My purpose in writing this blog is to offer a different perspective on Russia, in the hope that these thoughts might help to counter the prevailing western media bias.
My visit to Russia
I grew up during the Cold War. I remember the “iron curtain”, the fear of Russia and the Cuban crisis in the early 1960s. And yet, there was also the knowledge of Russia’s great history, its marvellous architecture, its world-famous authors and composers, its famous scientists, sputnik and its unbelievable courage during many years of wars, not least World War II when Russia suffered the loss of 20+ million people. Russia’s modern leader, Vladimir Putin, now in his third term as president, is expected to run for a fourth term in 1918. He will almost certainly win.
Against all that is the ubiquitous media scepticism, criticism, constant attack and paranoia all aimed at Russia.
We visited Russia to see firsthand what it looked and felt like. I was fortunate, shortly before our trip in August 2017, to come across a book, Return to Moscow by Tony Kevin, an Australian who had served as a diplomat in Moscow from 1969 to 1971 during the cold war, a period which was undoubtedly bleak. He returned to Russia in 2016 and his book was a result of that trip. As Kevin put it, his book became a “personal appeal against current locked-in hostile Western misreading of contemporary Russian reality, and against the insensate Western drive to a new Cold War with Russia”.
The first question I am asked about our visit is “did you feel safe?” Looking over my holiday diary, I had written “The thing you cannot miss is how normal everyone is – we could have been in any major city in Europe.” I saw Moscow as a modern, attractive city with wide avenues and malls, beautiful architecture and first-class hotels. It was summertime, and the streets were packed with young people, dressed casually and enjoying the sunshine in the many outdoor cafes and restaurants. Our Russian hosts spoke often and with pride of how they enjoyed freedom of speech, absence of fear and the right to criticise Putin without adverse consequences.
In our experience there was nothing grey, grim or threatening at any time during this illuminating, educational, exciting and most enjoyable visit.
Travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg, we traversed some of Russia’s enormous, magnificent rivers, canals and lakes. We were privileged to enjoy talks about Russia’s present and past. We were told about the mixed feelings which many Russians have about former leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
From Communism to Democracy
Although it was not Gorbachev who brought about the end of USSR (that was Yeltsin in December 1991), Gorbachev had created the conditions which led to the inevitability of the end of communism, the collapse of USSR and a new Russian constitution, when he embarked on an ambitions reform program, introducing Glasnost (transparency or openness) and Perestroika (restructure). For many older Russians, the changes happened too quickly. Some even reminisce about a time when ordinary Russians enjoyed free housing, high standards of education, healthcare and social security. However, following the dissolution of the USSR and the introduction of a new constitution, Russians were faced with competition, unemployment and high inflation. Many ordinary Russians had to learn to make decisions for themselves and to look for opportunities without relying on the State. For older Russians this was a difficult transition. For younger Russians who do not have a memory of those days, they can not even contemplate reverting to those times.
Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, hardly anyone could have predicted the imminent collapse of USSR and yet, the then second most powerful country in the world simply withered away – it literally ceased to exist. The Soviet people destroyed the Soviet Union, not outsiders, and not through violent conflict. A bitter Gorbachev, speaking at the time of publication of his 2016 book, The New Russia, talks of the failure of the West to help Russia, and he refers to a lost opportunity to build a safer world – due to the short-sighted gloating (by USA) at the demise of a cold war rival.
Similar sentiments are expressed by Paul Keating who argues that US had squandered opportunities to come to proper terms with Russia. As he put it there was no coherent American strategic plan for the post-Cold war world. He refers to “the biggest opportunity lost”. Sadly, America continues, to this day, to fail to recognise this reality.
Gorbachev has voiced the hope that Russia and the US would ease tensions during Trump’s presidency. He has blasted Western “triumphalism” complaining that it remains a key factor in the tensions of today. According to him, Russia wants to have friendly ties with America and further, the world needs Russia and the United States to cooperate – to lead the world to a new and safer place.
Trump does not always impress with his loose language, but he is entirely correct in his efforts to build good relations with Russia, referring recently to “haters and fools” who question, and undermine his efforts to improve ties with Russia.
