Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Putin’s Russia: A Hobbled Power

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Does Russia pose a unique threat to world peace today? You’d think from the way its present war in Ukraine has been reported, that it is a global super-power looming over Europe. It has become a common theme to argue that Ukraine is only the first domino to be pushed, in a plan for a war of conquest across (at least) Eastern Europe.

This is a fantasy that completely misunderstands the balance of power in the global system.

Today, Russia today spends about $62 billion (about 4 percent of its GDP) on the military. That’s 8 percent of US military spending. In total Nato states spend 1,010.00 billion USD on the largest military force in world history. The US has just announced increases in military spending which are in themselves greater than Russia’s entire military budget.

According to the CIA, Russia stands at number 18 in the global league table of military powers.

While the U.S. ranks as the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $21 trillion, according to the IMF the gross domestic product (GDP) of Russia amounted to $1,648 billion in 2021. This is about the same size as the combined GDP of Belgium ($582 billion) and the Netherlands ($1,008 billion) in the same year. In terms of GDP, Russia trails much smaller countries, such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and France.

There is no comparison between the economic and military might of the USA and Russia, even more so if we add all the other members of Nato. In many ways Russia is not a global super power but a regional one. Its global reach – its nuclear arsenal and its ability to intervene in Syria – are a legacy from the old USSR.

Marco D’Erama argues: “Russia is simply too big to become yet another American vassal, but too weak to be a world power.”

Decline

To understand Putin’s Russia you have to grasp what Russia suffered in the decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. By the close of the 1980s the state capitalist economies of the USSR and its satellites could no longer afford the cost of the arms race initiated by President Ronald Reagan. The elites could see the writing on the wall and they themselves embraced the orthodoxy of the West, neo-liberalism, and its prescribed medicine, economic ‘shock therapy’.

The US ambassador to Moscow in the late 1980s, Jack Matlock, explained how the process worked in regards to the last leader of the USSR: “Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, in effect, co-operated on a scenario, a plan of reforming the economy, which was defined initially by the United States. The plan was devised by the United States, but with the idea that it should not be contrary to the national interests of a peaceful Soviet Union.”

Gorbachev “adopted the US agenda, which had been defined in Washington, without attribution, of course, as his own plan”.

From the side of Washington and its allies there was no attempt to incorporate the Russian people and economy into the global system as happened in 1945 with Japan and West Germany. The advice from the IMF was to embrace the shock therapy – which amounted to a massive transference of wealth to a new class of capitalists.

The rise of these ‘oligarchs’ took place under Yeltsin: “Yeltsin agreed to a ‘loans-for-shares’ program, whereby some valuable natural resource enterprises were turned over to major businessmen in exchange for loans to the government. This highly controversial program accelerated the consolidation of a few large financial groups, led by so-called ‘oligarchs’, who enjoyed great political and economic influence. The oligarchs helped Yeltsin with sympathetic coverage on the television networks and in the newspapers they owned.”

The latter was important in getting Yeltsin re-elected in 1996 in an election which was rigged and which it later became known he had lost.

The results for Russia were horrendous. The record of the Russian Federation’s first President, Boris Yeltsin – the western-backed leader – is described by Perry Anderson thus:

“[Yeltsin] presided over an unprecedented decline in living standards and collapse of life expectancy; humiliated the country by obeisance to foreign powers; destroyed the currency and ended in bankruptcy. By 1998, according to official statistics, GDP had fallen over a decade by some 45 per cent; the mortality rate had increased by 50 per cent; government revenues had nearly halved; the crime rate had doubled. It is no surprise that as this misrule drew to a close, Yeltsin’s support among the population was in single figures.”

From the side of Washington and its allies there was no attempt to incorporate the Russian people and economy into the global system as happened in 1945 with Japan and West Germany. The advice from the IMF was to embrace the shock therapy – which amounted to a massive transferrance of wealth to a new class of capitalists.

The rise of these ‘oligarchs’ took place under Yeltsin:

“Yeltsin agreed to a ‘loans-for-shares’ program, whereby some valuable natural resource enterprises were turned over to major businessmen in exchange for loans to the government. This highly controversial program accelerated the consolidation of a few large financial groups, led by so-called ‘oligarchs’, who enjoyed great political and economic influence. The oligarchs helped Yeltsin with sympathetic coverage on the television networks and in the newspapers they owned.”

