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Worried about Russia?

Paul Kennedy
Filed on August 17, 2007

FOR the past several years, the Russia of Vladimir Putin has been sending very clear signals that it is no longer the weakened, troubled and Western-dependent state that it was compelled to be following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Russia is now once again a proud and very assertive nation, increasingly recognisable by its actions to historians of its Czarist and Communist predecessors. Twenty years ago, I predicted that this enormous country, though deeply troubled by internal fractures and external exhaustion, would not go down without a fight; but I did not think Moscow's return to the centre of the world stage would occur so fast.

Now, many will say that this recovery is based on shallow foundations, in fact that it rests almost totally upon the high price of oil and gas. That is true. But oil revenues, if invested wisely, can enhance national infrastructure, industrial and technological developments, and military security. The Dutch Republic was built upon the herring fisheries of the North Sea; the good burghers of Amsterdam knew how to reinvest their profits in other directions.

In any case, it is perfectly clear that not only is Putin's regime making smart strategic investments in infrastructure, laboratories, a revived and modernised military but also that its flow of wealth is giving the Kremlin the confidence to pursue assertive foreign policies, secure for the moment in a set of global circumstances that has hobbled the United States, turned the attention of China and India elsewhere (toward growth and internal modernisation), and given all the world's oil-producing states immense leverage. Even the incompetent administrations of the late Messrs. Chernenko and Breznhev could not have frittered away such strong cards. And Putin seems, by all measures, a truly formidable poker player.

Right now, the list of Moscow's unilateralist actions is probably only exceeded by those of the White House over the past six years. Take an obvious example: Russia uses its veto power on the UN Security Council to support Serbia and crush Kosovo's hopes of independence, just as the US uses its privilege to protect Israel and block pro-Palestinian resolutions. In a similar negative way, Russia controls what the Security Council may, or may not, do regarding actions against Iran and North Korea.

The list goes on. Putin's ministers are adept at using what has come to be called "pipeline diplomacy" to force neighbours like Belarus and Ukraine to bend to Moscow's will, and it is clear that this is intended to have a secondary intimidation effect upon the states of Western Europe as well. Estonia and Latvia are browbeaten over what are regarded as anti-Russian acts, such as the removal of Soviet war memorials or treatment of Russian-speaking citizens.

Western oil companies are discovering that a contract for control of energy resources is not necessarily viewed by the Moscow government as a sacred legal obligation; as the Russian state returns to power, it is insisting upon altered conditions, all of which ensure that the Kremlin and its agencies have the majority share. Thus, massive international corporations such as BP, Exxon and ConocoPhillips, long regarded as powerful independent actors, are now, literally, being put over the barrel, forced to recognise their weaker bargaining position.

Many of their CEOs must have rubbed their eyes at the reports that Russia has just claimed extensive rights at the North Pole, with implications for rights to the exploitation of seabed energy resources. Moscow seems to be advancing its international claims with about the same speed that it denounces arms-control accords. Really, it is hard to keep up.

If all of this is unsettling, especially to Western business interests and to left-wing theorists of global capitalist conspiracies, it is by no means unusual. Actually, compared with extravagant policies and proclamations of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Russia's actions are rather predictable. They are the steps taken by a traditional power elite that, having suffered defeat and humiliation, is now bent upon the recovery of its assets, its authority and its capacity to intimidate.

There is nothing in the history of Russia since Ivan the Terrible to suggest that Putin is doing anything new. "Top-down" policies from the Kremlin have a thousand-year provenance. If they seem more noticeable at this moment in time, it may simply be because of two factors: the modern world's blind dependence upon petroleum, and the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq and terrorism. All Putin is doing is walking through an open gate opened, by and large, by the West.

So the reports from Russia that interest me most are not those concerning drone submarines under the Arctic icecap, or putting the screws upon Belarus to pay backdated oil charges. What intrigues me are the broader and more subtle measures being instituted by the Putin regime to enhance national and, even more, nationalist pride. Unless I am mistaken, they point to something much more purposeful, and potentially quite sinister.

Two examples will have to suffice here: the creation of a patriotic youth movement, and the not-too-subtle rewriting of Russia's school history books. The youth movement called "Nashi" (it translates as "ours" or "our own") is only a couple of years old, but it is growing fast.

The policies that Nashi advocates are eclectic, although probably the same could have been said about the Hitler Jugend 70 years ago. Among the main features are reverence for the Fatherland, respect for the family, Russian traditions, and marriage, and a pretty complete detestation of foreigners.

Right now, Nashi is training tens of thousands of young diligents; right now, they are in summer camps where they do mass aerobics, discuss "proper" and "corrupt" politics, and receive the necessary education for the struggles to come. Vast numbers have recently been mobilised to harass the British and Estonian ambassadors in Moscow (don't say the Foreign Ministry was unaware of such stuff), following Moscow's disputes with those two countries. According to The Financial Times, Nashi is training 60,000 "leaders" to monitor voting and conduct exit polls in elections this coming December and March. One doubts if their impartiality will reach that of, say, an international UN electoral observer unit. I find this all pretty creepy.

So, too, are the reports that Putin has personally complimented the authors of a new manual for high school history teachers that seeks to instill a renewed pride in teenagers of their country's past and encourage national solidarity. As a professional historian, I always shrink from the idea that education ministries should approve some sort of official view of the national past, although I know that bureaucrats from Japan to France do precisely that, that the PRC leadership would get highly upset if it learned that schools in China could choose their own textbooks, and that American fundamentalists try to put their own clumsy footprint on what children in the land of the free should actually be exposed to.

But it is one thing for French kids to be told about Joan of Arc's heroism or American kids about Paul Revere's midnight ride; everyone is entitled to a Robin Hood or William Tell or two. It's a bit more disturbing to learn that the new Russian history manual teaches that "entry into the club of democratic nations involves surrendering part of your national sovereignty to the US" and other such choice contemporary lessons that suggest to Russian teenagers that they face dark forces abroad.

What does this all mean? Should oil prices collapse should pigs fly then Mr Putin's efforts at a Russian nationalistic renaissance might also tumble. But there is no doubt about the coherence of this plan to rebuild Russian pride and strength from the top down and the bottom up.

Over the longer run, the current street agitations against Britain's ambassador and the tearing down of the Estonian flag by Nashi extremists may be obscure footnotes to history. By contrast, the deliberate campaigns to indoctrinate Russian youth and to rewrite the history of the great though terribly disturbed nation that they are inheriting might be much more significant for the unfolding of our 21st century.

Paul Kennedy is the J Richardson Professor of History and the director of International Security Studies at Yale University. His most recent book is "The Parliament of Man," about the United Nations.




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