Russia’s Political System
Boris Yeltsin introduced the current Russian constitution. The president and prime minister share governing responsibilities as the head of state and head of government, respectively. The real power rests with the President. He is the head of the executive branch of the Russian government and Commander - in - Chief of the military.
Russia’s main political party, the United Russia party is led by the prime minister, Medvedev. There are various opposition parties including the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party.
There are many similarities with the political system in USA, and it is often suggested that the Russian political system resembles the French system with its strong presidential powers. Some refer to the system as a “managed democracy”. There is no doubt that it can be described as authoritarian and autocratic. Perhaps, viewing Russia in its present-day context and the challenges which it faces, both domestically and globally, a powerful President is in Russia’s best interests – at least for the time being.
Putin rose to power during a time of chaos, following the turbulent 1990s when Russia had struggled through its economic crisis under Yeltsin, the country’s first post-Soviet leader. Putin, as the new leader wanted to rebuild Russia and to restore it to its rightful position on the international stage. He was also keen to improve the country’s links with the West.
Russia’s next presidential elections will be held in March 2018, when Putin is expected to win a fourth term in office. The Kremlin’s opponents include the United Democrats, the Communist Party and the increasingly well-known and outspoken Alexei Navalny. Navalny’s protest movements have shown his ability to bring people onto the streets. However, despite the West’s enthusiasm for these challenges to Putin’s authority, it is important to recognise that these protest movements are not unpatriotic nor are they pro- Western. Even though Navalny and other opposition leaders may be critical of Putin’s government, this does not mean that they are supportive of the West.
Change will come. However, even Putin’s opponents recognise that reform must be gradual, remembering the difficult experiences of the people following the collapse of USSR and the transition from Communism. The system cannot handle too much change, too quickly. Russia is easily the biggest country on earth, straddling Europe and Asia. It is the world’s twelfth largest economy. It is one of the world’s largest energy producers and it holds the largest nuclear arsenal on the globe (slightly bigger even than that of USA). The collapse of Russia would devastate the global system and bring vast instability not only to Russia but to its neighbouring countries, and elsewhere.
Even Putin’s opponents acknowledge the importance of his strong leadership.
Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria was strategically brilliant. By this bold act, Moscow broke Washington’s post cold war monopoly on foreign military operations, it introduced the real possibility of a peaceful Syrian solution, and it forced USA to recognise Russia as a global power.
Media bias – Ukraine and Russia’s strategic interests
The mainstream western media evidences a deep-seated bias in its reporting about Russia. Even the quality western media constantly refer to “Putin’s Russia” and frame their news stories with anti-Putin commentary. It seems that western thinking of Russia is frozen in hostile prejudice. Hillary Clinton, in her failed Presidential campaign referred to Putin as a “tyrant”. US media praised the statesmanship of her speech!
Putin’s popularity is dismissed in the West as “Russian propaganda”. Russia’s response has been patient and dignified. News on Russia’s English speaking Russia Today TV channel is well presented and balanced. When Henry Kissinger visited Moscow in 2016, he observed – “Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States ………” I am here to argue for the possibility of a dialogue that seeks to merge our futures rather than elaborate our conflicts.”
Can it conceivably be in the interests of the West to destabilise Russia and to reinstate a new cold war. Each of US and Russia is a great nuclear power. As Kissinger, Gorbachev and other leading thinkers have warned, the West seems to be sleepwalking into a potential nuclear war with Russia. The idea is utterly untenable. China would not and could not idly stand by. With the US tilt to the Asia Pacific region and it policy of “containment” of China (both sound laughable now, though not funny), a Russia-China coalition could prove to be irresistible.
To his credit, Donald Trump speaks positively about building friendly relations with Russia. Putin was quick to congratulate him on his election. However, Trump is constantly faced with opposition by cold war protagonists from both the Democrats and the Republicans.
NATO and EU
I first learned of an alternative view about Russia’s engagement with Ukraine when listening to Tom Switzer (a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States studies Centre) a few years ago. From Russia’s perspective, it was protecting its legitimate security interests. When Putin seized Crimea (the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet) in 2014 it was a reaction to provocations from Brussels and Washington, provocations which were preceded by EU and NATO expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence. As Switzer put it, one might ask – “Would Washington allow the Kremlin to sign up Cuba in a military alliance and try to plant missiles there pointing north [at USA]?”.
