In 2004, at the heat of the revote [in Ukraine], I said in a federal radio station’s program that the Kremlin wanted to get an empire as a freebie. This kind of familiarity was allowed at the time. Moreover, the Kremlin-friendly nationalists liked these words very much. Just like Galich’s character says: “You bashed’m aw right, like a true worker! You know the situation OK.” Moscow looked then absurd, saying that the Ukrainians who lived in Russia were in some cases in a more privileged position than the Russians, while Putin congratulated Yanukovych, and the Kremlin’s great spin masters, so much pampered in Russia, considered that administrative resource would also settle all the problems in Ukraine.
Putin was all wound up because, among other things, Russia was carrying out post-Beslan reforms aimed at ensuring irretrievability of the government, so the example of Ukraine scared him. And the attitude to the former USSR republics’ statehood was expressed in the words about the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe pronounced in the Message to the Federal Assembly in the spring of 2005. That was in fact a declaration of the Putin Doctrine.
Now, eight years later, we can conclude that this doctrine has failed to be implemented. Even though there has been relative success lately in Georgia and Armenia, where military actions gave way to elite bribery and erosion of national identity, Ukraine remains the main direction. But there is a flop here.
The root cause is that, as before, the Kremlin intends to create an empire as a freebie, i.e., to confine itself to Golden Horde-style military forays, when soldiers ruin rather than plunder, to bribe politicians and parties. And Ukraine… Ukraine is Russia.
It is now finally clear that it is not a propaganda ploy that is used, for example, in the film Taras Bulba, where titles speak of “Russian land Ukraine.” The claim that “Ukraine is Russia” is conceptually important for the Russian foreign policy. The Kremlin still cannot see Ukrainian natiogenesis and expects the Ukrainian state to break up; it believes that Ukrainians were invented at the Austro-Hungarian General Headquarters.
All that Putin, Medvedev, and other officials have been saying about the genetic link of peoples in the post-Soviet space is not political demagogy and propaganda rhetoric. It is the object of their faith, so they do not want to understand that the struggle for spheres of influence on the former USSR’s territory envisages rivalry for an alliance with the ruling elites, not only the bribery of the elites, as is the case in Georgia and Armenia. Ukrainian experts admit that the current Ukrainian elite has chosen Europe not least because it is trying to save itself from being subordinated to Russia and preserve itself as the elite of an independent European state. Besides, the political rhetoric of the neighboring Belarus’ leader has combined for many years demonstrative Russophilia and nostalgia for the USSR with, if necessary, rather harsh comments about the Russian leadership. Lukashenko by no means wants to be a Russian regional governor. At the same time, he rejects the European Union.
The Kremlin’s Ukraine fiasco has conceptual roots, including certainty that things will take their due course by themselves. This is what I call empire for a freebie. In many other cases, the Russian ruling elite has displayed a lot of talent, wisdom, and resourcefulness, as well as ability to work hard. But the application of efforts and the goals pursued considerably limit its actions in a wider political space.
Restoring the empire and building a great Russia has never been the main goal of Putin and his inner circle. In a way, the Russian political elite have quite an opposite goal – to privatize the state for a purpose of personal enrichment. But the emerging side effects are sometimes dealt with by means of imperial rhetoric and policy.
As the post-Beslan reforms were carried out after 2004, Putin concentrated his efforts inside the country. I estimate that the year 2006 saw the peak of politically and economically motivated murders of rather high-ranking people. Political scientist Igor Zhordan considers 2006 the year of a great turning point. The following events occurred at the time:
♦ the reform of the election system, cancellation of the minimal turnout threshold, and ban on criticizing opponents;
♦ adoption of the laws on extremism, which regard criticism of the leadership as extremism;
♦ the launching of national projects, which boiled down to corruption among bureaucrats of all levels;
♦ the establishment of state-run corporations;
♦ the formation of private armies for Gazprom and Transneft, the corporations that lay the foundation of Putin’s state;
♦ the expansion – sometimes manifold – of the frontier areas exclusively controlled by the Federal Security Service so that they comprise the main deposits of oil and gas.
It means for Ukraine that Russia established a political and economic model diametrically opposed to the one that was forming within the limits of the Ukrainian state – a model that is incompatible with the Ukrainian one and which is increasingly questionable to integrate with.
The result of Putin’s policies is overmonopolization of government and overcentralization of ownership. At present, 110 billionaires control 35 percent of Russian households’ savings, the average monthly indicator being fewer than 2 percent. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s report published in early October, there is one billionaire per 170 billion dollars worth of household property worldwide, while in Russia there is a billionaire per 11 billion dollars worth of this property.
It is about loyal oligarchs who are controlled by the government and integrated into the political elite. For years on end, the leadership has focused its efforts on subordinating them and establishing control over the country’s main financial flows. This resulted in a national economic model that is unable to develop or undergo any changes.
Very noteworthy in this case is the situation in the transportation system based on Russian railways. The first years of Putin’s rule saw projects to establish international-level transportation corridors in Russia. Vladimir Yakunin, a friend of Putin’s, who had no experience as specialist in this sector or as manager in general, was put in charge of Russian railways. The sector proved uncompetitive, while the world transportation system was being built bypassing Russia, but Yakunin became a well-known clerical and anti-Western ideologue, a fighter against the consumer society.
This example may be typical of Russia which is losing economic and political competitiveness but is still boosting its military strength and xenophobic rhetoric. Moreover, emphasis is being put on Russia’s exclusiveness, not just on international hostility. It is isolationist rhetoric so far, but it is very close to Russian messianism and justification of aggression and expansion.
The danger of this turn of events lies in Putin’s social model. Given an awful property gap in the population and cuts in the budget’s social expenditures (the pension system can already be considered buried), it turns out rather effective to take the social aggression outside.
No matter what motivated the Ukrainian political elite to opt for Europe, for the Russian elite this means the decline and fall of the concept “Ukraine is Russia” and the emergence of, if you like, a different, alternative, European Russia. For the Kremlin, the Russian political elite, and a considerable part of the intellectual elite, this is tantamount to the emergence of something like “two Chinas” but on a much larger scale than in Taiwan. They are unable to understand that Ukraine is a different nation. Therefore, the degree of the Kremlin’s embitterment may be unexpectedly high and its reaction unpredictably harsh.
Dmitry Shusharin is a Moscow-based historian and political journalist