The Russian mystery

With the recent disturbances in neighboring countries, Moscow is likely to be mapping a long-term course of action to protect its interests and keep rivals as far as possible from its borders. The West must find a pragmatic approach to the so-called “Putin system”.

Cartoon of Russian President Vladimir Putin
Western analysts misinterpret Russia’s intentions by thinking in rigid and prefabricated political models. © GIS

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh has captured the attention of the entire world. The enclave is located in Azerbaijan but inhabited mainly by Armenians. Armenia occupies the area, as well as some of the surrounding territories.

This regional animosity is rooted in history. The Caucasus and the Caspian basin were occupied during the wars of the Russian Empire, from the 17th to the19th century. After a short period of independence following the dissolution of the Romanov empire, from 1918 to 1920, the region was occupied by the Soviet Union until it regained its sovereignty in 1991.

Azerbaijan declared its independence in early 1918 and became the first democratic Muslim country in history. Women had the right to vote. Unfortunately, this period was short-lived and came to a brutal end because of Lenin’s regime, much like the neighboring Christian states of Georgia and Armenia.

Today’s conflict is mostly seen as either an ethnic or religious problem between Armenians and Azeris or an issue between Turkey and Russia, with Ankara supporting Azerbaijan and Moscow backing Armenia.

Buffer states

The situation is a challenge for Russia, and it shows Moscow’s tendency to protect itself with a “cordon sanitaire” of countries under its influence (to prevent a border with rival powers and their allies). In the past, it used to expand its territory into neighboring states for this purpose.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he considers the demise of the Soviet Union as a world power to be the greatest geopolitical tragedy in history. His objective is for Russia to regain strength, and he pursues this goal in a pragmatic manner.

Russia feels the need to control neighboring countries because of a lack of trust toward other powers.

The greatest expansion of Soviet influence came immediately after World War II. By then, it controlled all of former Tsarist Russia and reached to the center of Germany through its satellite states. While the Kremlin does not want to extend its realm so far this time, it still feels the need to control neighboring countries because of a lack of trust toward other powers. The approach is a version of the Monroe doctrine, although it predates it. 

Russia, although it supports Armenia, does not want to jeopardize its relations with Azerbaijan. President Putin therefore tries to act as a mediator. Moscow is facing a similar situation in Belarus. Although Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was not an easy partner, he guaranteed that the country would not fall under Western influence. Similarly, Central Asia in general – and especially Kyrgyzstan at the moment – is a key element for Russian national security.These circumstances explain Russia’s attitude toward Georgia and Ukraine. 

The ‘Putin system’

Moscow is widely and justly criticized for its interventions in post-Soviet states, but also because of real and alleged interference in countries all over the globe. The Kremlin’s long-term approach is opportunistic. As a strategist, President Putin has the advantage of being difficult to read. His approval rates in Russia are higher than that of any other major power leader (with the caveat that Chinese approval rates are difficult to assess since they generally evaluate the ruling party rather than one leader).

The news about meddling in the affairs of other countries is sometimes exaggerated. The emotional and unproductive debate in Washington about alleged Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election was more problematic in itself than any possible repercussions.

However, Europe is facing the more serious issue of potential political pressure through Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. This situation results from Berlin’s shortsighted and populist energy politics, which abolished nuclear energy. Not only is this dangerous for the German economy, it could also affect the North Atlantic Alliance. The Nord Stream pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, is a source of tension in U.S.-German relations.

President Putin is skilled at taking his opponents by surprise – for example, with the annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, the world has come to accept this state of affairs and the West’s only response was toothless sanctions.

The Russian head of state is an adept tactician, not an absolute ruler.

By imposing sanctions on Russia, the West was hoping to dismantle the “Putin system” – a byzantine and corrupt environment made up of different semi-criminal organizations. Such systems probably exist, and the Russian president has to live with them. But it is a miscalculation to believe that they are unique to Mr. Putin. By thinking in prefabricated and academic political models, analysts misjudged the Russian character and the Kremlin’s motivations. The import restrictions caused some hardship in Russia, but the country boosted its domestic production and the president’s approval ratings went up.

Sanctions have now increased following the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which had been preceded by an attack on a former double agent in the United Kingdom.

The “Putin system” was blamed in both cases. Although the nature of the poison seems to indicate that government agencies were involved, it is difficult to prove that orders came from the top. Intelligence services, including Western ones, frequently perform semilegal and illegal operations. They often act on their own initiative, or in criminal environments. Rival opposition groups have also been known to fight each other in such attacks.

While all of this does not absolve President Putin from all responsibility, the “Putin system” is a myth. The Russian head of state is an adept tactician, not an absolute ruler.

He can only act within existing structures. The vast Russian Federation also has resilient bureaucratic institutions and centers of local power. Mr. Putin knows how to leverage this network, but he does not fully control it. 

When it comes to foreign policy, the Russian president does not think in models. He is extremely well-informed on a broad range of matters. He takes the long-term view with Russia’s interests. When he sees an opportunity, he acts. 

Appreciating this reality is essential when dealing with Russia. Condemning the Russian system, or attempting to change it, has failed in the past and will fail again. The West needs to let go of old thinking patterns and take a realistic look at its own weaknesses to avoid being taken by surprise.

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