According to a saying attributed to the Russian mystic Alexei Khomiakov, reality is like a rooster that wakes you up with its crowing when you are in the depth of a sweet dream.
Khomiakov was a leader of the Slavophiles who dreamt of uniting all “Slav nations” under Russian leadership to realize Russia’s “Manifest Destiny” as the “Third Rome” and the standard-bearer of Christianity’s final victory.
Without quite caressing such illusions, Russia’s current leader Vladimir Putin has his own dream of Russian grandeur; a dream which is perfectly legitimate provided it does not pose a threat to others. Russia is a big country. In fact it is the largest in the world, is a great nation and has had a leading role in global affairs for the past two centuries.
However, there are now signs that in the course of his sweet dream Putin may have bitten more than Russia can chew at this moment. This is why Putin would do well to hear the rooster of reality crow under his bedroom.
In a lengthy interview with the German mass circulation paper Bild, Putin tried to blame his government’s mounting difficulties on “a dangerous drop in revenues” largely thanks to the fall in energy prices.” He also revealed that in 2015 the Russian gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 3.8 per cent while the fall in industrial production was 3.3 per cent. With inflation hovering close to 13 per cent and unemployment edging above 12 per cent, the Russian economy is in its worst shape for more than a decade. In other words the “Putin boom years” may well be over. Looking for a scapegoat, Putin blames all that on “hostility by Western powers”; an easy all-purpose excuse for many incompetent governments trying to exculpate themselves.
Even if we accept Putin’s portrayal of Russia as a “victim of Western appetite for hegemony”, the fact remains that no country becomes a victim of others without its own participation in a process that leads to victimization. If Russia became a victim it was because it had become “victimizable” to coin a word. That, in turn, was the direct result of specific policies that were bound to lead Russia into rough patches at home and abroad.
To start with, Putin’s economic policy was bound to make Russia dependable on energy exports to Western markets. The history of the past 150 years, that is to say since Americans started the global oil trade, shows that oil has been subject to yoyo price fluctuations more than any commodity that has made or broken many exporters.
When he assumed supreme power in the final decade of the last century, Putin took to the economic model established under President Boris Yeltsin like duck to water. Easy money from exports of oil and gas meant that most Russians could have a taste of the good life without doing much to earn it.
At a time when the global economy was switching to its 21st century model of almost non-stop technological change, Russia found its comfort zone in Western-style consumerism not backed by adequate productive energies. In just a decade whole rafts of Russian industry including cherished sectors such as armament simply disappeared. Instead Russia tried to venture into a service economy, developing a financial sector and promoting tourism, an area in which it had little or no experience. As a result, Russia today has nothing to sell to anybody and none of the 5000 or so global brands has a Russian owner.
The trouble with depending on energy exports is twofold. First, oil and gas production is largely automated and thus generates few jobs. The Russian energy export industry for example accounts for less than four per cent of total employment in the country. Next, unlike agriculture and industry whose revenues are distributed through numerous hands, revenue from oil exports ends up in few hands. That, in turn, generates corruption on a scale never known even in a nation like Russia that has been used to massive corruption from the start of its appearance in history.
Thus Putin’s Russia is afflicted by the kind of corruption hitherto reserved for so-called “developing” banana republics. As if economic stagnation and massive corruption were not enough, Putin has led Russia into a series of foreign adventures that defy any rational cost-benefit assessment. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia produced no tangible economic, political or even security benefits for Russia.
Equally bizarre was Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The Peninsula already had a majority of Russian-speakers and was massively dependent on Russian tourism and trade for its survival. More importantly, Russia had its largest naval base there and was the only power with a military presence. In other words, there was no need to change a status quo that was heavily in favor of Russia.
The attempt to bully Ukraine into closing its doors to the European Union was also misguided. Russia cannot offer Ukraine what the EU can – a big market that would allow Ukrainian industry and agriculture to develop and grow. However, Ukraine is also bound to Russia by historic, cultural and economic bonds that have stood the test of time. By trying to have it all in Ukraine, Putin has taken a risk which may result in Russia losing all in the second most populous “Slav” nation.
As if that were not enough, Putin has antagonized Turkey which has always been a key neighbor, angered Belarus, danced into a deadly deal with the mullahs in Tehran and entangled Russia into the Syrian hornet’s nest.
Entanglement in Syria may be Putin’s worst foreign policy error so far. This is perhaps why Putin is now trying to redefine and reduce his Syrian gamble. He knows that even if they give him the whole of Syria he would be winning nothing but a time-bomb. Even dreams of a permanent Mediterranean base in Syria now look daft. A base that is constantly threatened by attacks from the hinterland is of little use.
Putin is still popular enough to change course. And provided he forms a broader-based government instead of surrounding himself by careerist yes-men as he is now, he may start hearing Khomiakov’s rooster crowing in the dark.