The latter was important in getting Yeltsin re-elected in 1996 in an election which was rigged and which it later became known he had lost.

The results for Russia were horrendous. The record of the Russian Federation’s first President is described by Perry Anderson thus:

“[Yeltsin] presided over an unprecedented decline in living standards and collapse of life expectancy; humiliated the country by obeisance to foreign powers; destroyed the currency and ended in bankruptcy. By 1998, according to official statistics, GDP had fallen over a decade by some 45 per cent; the mortality rate had increased by 50 per cent; government revenues had nearly halved; the crime rate had doubled. It is no surprise that as this misrule drew to a close, Yeltsin’s support among the population was in single figures.”

GDP collapsed, the rouble was not viable (money was measured in bottles of vodka), life expectancy declined precipitously, the position of women was debased, there was a total collapse of social welfare and government institutions, the rise of mafia politics around oligarchic power, capped by a debt crisis in 1998 from which there seemed to be no path out other than begging for some crumbs from the rich folks’ table and submitting to the dictatorship of the IMF. The economic humiliation was total, except for the oligarchs.

In two or three years, Russia underwent a shrinkage of its population and economy along with the destruction of its industrial base. From 1990 to 1994, the mortality rate among Russian men soared – in peacetime – by 32 percent, and the average life-expectancy plummeted to under 58 years, below that of Pakistan. By 2003, the population had fallen by more than five million in a decade.

The Russian leftist, Boris Kagarlitsky describes the reality of the 1990s thus: “With the end of the USSR Russians believed they were on a plane to Paris only to be told as they began landing, ‘Welcome to Burkino Faso.’”

Rise of Putin

In article for Foreign Affairs in 2004, two ardent neo-liberals, one of whom had been in Moscow to direct shock therapy, described Russia as:

“… a middle-income country, with GDP per capita around $8,000 at purchasing power parity according to the UN International Comparison Project, a level comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high income inequality, concentrated corporate ownership and turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal.”

Writing in 2015 Perry Anderson noted a major shift made by Putin:

“But if he wanted a stronger government than Yeltsin’s, he could not afford to leave the oligarchs in undisturbed possession of their powers. After warning them that they could keep their riches only if they stayed out of politics, he moved to curb them. The three most ambitious magnates – Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky – were broken: two fleeing into exile, the third dispatched to a labour camp. A fourth, Abramovich, though still persona grata in the Kremlin, has opted for residence abroad. Putin has taken back under state control parts of the oil industry, and created out of the country’s gas monopoly a giant conglomerate with a current market capitalisation of $200 billion… for the time being, the booty capitalism of the 1990s has come to a halt. In regaining control of some stretches of the commanding heights of the economy, the state has strengthened its leverage. The balance of power has shifted away from extraordinary accumulations of private plunder towards more traditional forms of bureaucratic management.”

Anderson argues that under Putin the regime has been dominated by figures drawn, like Putin himself, from the old Stalinist security services, the siloviki (those in command of force) and they were in control of the major state-owned companies. But the oligarchs as a grouping were not purged or disposed of, as long as they were loyal to Putin.

The authoritarian features of the modern Russian state – controlled media, election intereference, restrictions on freedoms of assembly and speech – are legacies of the Yeltsin, and relatively pro-Western era.

The simple truth is that no election free of forgery or coercion has ever taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin’s victory in 1996, greeted with special applause in the White House and Downing Street, was the most notorious case.

Putin’s Russia is a regime that is both statist and oligarchic, facing growing unrest among its citizenry, rich in oil and corruption, incapable of improving the lives of ordinary people while its oligarchs amass enormous wealth, and inclined to use harsh methods against all forms of organised protest.

Economically it is reliant on global demand for the oil and gas that Russia must sell.

Perry Anderson has argued that Russia:

“…is not a police or military dictatorship. Freedom of expression as such, in print or online, is not much less than in the West. Opportunities to exercise it in television or the press are far fewer, but little trammelled on the web, where Russia now boasts the largest internet public in Europe. Freedom of travel is well established. There is more electronic surveillance of citizens in the United States. Opposition parties, however nominal, are regularly elected to parliament. A constitution whose passage was hailed by the West remains untouched. International jurisdiction by the European Court of Human Rights is accepted. In domestic law, most civil jurisprudence proceeds without interference.”

