Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Putin's Grand Offensive Against the West and What We Must Do About It - Part 1

by Nomad

In a piece for Foreign AffairsMichael Anthony McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, offers us some interesting insights into what went wrong between the former Cold War adversaries. McFaul lays out challenges ahead, what the US and the West must do in a time of "hot peace."

The Russian Offensive Against the West

Even though the era of competing ideologies (communism vs capitalism) may be over, that hasn't stopped Russian president Vladimir Putin from posturing himself as a leader of conservative nationalism fighting against a decadent West.

His re-interpretation of democracy allows the privileges of the majority to rule supreme over the rights of the minorities. That notion has flourished inside Russia.  Scholar and Putin advisor, Sergei Markov likes to use the term "majoritarian democracy" which he describes this way:
In the West, there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia, the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still a democracy... Minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority. 
This bit of sophistry fooled a lot of people who should have known better. The very hallmarks of a liberal democracy is its protection of minority rights and without it, no amount of word-play can change that. Conversely, the most notable sign of a fascist state is its suppression of minority rights.

With some success, Putin has attempted to export his false version of democracy to other nations. That did not come about based on the validity of the ideas themselves.
To spread these ideas, the Russian government has made huge investments in television and radio stations, social media networks, and Internet “troll farms,” and it has spent lavishly in support of like-minded politicians abroad.
Meanwhile, against this well-orchestrated offensive, the US has become the global symbol of failed leadership. From a president who appears to be indebted to Russia for his election victory, to a majority party unwilling or incapable of mounting any defense at all, the last superpower has lost its way.  
So the first question is retrospective: How did things go so terribly wrong?

Breakdown of the Breakdown

McFaul's analysis includes a detailed history of a series of missteps and miscommunications. Obviously, mistakes were made after the fall of the Soviet empire. New hopes for a liberal democracy taking root in the motherland died on the vine.  So, what happened?

After the collapse of Soviet Union, could the United States and Europe have devoted more resources and attention to Russian reform and Russia’s integration into the international system? Definitely. 
One of those that believed that the West has only itself to blame is Paul R Pillar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former senior CIA officer.
Speaking to the BBC, Pillar said:
"The relationship went wrong when the West did not treat Russia as a nation that had shaken off Soviet Communism. It should have been welcomed as such into a new community of nations - but instead it was regarded as the successor state of the USSR, inheriting its status as the principal focus of Western distrust."
Yet, there was legitimate cause for distrust. World leaders were understandably worried about throwing away time and money on the corrupt Yeltsin regime. In 1994, not a lot of people were inspired by a new Russia where its president was too drunk to leave his own plane.

Corruption under Yeltsin virtually ensured that IMF funding for reforms and the transition to a market economy would instead be diverted to secret Swiss bank accounts.  One IMF report sums it up this way:
There was some discussion at the beginning of the 1990s about a so-called Grand Bargain.” This was the name given to the idea that the major western countries would give Russia large sums of money in exchange for deep and sustained economic reform efforts.
The main problem with the Grand Bargain was that the western countries were reluctant to spend the large sums of money that were being suggested without evidence that major reforms were being undertaken.
They were unwilling even to commit to the idea because of a deep skepticism about whether the Soviet Union—and, subsequently, Russia—really was ready to implement such reforms.
Yeltsin's own family and inner circle were involved in high level corruption. In fact, Yeltsin made his own "grand bargain" with his successor, Vladimir Putin to escape prosecutors.

A quick look at the timeline shows that there was actually a very small window of opportunity between the fall of the Soviet regime and the rise of corrupt oligarchs and the corruption they inspired. Two or three years, at best.
Billions of dollars were poured into the new Russia but by 1999, the year Putin took over, there was literally nothing to show for it. 

As an article written at the time points out:
Russians, free to get rich, are poorer. The wealth of the nation has shrunk -- at least that portion of the wealth enjoyed by the people. The top 10 percent is reckoned to possess 50 percent of the state's wealth; the bottom 40 percent, less than 20.
Somewhere between 30 and 40 million people live below the poverty line -- defined as around $30 a month.
The gross domestic product has shrunk every year of Russia's freedom, except perhaps one -- 1997 -- when it grew, at best, by less than 1 percent. Unemployment, officially nonexistent in Soviet times, is now officially 12 percent and may really be 25 percent. Men die, on average, in their late 50's; diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria have reappeared; servicemen suffer malnutrition; the population shrinks rapidly.
So the idea that the Western is at fault doesn't really match the facts. At some point, Russia has to take responsibility for its corruption instead of blaming the West. Today, corruption is every bit as bad as it was in the 1990s.

The Fall of Libya

Another explanation attributes the problem on the return of Russia as a world power. Once Russia became independent and competitive, it was inevitable, so the theory goes, that the US and Russia would come to blows.
Not so, says McFaul. Germany and Japan were once enemies and today they are allies. And, McFaul points out, US- Russian relations were much more cooperative up until just a few years ago.  
According to McFaul, things began to go pear-shaped around the time of the Arab Spring and in particular, when Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi lost his grip on power.
This period of relative harmony began to break down in 2011, owing primarily to the way that Putin reacted to popular democratic mobilizations against autocracies in Egypt, Libya, Syria—and Russia itself. The Libyan uprising in 2011 marked the beginning of the end of the reset; the 2014 revolution in Ukraine marked the start of the hot peace. 
Outside of the humiliation of being out-maneuvered by the Obama administration, Russia suffered some major financial losses as a result of the Libyan Civil War.
According to some reports, Putin would have stood to have personally benefited from these contracts. He hasn't been called "the world's richest man" for nothing.

