Following Putin’s investiture as Russia’s next President after Boris Eltsin Russia underwent a dramatic transformation proving wrong those who had assumed that since Putin ‘had been picked by Eltsin’ the country would continue on its previous course. It is now obvious that the drunken Eltsin had not ‘picked’ anyone, but that powerful forces had imposed Putin as the successor to Elstin who was forced to announce his resignation on live TV on December 31, 1999.
Some of the changes which have occured are definitely due to the price of oil which, courtesy of the policies of the US Neocons, climbed dramatically since December 1999. Russia, now awash with cash, could not only start re-building much of what had been destroyed in the catastrophic nineties, but it could also start throwing around some of its newly aquired financial and political weight.
A number of factors have contributed to the new face of Putin’s Russia:
Powerful intelligence and security agencies
First and foremost, Putin’s accession to power was a major victory for what remained of the crippled the intelligence and security services of the former Soviet Union. All of them, with one very important exception, had been crippled by the so-called ‘reforms’ of the Eltsin era. Now, under Putin, this period of chaos and collapse has come to an end. There are still tensions between the various security agencies, but by and large the three “big ones” (SVR, foreign intelligence, FSB, internal security, GRU, military intelligence) have recovered much of their former capabilities and are not acting in a coordinated manner.
Putin, himself a former officier of the KGB’s external intelligence directorate (PGU) has apparently even succeeded in getting powerful GRU to fully support him. For example, he has built new high-tech luxury headquarters for the GRU (see photo) which can only be described as lavish and he personally came to inaugurate them.
This event was particularly remarkable for two reasons: not only had the GRU always been the arch-rival of the KGB (the two organizations purged each other in the past) but, unlike the KGB, it used to be a super-secret organization whose existence was never mentioned publicly (most Soviets did not even know its name). For the ex-PGU KGB officer Putin to come and inaugurate these new headwuarters in the presence of all the main Russian TV channels (see video here) was something quite extraordinary. Even more amazing is the fact that these new headquarters were far superior to anything the SVR foreign intelligence service had (in fact, these are probably the most luxurious and advanced headquarters for any military intelligence agency anywhere in the world).
At the inauguration, Putin made a very interesting speech (full text here) in which he praised the GRU for its excellent past performance and in which he stressed its importance, alongside all the other security and intelligence agencies, for the future security of Russia. His speech was a public commitment for an unwavering support of the GRU the future. The old enmity between the KGB and the GRU certainly seem over at last.
One might get the idea that the quasi total collapse of the Russian armed forces in the nineties should have equally affected the GRU, but that would be very mistaken: due to its secretive nature, the GRU was the only former Soviet intelligence/security agency which suffered very little during this period. While it lost some of its agents abroad and while some of its combat forces did go through difficulties (lack of funds, officers leaving to join organized crime, the war in Chechnia), its core capabilities were generally preserved and, in some ways, expanded.
The war in Chechnia proved particularly crucial for the GRU under whose control the Spetsnaz forces have remained and who proved invaluable in successfully suppressing the Chechen insurgency (note: there have been many (and often silly) things written about the many and various so-called ‘Spetsnaz forces‘ existing in Russia today; I am only referring here to the ones under GRU control). In fact, Putin and his administration have fully realized that the conflict in Chechnia is far more likely to be a blueprint for future security challenges for Russia that a ‘World War III’ -type of scenario with large armored formations fighting or nuclear strikes exchanged. Consequently, while maintaining a minimal deterrent capability for such a major conflict, Russia has clearly defined intelligence and special operations has the top military security priority.
Simultaneously, the SVR has been directed to focus on political and economic intelligence, in particular throught its extensive penetration of and, to a certain degree, by the new Russian business elite and organized crime.
Lastly, the FSB has gradually been re-built into an effective internal security force thanks for far better funding and a restored public image.
Government, business and organized crime
It now is simply impossible to say where the legitimate Russian business community ends and where Russian organized crime begins. Furthermore, considering the mutual interpenetration of government, business and organized crime, Russia could be fairly be described as a “thugocracy”. While this has arguably reached previously unheard of proportions, this is hardly something really new.