Divergence from the West

At the beginning of his rule, Putin was still pursuing good relations with the west. He was prepared to rally behind the US after 9/11, and claimed his own conflicts with Chechen Islamists were part of a global struggle against terrorism.

As the US and allies continued to try and entrench western hegemony, relations with Russia deteriorated. Putin was able to swallow the Baltic States’ accession to Nato. The sticking point was always going to be over the belt of former Soviet states to the south of the Baltics, in which Russia asserts it has special interests which Euro-American partners should recognize.

In 2008, Georgia, believing it was in line along with Ukraine to join Nato, attacked South Ossetia. Russia launched a counter-attack humiliating Georgia. But this was taken as a warning by Putin.

Nato has gone further and further, recently installing medium-range missiles in Poland and Romania, while the US has treated Ukraine as if it were its own territory, as witnessed by Victoria Nuland’s (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) viceregal statements on who should run the government in Kiev.

For Biden, following Bush and Obama, Russia offers itself as a convenient arch-enemy, both domestically and internationally: small economically, but willing to portray itself as big on account of its nuclear weapons.

After the media debacle of the Biden-managed US withdrawal from Afghanistan, showing a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia seemed a sure way to showcase US muscle, which would force Republicans to unite behind Biden as the leader of the resurrected ‘free world’.

Washington resumed the diplomacy of intimidation and categorically rejected any negotiations on Nato expansion. For Putin the choice seemed to be between escalation and capitulation. The odds were always on the latter and Putin launched his criminal attack on Ukraine.

The brave demonstrations against the war show that there is opposition to Putin, one we should support. Russia is a class society, not a monolithic bloc. Throughout Russia’s history, it’s leaders have struggled to control class tensions in time of war. The rise of Napoleon inspired radical officers to attempt a coup in 1825. Defeat by Japan spurred the revolution of 1905, and defeat in 1917 to the October socialist revolution. Failure in Afghanistan was an important factor in the collapse of the Soviet system the late 1980s.

Putin does not want to recreate the Soviet Union. Putin’s 21 February speech in which he effectively launched the war catalogued a “Century of betrayal”, is interesting in that he attacks Lenin as the one who is responsible for the Ukrainian “problem.” So he argued:

“Leninist, substantially confederal, state structure and the slogan about each nation’s right to self-determination up to and including secession were built in the foundation of the Soviet state: at first, in 1922 they were included in the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Social Republics, and then after Lenin’s death in 1924, in the USSR Constitution.”

Warming to the theme he went on:

“was it necessary to satisfy the endlessly increasing nationalist ambitions of different parts of the former [Russian] empire? Why giving them newly-formed, often arbitrarily created, huge administrative units – union republics – that often had nothing to do with them? To repeat, giving them the territories together with the populations of the historic Russia.”

Putin was here defending the Czarist empire, the ‘prison house of nations’. This is not a one off, it has become a feature of his regime’s message, to restore Russia’s greatness. But in truth his vision is a watered-down version of Stalin’s in 1945 – the creation of a glacis on Russia’s western border, to block the traditional invasion route. Today that centres on preventing Ukraine joining Nato, or otherwise aligning militarily with the west.

The Ukrainian pre-occupation is a traditional one for Russian elites. Ukraine’s geostrategic importance, both as a borderland with western powers, as an important concentration of resources and production, and as an outlet to the Black Sea, means that any Russian leader, representing state and capitalist interests, would take a hardline stance on the country’s status.

For now, Russia remains a low-ranking power, with a huge landmass, ageing population and economy dependent on fossil-fuels. It exists in a world dominated by stronger powers, and this has a major bearing on its geostrategic strategy. The reaction if Nato powers and the massive sanctions regime imposed on the country serve to remind us of the fundamental inequality of power in the world system.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is a war of aggression, waged in the perceived interests of the Russian state and elite. It is a gamble, and one that may not pay-off. But it is not a random act. It speaks to deepening pressures of international competition between states and imperial blocs. We must be armed with a realistic understanding of the world system to intervene in this increasingly dangerous situation.

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