Putin’s new mistakes. What Russia is losing
The Russian Federation can no longer be considered a ” great energy power”, and the Kremlin’s dependence on military force has reduced the country’s international authority to a “great pariah power”
Another double violation by Russia of the norms of international behavior – the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the acceptance of the discredited Belarusian autocrat, President Alexander Lukashenko – once again united Europe in indignation.
Last week, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a tough resolution that not only requires a decisive response to the Navalny case , but also calls for a new strategy in dealing with an openly hostile Moscow.
Russian propaganda vehemently opposed this firm position and predicted that confrontation with Russia would destroy the European project. Moscow is particularly upset that Germany, which used to be a deterrent in determining the EU’s course, is now one of the strongest advocates of punishing the Russian Federation for violations. Key political experts in the Russian capital interpret the cancellation of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Berlin as an unmistakable sign of a serious deterioration in these key bilateral relations.
Russian diplomacy is trying to present the expansion of ties with Asia as compensation for the reduction in ties with Europe. In early September, the defense ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization ( SCO) met in Moscow, and Sergei Shoigu made room at the table for several additional guests from the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The next week, at a meeting of SCO foreign ministers, an attempt was made to prepare an agenda for the upcoming summit of heads of state, which, despite all Russia’s efforts, will take place in November and only in the format of a video conference. Then it was the turn of the secretaries of the security councils of the SCO countries to hold a virtual meeting. KGB chief Nikolai Patrushev set the tone by announcing that the United States is using a global collaborative effort to counter the COVID-19 pandemic to covertly develop biological weapons.
All these meetings, however, did not provide an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its ability to influence key global events. In particular, Russia has sought to mediate between China and India in their dangerous dispute over the border in the Himalayas; but the two Asian powers can be expected to settle or exacerbate the conflict on a bilateral basis as they see fit. Meanwhile, the long-planned and delicately advancing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are being held under the auspices of the United States, without Russia’s participation. Likewise, the escalation of the economic confrontation between the United States and China leaves Russia far on the sidelines of decisive global engagement – with the SCO also completely irrelevant in this matter.
In turn, any progress in the implementation of plans for Eurasian cooperation depends on the willingness to invest in joint projects. China worked diligently to implement President Xi Jinping ‘s Belt and Road trademark , reassuring Russia of its good intentions; but at the same time, Beijing does not yet see a special need to reduce the number of Russian partners. The Russian economy is plunging into yet another recession that undermines its investment opportunities, despite the recently announced $ 1.5 billion credit line for Belarus as a guarantee of support for the beleaguered Lukashenko. This ” generosity”, even if shown with rather obvious resistance ( and with a large, if not all of it, intended to pay off an old loan from Minsk to Moscow), it contrasts sharply with the stinginess of the Russian government with respect to domestic social programs, which led to a decrease in income and an increase in poverty.
Even former finance minister and Putin supporter Alexei Kudrin argues that the anti-crisis measures were too limited to prevent the impoverishment that currently affects about 20 million people, or 13.5% of Russia’s population. The Kremlin found it necessary to respond by reiterating that the policies were carefully calibrated to minimize the impact of the crisis.
This “ calibration” is based on forecasts for oil prices, which have recovered from a sharp drop in April to an almost acceptable plateau of $ 40-45 per barrel and is expected to stabilize at that level. However, these expectations ignore profound shifts in the global energy market, which devalue Russia’s strength as a major hydrocarbon exporter and exacerbate the risk of a new fall in oil revenues.
Last week, Putin met with Alexei Miller, the CEO of Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom, and expressed his hopes for a solid profit. Remains unsaid about the ongoing problems with the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. The project was interrupted by US sanctions , and Germany immediately threatened to completely cancel it in response to Russia’s violation of basic norms of political behavior – the poisoning of Navalny with the help of the Novichok nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union . Gazprom may sponsor a football club in the German Bundesliga, but it cannot convince European consumers of the reliability of its supply; even Turkey is cutting imports from Russia.
Losing its position in European energy markets, Moscow is trying to compensate for this by intensifying the information war, in which the history of the Second World War is selected as one of the key battlegrounds. Eighty-one years ago, on September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army entered this war by invading Poland, a date that Moscow carefully neglects in the official historical calendars. To shield the approved version of history from “liberal revisionists” or European ” slanderers”, a special group was created in the Investigative Committee of Russia to prosecute falsifications. Putin’s narrative about the causes and consequences of war has turned into dogma , and any deviation from it is considered a crime.
This politicization of the past, in which the failures and crimes of Stalinism are omitted and embellished, exacerbates the alienation between Russia and its European neighbors, who have a great need to contain Moscow’s aggressiveness, and there are fewer reasons or benefits left to interact.
Russia can no longer be considered a ” great energy power”; its scientific schools have lost their innovative superiority; her human capital is depleted; and the Kremlin’s dependence on military power, compared with all other instruments of persuasion or engagement, has reduced Russia’s international prestige to a “great pariah power.”
Putin’s elites may pretend that the status of the main troublemaker and violators of norms suits Russia quite well. But Lukashenka’s inability to quickly and brutally subjugate the Belarusian opposition is a signal: Russians can tolerate Putinism only as long as they do not begin to demand a different future.