The Third Rome: Part 2
Russia is a unique civilization containing a complex worldview. How can the United States best understand - and respond to - Russian motives in a changing world? Part Two of a series.
In the first part of this series, I posed the question: Are we seeing in modern Russia a transformation from regional to global focus, along the lines of previous iterations of the Russian state (namely, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union)?
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is economically unstable and internally insecure – yet he has an aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean Sea and the resources to fight a successful war against the Islamic State in Syria. On the surface this is somewhat perplexing, since insecurity at home has traditionally mitigated ambition abroad for many states. Logically, we might expect Putin to focus on shoring up things at home before meddling in distant affairs. That is clearly not the case.
Again, the Romanovs - and the Soviets - provide a key lesson. Historians have observed that, for the tsars, it was always easier to conquer land than to hold it; war along the frontiers was an everyday reality for the citizens of the Russian Empire. To the delight of the tsarists, distractions abroad made it easier to govern at home by bringing glory and international prestige through warfare.
The same held true for the Soviets. In 1978, a communist government seized power in Afghanistan, only to fall amidst political chaos. Doubtless, the Soviet government did not favor the expense of invading Afghanistan, nor the resulting complications endemic in warfare. Yet the Soviets faced the issues that great powers continually face: martial success may buy them reputation as an empire, but it requires constant upkeep. In other words, states which cannot fight their battles have historically lost their empires very quickly. Thus, not propping up the Afghan communists would prove more deadly to the Soviet regime than the war itself – or so they thought. In 1979, the Soviet Red Army invaded Afghanistan in an effort to prop up the communist government and counter the American alliance in nearby Pakistan – but also to distract its own citizens from their domestic troubles.
If the Soviet leadership in the 1980s hoped to distract their citizens with glorious warfare abroad, they found none in the wilds of Afghanistan. Moreover, it seems likely that they accelerated the economic demise of their empire. The same economic woes which caused the breathtakingly swift dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s were very much alive in the 1970s-80s, and the Afghan war strained their atrophying economy. As one Soviet put it: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
Is Putin’s goal of propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in war torn Syria a distraction from Russia’s economic woes? Undoubtedly; Putin has staked much on a quick and decisive war in a distant country to revive Russia’s fortunes and buoy his own domestic image. And what woes they are: the Russian Federation has grown steadily more dependant on revenues from oil and natural gas, even as as the price per barrel has dropped from $108.39 in March 2012 (when Putin took power) to a low of $44.57 in November 2016. With the government growing ever more dependent on shrinking revenues to pay for basic services and defense, the effects have been devastating.
Even in a world of perpetually slow GDP growth where the United States eked out 2.4% growth in 2015, Russia’s GDP shrank a whopping 3.7% – following a year of only 0.7% GDP growth in 2014. Russia’s male life expectancy stands at roughly 64 years (German and Italian men can expect to live another 15 years). Russia’s population has been shrinking since 1992, and its vast ethnic diversity has created problems of national disunity across the country, notably in Islamic regions such as Chechnya. The country’s economy is so bad in many places that one city in Kaliningrad put the town hall up for sale.
While the Syrian intervention has undoubtedly been a boon for Putin’s image at home (despite his regime’s meddling, polls seem to indicate many Russians’ fondness for their president), they have failed to solve any of Russia’s systemic and economic issues. There can be no doubt that Putin is well aware of his country’s tenuous situation; yet it would be folly to assume the Syrian intervention is anything short of a calculated move in an evolving geopolitical game.
We’ll explore Syria, Ukraine and the Crimea, and Russia’s evolving foreign policy further in Part Three of this series.
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