Today, Russia’s position on some foreign policy issues is tougher than ever before. In spite of pressure from the US and its allies, Russia – together with China — supports the legitimate government in Syria, refuses to budge on the issue of US BMD in Europe and has granted political asylum to Snowden. And yet only recently Russia tended to yield to the slightest pressure on the part of the West. How do you account for this metamorphosis?
I think there are several reasons for that. The main reason, of course, is the profound disappointment of the ruling group in Russia with their Western “friends.” The former colonial powers are past masters at political games. They skillfully create among their partners a sense of friendliness, a readiness to help. In reality the West always wrests concessions from everybody it deals with. At first it proceeds softly arguing that the concessions would be mutually beneficial. If the other side shows signs of weakness the West’s appetites increase and it does not ask for but demands concessions. Any attempts of the partners, after they realize the true state of affairs, to uphold their interests elicit ire and meet first with blackmail and then with direct threats.At the start of his reign in 2000 Mr Putin became immersed in the superficial and the most exciting part of top-level cooperation. He was given to understand that the doors to “high society” are open: he was received by the British Queen, made an official visit to the USA and was accorded a warm welcome by the US President, took part as an equal in the work of the G8. It took him several yeas to realize that the price of being a member of the “club of the select” was forbidding. He had to agree to the Baltic countries joining NATO, to the stationing of American bases in Central Asia, the withdrawal of the Russian brigade from Cuba and the dismantling of a vital radio intelligence centre there and the loss of a naval base at Kamran (Vietnam).What did Russia gain in return? Practically nothing. We agreed to the transit of NATO military cargoes bound for Afghanistan. And yet our military transit to the Kaliningrad Region still meets with problems on the territory of Lithuania, a NATO member, so that Russia has to carry these cargoes by sea. In other words, the partners have not reciprocated. It is a one- way street.
Now take the acute problem of the placing of elements of the American BMD system close to the Russian borders. Does the US meet our concern that the system targets Russian strategic nuclear forces? Not a bit. The US is still assuring us, laughably, that these assets are directed against Iranian and even North Korean rockets.
There is also the personal factor. I am referring to the lessons some Russian leaders have derived from the way the West made short shrift of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. They were not enemies of the West. The US and its allies have cooperated with them for years. Indeed, in the last five or seven years Qaddafi was accorded a welcome and allowed to pitch his tent in the centre of European capitals. But that did not save the leader of the Libyan revolution. As soon as his European “friends” sensed that he could be overthrown, they cast aside assurances of friendship, armed and bankrolled the opposition and mercenaries and provided air support. Qaddafi was savaged to death by NATO commandoes.
Vladimir Putin, who by that time knew the perfidious character of the new “friends,” tried to prevent a NATO intervention in Libya. But Mr Medvedev, blinded by power and his friendship with the West, caused a decision to be made not to back Libya. That meant that the rudiments of the treacherous Yeltsin-Kozyrev foreign policy had taken deep root within the Russian ruling elite. However, the brutal murder of Muammar Qaddafi and the cynical plunder of his multi- billion fortune which seemed to be securely hidden in Western banks, made a strong impression on the Russian elite. Up until then it believed that their personal relations with the Western leaders and solid accounts with foreign banks guaranteed their safety and well-being. As it turned out, keeping large sums in Western financial institutions dramatically increases the risk of becoming victims of “the struggle for democracy.”
Is it all about the personal qualities of the leader, his foresight or lack of it? Or do other, objective factors also play a part?
Of course the personality of the head of state is very important. Especially today when personal contacts between the leaders of major countries often do the job that previously was done by diplomats. But the fundamental principles of a country’s foreign policy course are far more important. Within the political system leaders come and go, but the foreign policy remains unchanged or undergoes minor corrections. Take the USA or Great Britain. There Democrats replace Republicans and Labour is replaced by Conservatives and vice versa, but the foreign policy remains the same, it is an expansionist policy.
Foreign policy, like any other state policy, has a class character. In other words, it reflects the interests of the ruling circles. What is the ruling “elite” in Russia from the class point of view? It is clearly a comprador oligarchy oriented towards the export of our natural resources and the export of the raised capital out of the country. Thus, the interests of the upper class in the Russian Federation are closely linked with the international oligarchy. Considering this, how can one expect Moscow’s foreign policy to be anti-Western in terms of resisting encroachments on our national interests?
This accounts for the political longevity of Chubais, a long discredited politician. Even the Republican Party in the USA reckons that he was complicit in the disappearance of a major IMF tranche in the mid-1990s. Many other things can be laid at his door, including the criminal dismemberment of Russia’s unique Integrated Power Grid. But he is untouchable. The former Finance Minister Kudrin is in much the same position. He has left a terrible mess. Both Chubais and Kudrin, in my opinion, are untouchable mainly because they represent the interests of the international oligarchy in Russia. And there is one more thing. The past decades, especially after the destruction of the USSR, have seen ever more active attempts to weaken the role of nation states, limit the competence of national governments and entrust key, fundamental issues of economic and social strategy, foreign and defence policy to supra- national structures. This is highlighted by the activities of the European Union. The idea of coordinating the economic and political life of groups of states, diminishing customs barriers, and downsizing the national bureaucracies is attractive at first glance. But in reality it means an alliance of major oligarchic groups of Europe in their confrontation with American and Japanese monopolies and more recently with the foreign trade activities of China. The interests of small states, let alone the working people, are readily sacrificed for the sake of monopoly profits. There is no real equality in such alliances. They are dominated by the most powerful states, for example Germany and France within the EU.