For hundreds of years, Russia had been threatened by invasions from the West. With few natural defensive borders, Russia has been subjected to repeated attacks, including by Napoleon (who Russia defeated in 1812) and Germany over whom Russia eventually triumphed at terrible cost in 1945. So, it is understandable that Russia feels threatened by, and the need to resist ongoing encroachment into its “near abroad” right up to Russia’s geographical boundaries.
In Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography, he refers to Russia’s “buffer zone”. He argues that even a neutral Ukraine willing to uphold Russia’s access to the warm-water port of Sevastopol in Crimea, may have been acceptable to Russia, but a pro-Western Ukraine joining EU and NATO was a step too far.
George W Bush, during his second term in office sought to expand NATO east into former Soviet states even though his wishes met with resistance from notables including Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel. This occurred despite verbal guarantees previously given by Bush senior to Gorbachev, that NATO would not push up against Russia’s borders. With US encroaching on Russia’s “near abroad”, US had activated deep-seated Russian anxieties about invasion.
NATO’s Charter provides that “an armed attack against one or more [NATO member states] ---- shall be considered an attack against them all”. The Charter goes on to say that NATO will come to the rescue if necessary. According to Marshall, when Russia seized Crimea to protect its strategic interests in the region, “Many politicians in the West breathed a sigh of relief and muttered quietly ‘Thank goodness Ukraine isn’t in NATO or we would have had to act’”. NATO was established in 1949 by western powers as a system of collective defence requiring members to come to the aid of any member in response to an attack by an external party. NATO membership has since expanded massively, and currently comprises 29-member states (including several countries which were formerly part of USSR). Whatever the purpose of NATO in the post WWII period, I cannot help wondering whether, with its “one in-all in” obligation, it now represents a threat to world peace rather than being the keeper of peace. Perhaps it has passed its use by date. Much greater good would be achieved if NATO was abandoned and replaced by an organisation which fosters peace rather than one that is required potentially to expand an attack on a single member nation into a much greater catastrophe.
As Tony Kevin puts it in his book, “US exceptionalism and triumphalism were the sustaining beliefs of these new liberal hegemonists of the Western Alliance ----------- These Western liberal hawks were actually more threatening to world peace than their prudent and cautious late Cold War predecessors”.
Interference in Elections
As to interference in America’s presidential election, Switzer points out that the US has for many years interfered in the domestic affairs of other nations. There is another way to view this so-called interference. Although national leaders are elected domestically, once in office they can and do have a major impact on global affairs (Trump and Putin are prime examples), not only militarily but also in matters such as trade, economics, security, wars, terrorism, finance and climate change. It makes sense for US, Australia, Russia and others to have a keen interest in the leadership of other nations and to look to influence the outcome of their elections, including the next Russian presidential election in 2018. It also makes sense for the world to be concerned about who will be the next leader of other nations such as Germany, France and Great Britain. The impact of these leaders on global affairs is obvious. Of course, nations will seek to influence these outcomes! It is in their national interests to do so. Any suggestion to the contrary seems to me to be nothing but political point scoring (such as the distraction in USA now) and political naivete. That war monger, John McCain accuses Trump of “taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community”. Which world is he living in?
Interference in elections? Meddling in the internal affairs of other countries? Surely all this pales when compared to interference by USA involving forced regime change in other countries such as Iraq, Vietnam and Syria, all with disastrous consequences.
In a 2016 Global Affairs column by Jay Ogilvy, he warns that “What I’ve seen (in Russia) runs contrary to much of what you may have read in the press.” On his fourth trip to Russia in 2005 he reports that the overwhelming message that he got from many interviews was that “We are never going back to the old ways. We now know better than to embrace a system in which we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us; a system in which everyone is equal – equally poor. We embrace freedom, capitalism and democracy. But we want to do it our way. You Americans are arrogant. Back off!”
Ogilvy also reported that sanctions were forcing Russians to capitalise their consumer economy with import substitution. With restricted ability to import consumer goods, the Russians were learning to make their own. And, with their vast stores of natural resources, a well-educated workforce and great ingenuity, they were succeeding. Not only are the sanctions failing to achieve any objective, they were ultimately assisting the Russians to become increasingly self-sufficient and competitive.