Russia Is Not Nine Feet Tall

Huffington Post
April 1, 2016
By Ariel Cohen

As Russia has boycotted the global Nuclear Security summit hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, March 31-April 1, 2016, questions arise as to the second nuclear superpower’s policies and capabilities. Can Moscow afford to stay out in the cold, when the leaders of over 50 countries decide most urgent questions of international relations — nuclear security and terrorism — questions in which Russia should have a vital interest.

Kremlin’s recent military engagements represent an attempt to manipulate perceptions, as Russia strives for an equal standing with the US as a willing ally against ISIS, yet capable of threatening Ukraine, Turkey, the Syrian opposition and other US allies.Granted, the Kremlin is pursuing geopolitical objectives in both Ukraine and Syria, such as securing military bases in both theaters (the Crimea in the Black Sea, and Tartus and Khmeimeh in the Mediterranean). Russia has been cultivating the Kurds as a strategic client for over 60 years, and actively preventing Ukraine from pursuing NATO and EU membership.

Another goal is to secure the “motherland” from US meddling and “color revolutions“. Russia’s ex-KGB governing elites live in fear of the end of their control, apparently comparing their rule to that of Muammar Qaddafi and Housni Mubarak. They believe the U.S. weaponized the Internet, democracy and NGOs to spread its power world over. Talk about xenophobia and paranoia in one handy package.

Russian bombs falling on Syria not only served as an excellent distraction from Ukraine but also blasted Putin’s way to the negotiating table like a Western movie cowboy shoots his way to the bar. However, the Russian president’s cowboy-style insolence also covers up Russia’s mounting internal problems.

Both Ukraine and Russia are racing to the bottom. Moscow is doing its best to ensure that the political and security crisis in Kyiv results in the replacement of pro-Western government with Moscow stooges, such as Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are godfathers to his daughters.

While in Moscow last month, I met with a former senior Russian official who told me “Ukraine is not for the living. If it federalizes, it will fall apart. If it unifies and a nationalist crack down happens, it will do the same.” Translation: Ukraine will beat Russia to the bottom, and Moscow intends to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, Moscow is economically struggling. From 2014 to 2015, the ruble fell by 24 percent, the buying power – by 20 percent and the GDP – by 3.7 percent. The hydrocarbon production remained flat, but dollar revenues from oil exports in the first half of 2015 decreased 1.74 times in comparison to the same period in 2014. Gas exports’ revenues fell by 29 percent. Industrial diversification did not happen either.

Expats are going home: their number fell 34 percent between January 2014 and 2015. The Russians are right behind them, 203,000 people left in the first eight months of 2014, almost beating the 1999 record of 215,000.

Nepotism reigns. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s son manages Ministry of Defense’s property department. National Council Chairman Nikolai Patrushev’s sons work for the Russian Agricultural Bank and GazpromNeft, while the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and former PM Mikhail Fradkov placed his sons in Vnesheconombank and as the Deputy Director of Presidential Property Department. Sogaz, Gazprom’s insurance company is headed by Presidential Administration Head Sergei Ivanov’s son.

Meanwhile, social systems, like education and health care, are in a free fall. As the regions scramble for cash, an increasing number of government employees is affected. The protesters took to the streets of Moscow in January to oppose a new healthcare reform that included unexpected hospital closings and mergers.

The destruction of the remainders of Russia’s pluralistic political space and the purge of liberals continue. Frequently, in bizarre and scandalous ways. A recent opposition meeting in Vilnius was labeled by the Russian media a gathering of the “future US occupation administration.”

Nikita Mikhalkov, an influential movie director close to Putin’s circle, suggested that Gorbachev and Yeltsin should be prosecuted for treason. Russian Orthodox Church demanded changes in the high school literature curriculum, such as the removal of some of Anton Chekhov’s plays. Taking their guidance from the Iranian ayatollahs, the Ministry of Culture stuck black stickers on a Hieronymus Bosch exhibition poster.

Most Russians I spoke with in Moscow, some of them on the Russia’s Forbes Top 100 list, realize the need for structural economic and legal reforms — and the political liberalization to make them possible. However, Putin and his inner circle don’t want to see that and would never allow “system liberals” such as the former Finance Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin or German Greff, the head of Sberbank, hold any substantial posts.

Russia is no North Korea with nukes, but it’s doing even worse than during the 2008-2009 crisis. It lost its vibrancy of the 1990s and early 2000s. Only deeper darkness lies ahead. It is a submerging market, inhospitable to foreign investment, homegrown entrepreneurship, and void of a cultural renaissance. Many of those who could leave — did, taking their talents with them.

Of course, Russia is still a nuclear power, capable of putting an overwhelming force against its neighbors, and projecting power beyond its borders. Yet, with a GDP of $1.236 trillion – less than Italy’s and close to Spain’s, it is far from being an equal with the United States. The White House should keep it in mind when listening to his Kremlin’s demands on Ukraine. Moscow should also demonstrate that on nuclear security it is 100 percent on board, as behooves a responsible great power.