The idea that was being foisted on Russia was that it was in its interests to subjugate its foreign and internal policies to the rules of the European Union and the USA. This overtly anti- national approach met with an ardent response among the elite which seized power in our country after 1991. In fact, disingenuous concepts of “mutual interdependence” were being developed by Gorbachev and his chief ideologist Alexander Yakovlev. It was declared that the more we depend on the West the more the West would depend on us. We all know what it has led to. The Yeltsin—Gaidar-Kozyrev groups that replaced the Gorbachev-Yakovlev- Shevardnadze team, far from deriving lessons, took everything to absurd lengths when Russia’s internal and foreign policy was effectively controlled from Washington.
This has been the case until recently. When it was announced that Barack Obama canceled his bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin, a leading pro-Kremlin politician said: “Washington should understand that Russia has ceased to be a political colony of the United States.” This is nothing if not an admission of the fact that our country was until recently a semi-colony. Economically, it is still an appendage that provides raw materials for industrialised states, in other words, a semi-colony.
Why do we recently hear anti-Western notes in the speeches and actions of the Russian leadership?
Ruling elites always tend to cover up their class interests by allegedly national interests. In this case we see what is called inter-imperialist contradictions.
The Russian ruling group which in the 1990s was a “junior partner” of the world oligarchy, was buoyed up by the rapid growth of oil prices in the early 2000s and felt that it was an equal partner in the “big game.” The Russian elite no longer wants to be a vassal of the West which had turned it into a source of bumper profits due to the weakness and venality of the Yeltsin team.
After 2000 the soaring world prices of oil and gas led to the emergence and strengthening of the bourgeois oligarchic-bureaucratic class which, as Marx noted, tends to regard the national territory as its fief and to deny access to rivals. Meanwhile the world oligarchy demands that the Russian oligarchy share its riches. We are talking above all about ”liberalization” of access of foreigners to the oil and gas fields in Northern Russia and in Siberia as well as to pipelines that deliver energy to Europe.
The Russian oligarchy, of course, is against it. Then the EU, realizing that the Russian energy barons seek to boost their profits, began to put obstacles for them in the European markets. This is the cause of major contradictions.
As regards Syria, the situation has serious economic implications. The pipelines passing through the territory of that country carry a huge amount of Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps Syria also has massive oil resources. And there is the geopolitical factor: already during the intervention in Libya a major American politician said candidly that the aim of the operation was to force Russia and China out of the Mediterranean. Obviously, after the decimation of Libya the West decided to liquidate the last remaining Russian ally on the Mediterranean, Syria. So there too we see acute contradictions.
Let us not forget that the national elites always look for external enemies when faced with internal crises. This enables them to unite the nation to repel the encroachments of real and imagined enemies, to divert society’s attention from its own miscalculations, putting the blame on external factors. There is a sense that behind the current rise of anti-Western sentiments of the Russian elite is the wish to channel the growing popular discontent in a safe direction.
Can Russia become totally independent in its foreign policy?
It can and it must. But that is far from easy. The real strength of the foreign policy of any state lies not in the oratorical skills of is leaders and diplomats or their ability to conduct negotiations. The real foreign policy stature of a country is determined by such objective factors as the state of its economy, science and education, armed forces and the country’s moral authority.
Economically powerful countries can afford to have a strong army. But sometimes it happens that a country’s economy looks decent, but it does not have a strong army. Russia is a case in point. Our economy depends almost totally on the export of oil and gas. The manufacturing industry, especially machine-building, is in a sorry state. We witness the destruction of the great Soviet/Russian science and education system. So, there can be no strong army by definition because Russian science has all but lost its capacity to come up with breakthrough ideas and its industry lost its capacity to produce modern weapons systems.
The moral factor, for all its ephemeral character, is by no means the least important. Suffice it to mention Cuba. It has a population of ten million, scarce natural resources and, owing to historical circumstances, no significant machine building industry. And yet Cuba is undoubtedly a superpower in the political sense. Today’s Russia, which has betrayed practically all its strategic allies beginning with Yugoslavia, has frittered away all the moral authority gained by the Soviet Union. It is beginning to be restored, but that is a long and arduous path.
Incidentally, Putin’s obviously difficult decision to grant asylum to Snowden was prompted by an awareness of the catastrophic consequences for Russia’s moral authority of a refusal to grant asylum or, still worse, the extradition of Snowden to America. Trust and respect for Russia in the world would have collapsed. As a former intelligence officer, Putin could not but understand that after that the number of those wishing to do business with us would have diminished dramatically. But the right decision on Snowden was taken with much hesitation, which attests to the insecure position of the current Kremlin occupants.
So I would not be too sanguine about the early, though very important, signs of the ruling group pursuing an independent foreign policy. What is needed to gain true independence and restore the lost moral authority in the world is not declarations and threatening posturing but reliance on popular support, a powerful economy and a mighty army. As it is, our army was being destroyed for almost twenty years, especially in the last years during the times of the notorious Serdyukov. And all this was happening under the eyes of two Supreme Commanders-in-Chief.
It is only recently that we discovered that we practically have no army. Huge amounts of money have been earmarked for modernization. And then it turned out that the military industrial complex was in such an appalling state that the production of modern weapons systems meets with colossal problems. However, paradoxically, the policy of destroying the engineering industry, which is the basis of the military-industrial complex, continues. This is manifested in the privatization of a number of strategic enterprises, and replacement of directors who have experience in production with ”specialists in managing financial flows.”
The current feisty foreign policy is sustained by the Soviet industrial and military margin of strength. But that margin is dwindling before our eyes. Meanwhile the economic and social policy of the ruling group is not conducive to the restoration of real independence. Only a decisive change of course, its liberation from the long-discredited ideas and ”leaders” can regain for Russia the status of a great power that guarantees the well-being of our people, peace and security on the whole planet.