Diary

Russia's In A Hurry - Here's Why (Minor Update)

(After some internal discussion, it was decided to front-page this diary. With that being the case, I can’t resist adding something else that had been deposited in the comments. In the same communication mentioned in the text, the same Estonian friend commented that “Russia trades between wealth and wits. When they have wealth, they lose their wits. And vice-versa.” That seems about right.)

On Tuesday night, as we all discussed the consequences of what had just happened, your humble correspondent staked out what seemed to be a minority position – that is, that the next 2 – 4 years will be dominated not by things domestic, but by an avalanche of crises on the international scene. I even was bold enough to finger the first actor to get loose and begin causing trouble – Russia.

As we all know, that sure didn’t take long – as I found in panicked e-mails from many eastern European colleagues that were waiting for me in my inbox on Wednesday morning.

In the annual Presidential address to the nation – an address that, interestingly, is traditionally given in October but which was postponed to November 5th – Russian President Dmitri Medvedev gave shockingly aggressive and anti-American speech. Besides the rhetoric blaming the United States for the August war against Georgia, he announced the deployment of modern, mobile, and nuclear-warhead-capable missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave – a region that had been largely demilitarized via European security agreements, and Russia’s only present piece that borders on Poland. (I would bet my bottom dollar that there were two versions of his address ready to go, with the choice being determined by the election outcome here. Hopefully, the “alternative” one was filed away somewhere and will be found by future historians.)

Things got sillier from there. Noted Russian nationalist fringe-windbag Vladimir Zhirinovsky gushed that President-Elect Obama is the American Gorbachev, who will end up causing the permanent break-up of the American Union in the same way that Mr. Gorbachev caused the break-up of the Soviet Union. And the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, was also in a gushing mood, opining that President Obama will be much more willing to give Russia its deserved seat at the international table – though he did make an interesting Freudian slip of endorsement – “All Republican presidents have always defended national interests….” – that we should bank and use repeatedly in the years ahead.

A few days ago, one of my Estonian friends noted that the Russians have a habit of asking that others “forgive and forget,” but that they never do that themselves. Since I’m on the ground regularly over in that part of the world – as recently as last month – I’d have to peg that as a very useful observation.

So what’s going on here? Why are the Russians so charged up to move, and to move quickly – literally taking only hours after the election results to get moving?

To understand that, you have to understand a few things about contemporary Russia…. and make a strange journey into the mind of Vladimir Putin….

More below the fold….

Here’s the key thing you have to understand about Russia.

Russia is weak, and Russia is dying – literally.

I wrote a rather lengthy post about all this several months back, so I won’t belabor the points here.

Of particular note (and as Mark Steyn has noted repeatedly), Russia has a birthrate that is in complete collapse. In addition, Russian male life expectancy has eroded to below 60 years of age. As a result, Russia’s population is crashing. Vast Russia is now much less populous than Pakistan. Russia is a dying country and a dying society.

Yet the grievances remain – as the recent bleating from Mr. Zyuganov indicates. Russia is supposed to be – is entitled to be – a great nation among the nations of the world. That this is not the case is simply regarded as unfair – and this is a state of affairs that must have been imposed on Russia by malevolent outsiders.

And this is where we have to go inside the minds of Vladimir Putin and his circle of Russian neo-nationalists.

The boorish ham-handedness of these folks is almost amusing. They’ve declared open season on their own leading industrialists, and continued that bullying externally at Georgia. The results were catastrophic. Tens of billions of dollars of capital have fled Russia, the Moscow stock exchange has plummeted, and interest from foreign investors – mainly in Russia’s rich trove of relatively low-priced technical talent – has essentially evaporated. On top of that, the crash in the price of crude oil has deprived Russia of its cash cow.

But they aren’t crazy. They’re working off a different playbook – one that we’re not used to handling.

Putin isn’t a neo-Stalin. If he sees himself as anything, it’s as a neo-Peter-the-Great – “Great” because he made Russia into a strong and dominant nation-state. That’s what drives Putin. In Putin’s view, Russia is suffering all that it is now suffering – both socially and economically – because it is no longer great. If Russia can re-assert itself and become great again, then all its ills will disappear. That’s the “new” Russia that we have to understand – and handle. Russian cantankerousness is intentional – they’ve been looking for ways to be cantankerous as a vehicle for asserting their importance. Rational cooperation is not an option.

This probably would have been a manageable problem, but for the events of this past Tuesday. Suddenly, Russian nationalists see their chance – that they can just roll a weak President-to-be. But the bottom line is – they’re in a hurry because they have to be in a hurry. Russia will die if they don’t make Russia great again – and soon.

Targets? Well, the blunt and transparent attempt to intimidate Poland is obviously the first step. A handful of missile interceptors in Poland is far too few to handle the number of missiles that Russia possesses. But for Russia to be great again, it must be able to call the tune in that neighborhood. There was a perception in Georgia last August that the only reason that the Russian tanks did not just rumble on to Tbilisi was because of an explicit – though non-public – message from Washington that this would not be tolerated. What now? Russia has little tangible to gain from finishing off Georgia, but it would have great symbolic value for underlining the emerging reality – pour encourager les autres.

Much has been made of Russia trying to re-absorb Ukraine. This is likely the top long-range aim – for many reasons. Some of them are psychological – in terms of the “Kievan Rus,” Kiev is to Russian nationalists what Kosovo is to Serbian nationalists.

But there is one key pressure point to watch – Sevastopol. This is a sore point for both emotional and practical reasons.

Emotionally, Russian nationalists have a bee in their bonnet about Crimea even being part of Ukraine. Crimea was long a Russian possession, and during most of Soviet times it was part of the big old RSFSR. But sometime during Khrushchev’s tenure, in honor of some anniversary of the Ukrainian SSR, Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR as a “gift.” Russian nationalists suspect that a large quantity of vodka was involved – and during Soviet times this administrative adjustment had little real meaning, but it still rankles…. and does more so now that the old administrative borders have become national borders.

But the practical reason is simple. Russia’s most important fleet – the Black Sea fleet – is based in Sevastopol. During the break-up of the Soviet Union, with no place for it to go, Russia signed a 25 year lease with Ukraine for use of the base. The present Ukrainian government has made it clear that they have no intention of renewing the lease when it expires in 2017, and they want the Russian fleet out by then.

The practical problem? Sevastopol is the only good natural port on the Black Sea. I’ve been to the Black Sea, and the most astounding feature of its littoral is that the sea is shallow and the coastline is very straight. There simply are no good ports along the present Russian Black Sea coast. The closest thing there is to one is Rostov-on-Don – but that port is way up an estuary that is surrounded by vast salt marshes (beautiful to look at, but not good for naval vessels). The outlet is thus poor and easily blocked – plus there’s a further extremely narrow outlet from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea proper.

So Sevastopol and Crimea bring together both the emotional and practical aspects of the need to re-assert Russia’s “greatness.”

This is why the Russian nationalists are in a hurry – that “greatness” must be re-asserted to save Russia, and it must be done quickly if it’s going to be done at all.

And the very weak President we will soon have in the White House is seen by them as just the gift they needed to launch the project….