As reported in 2011, many of these contracts were signed through Muammar al-Qaddafi's authorization, and went he fell, thanks in large part to NATO bombing, an estimated $10 billion in business deals went up in smoke.
While that might sound like chicken feed to Americans, it's important to remember that in terms of 2015 GDP, the Russian economy ranked lower ($1.32 trillion) than the state of California ($2.44 trillion) or New York ($1.45 trillion).

For Putin, it went beyond financial concerns. He was convinced that the United States and its allies had exploited a UN resolution that authorized only limited military action in order to overthrow the Libyan dictator. 
Nobody likes to be outsmarted and Russia had, at that time, abstained from voting on the UN resolution that approved military action.

Dissent and Putin's Paranoia  

There were other problems Putin had to content with that helped to sour his attitude. Inside Russia, Putin blamed growing internal discontent on US. In fact, Putin's ability to maintain high economic growth- in exchange for public apathy- was unraveling. 
Massive demonstrations flooded the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities after the parliamentary election in December 2011. At first, the protesters focused on electoral irregularities, but then they pivoted to a grander indictment of the Russian political system and Putin personally.
In Putin's deeply-cynical mindset, the public does not rebel spontaneously. It has to be fooled, bribed or energized by hate. In the mind of this former KGB officer, all democratic movements had outside sponsors and therefore, an iron-fisted crackdown was seen as a necessary act of national security.

After his re-election, Putin cracked down on dissent. His political opposition and journalists of the independent media were labeled "traitors supported by the United States."
By June 2012, laws were enacted which set strict boundaries on protests and imposed heavy penalties for unauthorized actions.

Those laws were enacted in direct opposition to the spirit and high hopes of the 1992 Russian constitution, which protected both a free press and peaceful expression.

It is instructive to see how quickly Putin utilized those new laws to his advantage. On June 8, 2012, he signed the law and the following day, he began arresting dissenters and by June 11- the day before a major opposition protest – men with Kalashnikov rifles raided the homes of prominent leaders of the opposition party.

The constitutional protections of a free press have also been openly mocked by the ruling party's control of 98% of the media in Russia. 
Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, told The Atlantic Monthly:
“The limitations on the media have existed for the 15 years that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has been in power. It’s not an institution of civil society, it’s propaganda. [The Russian broadcasters] First Channel, Second Channel, NTV, Russia Today internationally—these are all instruments for reaching a goal inside the country, and abroad.”
Coupled with the mafia-style executions of journalists and opposition leaders, Putin's autocratic tendencies have not inspired trust in the West. Despite that, Putin's behavior appears to have won the dubious admiration of a person like Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, trust works both ways and under Putin, Western leaders saw the promise of a new Russia sink into something just as bad as the former Soviet Union.

Putin's anti-American, anti-Western suspicions were confirmed with the toppling of  Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian crisis confirmed Russia's worst and most persistent fears. Talk of NATO expansion into Ukraine only added fuel to the flames of paranoia.
As McFaul writes:
The expansion of NATO did exacerbate tensions with Moscow, as did Western military interventions in Serbia and Iraq. Democratic upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine threatened Putin’s ability to preserve autocracy at home, even if Putin grossly exaggerated the U.S. role in those so-called color revolutions.
All of these unfortunate events, writes McFaul, aggravated the growing friction between Putin's Russia and the West. Still worse, it gave legitimacy to Putin's distrust, making peaceful co-existence, at least under this regime, impossible.

Little Cause for Optimism

For the West, what is desperately needed, says McFaul, is something that's clearly in short supply at the moment. Leadership.
That requires the US to somehow find a way to mobilize a new bipartisan strategy.  
It must find ways to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military, and political influence and to strengthen democratic allies, and it must work with the Kremlin when doing so is truly necessary and freeze it out when it is not.
In other words, under the present political situation in Washington, there's not much cause for optimism. The existential threat to the American Republic will continue until that dynamic shifts.
Unless the Republican party can be either persuaded to take the threat seriously or removed from power by the electorate, Putin will be free to do exactly as he wishes.

Among the foreign policy items on Putin's agenda is the dismantling of US military and all of  America's diplomatic alliances. Of course, that includes NATO and the global trade network.
After the twin foreign policy disasters- the NATO summit and the US-Russian summit- few could deny that Putin's efforts have paid off. The truth of candidate Hillary Clinton's warning that Trump was Putin's puppet was undeniable.

The question is now is whether we are prepared to do something about it and how long the West will allow Vladimir Putin to call the shots.
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Here's Michael McFaul giving a TED talk at Stanford University in 2017.

In part two of this series, we will take a look at what McFaul sees as the most appropriate steps we can take, now and in the future. All in all, the challenge that lies before may be the most difficult the West has yet faced.