INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Russian ambitions go far beyond Ukraine
, November 8, 2014
Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, celebrated his 62nd birthday recently — not with parties and parades and fireworks, but alone in the Siberian forests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Things are not going well for the ruler of All Russia. He has become, like the Russian officer in Leo Tolstoy’s story, A Prisoner in the Caucasus: a captive in his own country.
In the tale, two Russian officers are captured by the Tartars. The Tartars are Muslims, and the Russians are Christians. One Russian officer escapes, and the other is ransomed, barely alive.
Russia is still bogged down in the Caucasus. Life there has changed little since 1870, when Tolstoy wrote his story. It is still a region of intense ethnic and religious conflict. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been at war with the small landlocked North Caucasian republic of Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, and again between 1999 and 2009. In August 2008, Russia detached South Ossetia and Abkhazia from another Caucasian nation, Georgia, during the s0-called Five-Day War.
Today Chechnya is relatively quiet. But this is mainly because its Russian-backed dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, has used his untrammelled power to suppress ruthlessly any signs of political dissent.
Part of the motive of Putin and his henchmen for seeking to maintain Russian control in this region is fear for their own lives. Russian history is replete with episodes of strong figures being ousted by conspirators. Putin’s circle look back nostalgically to when Russia was a great and respected power, as it was during the Soviet era.
Putin himself projects an image of being a strong man who hunts, plays ice hockey, scuba-dives and does other tough things. This, however, is an image made for public consumption.
When he was an officer in the former Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB, he was stationed in Dresden, a third-rate backwater post in communist East Germany. He was said to be the sort of inconspicuous man who is scarcely missed half an hour after he’s left a meeting. His advancement was due to the fact that he was competent without being a threat to his superiors.
Like any autocrat, Putin has had to balance the various factions in his regime.
Today, however, things are not going well for Putin. The Russian-supplied “irregulars” are bogged down in eastern Ukraine, and Western sanctions are beginning to bite. Reports say that the shelves in Russian shops are looking bare, and soon it may be little better than in Soviet times.
Russia has little to export besides oil and gas, so Western Europe is working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. Russia realises that it is over-dependent on Europe, and so is working hard to market its gas to China. What’s more, the price of oil and gas is falling and is already hurting the Russian bottom line.
Russia’s economy is described as being “in the eye of a perfect storm” (Stratfor, October 7, 2014). The country’s currency, the ruble, is under attack from international currency-traders. In 2013 alone, the Russian central bank spent over US$50 billion defending the currency. Growth has halted, with foreign investment down 50 per cent. Russia needs foreign money and technology. The Kremlin does have US$600 billion in reserves; but this is evaporating in a fire-fighting exercise to defend the ruble.
The Kremlin needs vast amounts of cash to continue pursuing its military ambitions. In 2015, Russia is scheduled to set in motion a decade-long plan to re-equip its armed forces, at a cost of $US770 billion.
Armaments are important, but only soldiers can fight a war. Russia’s current average birth rate, despite the Kremlin’s pro-natalist policies, is still only 1.6 children per woman, significantly below the rate of 2.1 necessary for a population to replace itself each generation. The birth dearth is depriving Russia of a steady flow of young conscripts coming up through the system to fuel its military ambitions.
Russia is also working to bind its “near abroad” into an EU-style customs union, to be known as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, soon to be joined by Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have agreed that the EEU will officially come into existence on January 1, 2015.
EEU members have pledged themselves to carry out co-ordinated policies in agriculture, energy and key industrial sectors. Barriers to the movement of goods, services, capital and labour will be removed.
Russia also aims to set up a free-trade zone with Vietnam; establish expert consultations with Israel, Egypt and India; and develop a dialogue with Mercosur (South America) and ASEAN.
Currently, the profitable and productive sector of the Russian economy does not go much beyond oil and gas. Many industries continue to rely on Soviet-style subsidies.
In some areas, such as mining technology, Russia is quite advanced. All in all, one gains the impression that life is better today than during the Soviet era. But were the oil and gas sector to fall in a hole, it would be a disaster for Russia.
As for Vladimir Putin? As King Henry IV in Shakespeare observes during England’s Civil Wars of the Roses, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (Henry the Fourth, Part 2).
“Putin seeks solitude amid Russia’s perfect storm”, Stratfor (published by the Texas-based private intelligence and security think-tank, Strategic Forecasting), October 7, 2014.