Since before the 1917 Revoltuion, Bolshevik Party was composed of two main elements: the ideologues (who openly advocated terror as a key political instrument) and regular criminals. These two groups, united in a common hatred of the traditional Russian culture, joined forces in overthrowing the corrupt and totally incompetent Provisional Government of Kerensky. Under Lenin, these two elements coexisted to a certain degree, but the top echelons of the Party where firmly in the ideologues’ hands. After Lenin’s death, the common thugs, lead by Stalin, gradually eliminated the ideologues in a series of bloody purges and secured their grip on power. The regular thugs remained in power until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.
One illustration of this phenomenon can be found in the little-known fact that even the presumably omnipotent KGB was barred from even investigating members of the Central Committee (in contrast, under Lenin, the ChK (ancestor of the KGB) could investigate anyone it wanted, including top Party official). This situation was extremely conducive to large scale corruption and crime which always flourished in the former Soviet Union.
After 1991, a large section of the former Party elites simply plundered the country from all its resources and wealth and the size and power of the Russian mob simply exploded. Billions of dollars were taken out of the country. Eventually, most of the original ‘oligarchs’, mobsters and assorted ‘New Russian businessmen’ either emigrated, retired, were jailed or were killed by competitors. Those who remained, arguably the toughest and smartest, fused into the new power elite which now rules Russia.
The Russian intelligence community has made good use of this new situation and instead of relying mainly on diplomats, TASS correspondents or trade representatives as in the past, it now can conduct its operations thorough a vast and diverse array of Russians abroad which now also includes tourists, business people, NGO members, emigres, etc. As a result, Russian intelligence collection capabilities have been vastly improved.
Not so new ideologies revived to achieve popular support
The old communist ideology is not quite dead yet and some, mostly elderly, people still believe in it, but its political relevance is close to zero, in particular among the younger generation. Realizing that there was a need to fill this ideological vacuum, the new rulers of Russia have resurrected an old Stalinist favorite, the ideology of ‘national-Bolshevism’, and they adapted it to the new realities. The regime was greatly aided in this by the other Soviet era institution (besides the GRU) which had undergone no significant reform whatsoever: the Moscow Patriarchate, an old ally of the Soviet regime.
Immediately after Putin’s arrival in the Kremlin the SVR foreign intelligence agency directed the Moscow Patriarchate to embark on a major campaign to attempt to lure the previously anti-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (sometimes called the “White Church”) back into Moscow’s fold. Aided by some sympathizers among the bishops of the emigre Church, this operation fully succeeded and, in May of 2007, the two previously hostile branches of the Russian Orthodox Church signed a union declaration which turned the former “White Church” into little more than a foreign branch of the Moscow Patriarchate. More importantly, Putin could now claim that the ‘civil war was over’ and that ‘the entire Russian Orthodox Church supports the government’.
The dominant ideology of the new Russia is a strange mix of several ‘shells’ with very little substance to them: the appearance of democracy, mixed with an appearance of patriotism, mixed with an appearance of Orthodox Christianity – all packaged with a bizarre combination of pre-1917, old Soviet and “new Russian’ symbols. An example of that is the ‘new’ Russian national anthem which kept the music of the old Soviet one, but which now features new lyrics.
In reality, of course, this new ideology is just a parody of the real thing, and the rulers of Russia are neither democratic, nor patriotic nor Orthodox: they are only about power. At the core, they are still simply thugs.
Still, traditional Russian flags are seen alongside red Soviet-style banners, ex-KGB officers are shown on TV attending church services, and ‘patriotic values’ are exalted in the official media. As a result, this more palatable ideological mixture, combined with improved government services, an objectively stronger Russian economy and vivid memories of the horrors on the nineties, provide a new propaganda machine (modeled on the US corporate media) with all the ingredients to make Vladimir Putin and his regime popular with many Russians.
Authoritarianism with a ‘human face’?
The part of the old KGB which dealt with political dissent (the 5th Main Directorate) was rapidly disbanded after the end of the Soviet Union. It could never have dreamed of achieving what a Western-style propaganda machine did for Putin since 2000. Not only is Putin genuinely popular in Russia, but even the old KGB is seen by many as not nearly as bad as some would think. According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of the seminal “Gulag Archipelago”, the Bolshevik terror in Russia killed an estimated 70’000’000 people. Still, Putin had no difficulties whatsoever when he created the official holiday of the “day of the workers of the security services of the Russian Federation” (день работников органов безопасности РФ), otherwise known as the “day of the Chekist”, celebrated on the 20th of December each year, the date in which the ancestor of the KGB, the Cheka, was created by Vladimir Lenin immediately after the Bolshevik ‘October Revolution’. In comparison with the chaos, terror and plunder of Russia under the ‘democratic’ Eltsin regime, the very real, if harsh, order most Soviets enjoyed under the watchful eye of the KGB seems preferable to most Russians. And just as in the United States, most Russians prefer the safety of a police state to, for example, the kind of horrors Chechen terrorists have perpetrated against innocent civilians.
