today. Although there was tremendous suffering under Communism, the people had pride in the power of the Soviet Union. This is the key to Putin’s Russia, the psychological need to rebuild an Empire and make Russia great again.
He pointed out that Russia has not changed in several important respects: 1. There is no mechanism for replacing the leader; no-one knows who will replace Putin, there is no alternative and there is no successor; 2. There is a bureaucracy but no administration, there is no civil service as we know it, everything is decided by the centralized power of the Kremlin; 3. There is no diversification of the economy, Russia exists by exploiting its natural resources, oil, steel, etc. and not much else.
Russia today is an economic basket-case, not only from the sanctions resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region, but also from the lack of economic reform and development. How did it come to pass? Pres. Gorbachev was a reformer, but as soon as he started to try to reform the Communist system it collapsed, very rapidly. Democracy was hoped for, but the Russians have no experience with democracy. The collapse of Communism in 1991 resulted in winners and losers. The winners who benefited were: 1, the Mafia, there was no longer any control over their activities; 2. The Oligarchs, although no-one wanted to buy the Russian industries, some people took the risk and became billionaires overnight. The losers were: 1. The Army; 2. The KGB and 3. The ordinary people, who often lost their pensions and their income.
The Oligarchs began to run the country. Their front man, Pres. Boris Yeltsin, was a joke, he was a drunkard and a humiliation. Therefore the “family” of the oligarchs looked for someone else to replace him, who would be efficient and loyal. They found Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Putin was a low-level KGB operative who was sent to St. Petersburg. How did Putin manage the transition from obscurity in 1991 to become President of Russia by 1999? When the collapse occurred in 1991 his mentor Anatoly Sobchak became Mayor of St. Petersburg and appointed Putin as one of three deputy mayors. Putin was hard-working and loyal and so he was promoted to be in charge of the “foreign affairs” of St. P. and eventually its economy. The oligarchs in Moscow wanted to replace the Kremlin power base of the former communists, so they looked further afield and found Putin. He was promoted first to be head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and then to Prime Minister and then President.
But, once Putin was in office, he used his power to overcome the control of the Oligarchs, who he saw as the inheritors of Yeltsin’s inability to control them and to govern Russia. Although the Oligarchs chose him, Putin let it be known that he would allow no opposition and no political activity. He was the opposite of Yeltsin. He forced Boris Berezovsky, the richest Oligarch, to leave the country and eventually he died under mysterious circumstances in the UK. He had Mikhail Khodrokovsky arrested, tried and stripped of his oil wealth and exiled to Siberia. He centralized power, seized control of the media, and replaced the Kremlin bureaucrats with his cronies from St. P. He supposedly addressed the new FSB security service and told them “we are back in business…” He uses patriotism and a cult of personality to consolidate power. Every day there are positive stories about Putin in the media, but never negative ones. Since he gained power 88 journalists have been killed/murdered in Russia. Most recently Putin’s opponent Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in broad daylight in the center of Moscow.
To the outside world he is issuing a clear message, Russia views the West, consisting of the EU dominated by Germany, the UK and the USA, as his traditional enemies. He sees them trying to encroach on his turf, this time economically rather than militarily (the euro in place of the Wehrmacht). The war in the Ukraine he sees as a legitimate defence of “my back yard.” This he considers Russia’s “sphere of influence.” This is not his first intervention, he did the same in Georgia in 2008 when PM Sakashvilli was becoming too close to the EU.
However, Russia has tremendous domestic problems; 1. The economy is controlled by the mafia and corrupt practices are pervasive; 2. There is no protection of property and no rule of law; 3. The mean age at mortality of men in Russia is 65 and declining, mainly due to chronic alcoholism, while in the West it is around 78 and climbing; 4. The medical system is inadequate and antiquated; 5. 15% of the Russian population is Muslim and are now being infiltrated by IS.
Although Russia has the largest oil production in the world, the reduction of the price of oil has hit them hard. Also, the lack of child bearing means that the Army and other public services are unable to function effectively. Whether or not these chronic demographic and economic problems will overcome Putin’s drive for aggrandisement abroad remain to be seen.