A quiet but dangerous foe for the USA
The contrast between Eltsin and Putin external policies could not have been greater. Where Eltsin, and his pathetic foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, did everything and anything demanded from them by their bosses and protectors in Washington, Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Ivanov (another ex-KGB officer) quietly re-oriented Russia’s foreign policy towards a much more independent course.
With drunken Party bureaucrats and subservient lackeys finally gone, Russia’s foreign policy immediately, if discreetly, distanced itself from Washington’s imperial adventures. While the old, and admittedly often silly, anti-Western propaganda was not revived, Russia has gone to great pains to distance itself from the increasingly reviled Bush administration.
By its insistence that a ‘multi-polar’ international system needed to resist the ‘hegemonic tendencies of some countries’ (the nice way of referring to US imperial policies) Russia allied itself to many other countries which shared similar concerns including, most importantly China. Initially Russia had explored the possibility of a ‘strategic partnership’ with the USA but the crudely anti-Russian policies of the Neocons in the White House, in particularly in the Russian “near abroad” (the former Soviet republics) served to totally alienate Moscow from any such illusions. Now, instead of seeing the USA as a possible partner, Russia sees it as the “main adversary” just as it had in the Soviet era. The blame for this disastrous evolution, at least for the USA, can only be laid on the Bush administration whose Neocons probably hate anything Russian even more than they hate anything Islamic.
Unlike the old USSR, Putin’s Russia will not engage in useless rhetorical attacks against the West and we will not see Putin banging his shoe at the UN anytime soon, but the new Russia will oppose the Empire far more effectively by becoming an invisible foe which will quietly act behind the scenes to weaken it in every possible way.
Russian elites are fully aware of the fact that all the main threats to Russia’s national interests are directly linked to Washington’s systematic support of anything anti-Russian. No matter how undemocratic, corrupt, cruel and otherwise abhorrent a despot is – if he is anti-Russian the US will provide him with aid and support.
The Russian also realize that they cannot overtly oppose Washington and that there is no need for them to do so: the self-defeating policies of the Neocon White House are already weakening the USA more than anything Moscow could do. Russia will thus quietly further develop its capabilities and wait for the USA to further corner itself into an impossible situation (which it is already doing in many places). All Russia needs to do now is avoid getting sucked in in the inevitable decline of the US Empire.
Russia and the coming US aggression against Iran
It has been suggested by some ill-informed commentators that Russia might actually use its military to defend Iran against a US attack. This is utter nonsense. Russia would have absolutely nothing to gain, and everything to loose, in getting militarily involved in a US-Iranian conflict. Considering that there is no way the USA can win a conflict with Iran (see my analysis of Iranian asymmetrical responses in my previous article on this issue) one could make the case that Russia actually has a lot to gain from a US attack on Iran (beginning with yet another dramatic rise in the price of oil). Furthermore, it is my belief that Russia has fundamentally given up the use of military force in any scenario besides self-defense. Whether by choice or as a result of a pragmatic analysis of its capabilities, the new Russian leaders have made no efforts whatsoever to maintain much of an offensive military capability against the USA. It appears that Russia will be quite content to remain a ‘only’ Eurasian military power and will just maintain enough of a strategic deterrent to prevent the USA from directly attacking it.
One does not need to be an admirer of Vladimir Putin (which I am most definitely not) to recognize his tremendous achievements in a relatively short period of time and under the most difficult of circumstances: the Russian economy is booming, Chechnia is firmly under the control of a pro-Moscow thug, the regime is undeniably popular, Russia is back on the international scene and does not take orders from Washington anymore, government services are gradually becoming functional again and the succession of Putin by his protege Ivanov seems a done deal. While there are still plenty of unresolved problems to deal with (poverty for the old and weak, corruption, legal reforms, the long delayed restructuring of the regular armed forces, social issues such as crime and substance abuse, etc.) none of them represent a major threat to the Russian thugocracy.
It has taken the ex-KGB men less than a decade to bring their version of Russia back on the world stage. This is truly a remarkable achievement.