We continue from Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 1, with the question,
- Is Putin’s Russia good/bad for Russians?
- Is it good/bad for everybody else?
For Russia itself, Neutral: Vladimir Putin resurrected a failed nation-state that had attempted to reconstitute itself along the lines of western democracy. His solution, part of Putin’s Apology, was to co-opt every element of Russian society, including large parts of the criminal class, into a new oligarchic power structure with himself as the ultimate arbiter. He would probably argue that there was no alternative to the extinction of democracy. Since then, the elite have become obsessed, perhaps justifiably, with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The obsession has resulted in the reestablishment of a the security apparatus of a police state.
The extinction of democracy, the use of Russian nationalism to destabilize neighboring states, the reestablishment of a pervasive security apparatus, Syria and all the rest, are repetitions of historical themes. Most of us wished for a better history than is being currently written. Russia has not mounted an effective response to social decay. Of late, Putin’s presidency has been mired in circumstances which are largely of Russian creation. One does not lightly redraw the map of Europe. Ukraine could have been bought back into the Russian orbit, instead of making it a perpetual enemy.
But Putin rescued a state in extremis. Barely latent, potent centrifugal forces remain a severe threat. Even with considerable mistakes, the strategy of co-opting all classes and interests may have saved Russia from disintegration. To argue further would require counterfactual histories that, while extremely interesting, would convince no one. On balance, with Russia alive-but-sickly, and in one piece, Putin may have been good for Russia. At least, this is not provably wrong. Hence the verdict: For Russia, neutral, and possibly good.
Effect on other countries, bad: The conglomerate of private commercial and state interests that is today’s Russia, acting in foreign relations as an agent of the Russian state, is subversive and corrosive to foreign states. Resembling la Cosa Nostra’s buying politicians and judges, the Russian state goal is to subvert and replace the governments and business interests of foreign countries with power structures answerable to Russia.
Simply extending the domestic system of the Russian state-business relationship comes as naturally as breathing for the modern Russian businessman. His goals, on behalf of the state, have no name in ideology. He wears no badge. Putin’s political party, United Russia, in the face of no identifiable ideology, has been dubbed “The Party of Power.”
Because Americans are by nature pragmatic, it’s hard for us to see the danger of something as practical as United Russia, which is popular. It’s mildly oppressive. It’s mediocre, uninspiring, but it genuinely tries to deliver social services, and it grinds up only small numbers of people.
If today’s Russia were a better example, like Scandinavian social services, we might welcome the import of values. But the Russian level was surpassed by Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Robber Baron period of the 1890’s, Big City politics lingering into the 70’s, and, of course, la Cosa Nostra, are our versions of the modern Russian experience.
Against the backdrop of Russian history, the domestic performance of modern Russian government isn’t too shabby. But the U.S., and all of the West, have better systems, with the E.U. as the absolute pinnacle. The novelty of Russia’s non ideological subversion is a particular danger. Because the shape and scope of it is so strange, it has already been encountered without recognition by members of both political parties.
The smallest part of the danger relates to foreign policy, such as whether we should cooperate in Syria, change sanctions, or defend the borderlands of Europe. In the context of a well structured foreign policy, it should concern us no more than than during the rest of the post World War II period. But the greater part, the hidden nine tenths of the iceberg, Valachi’s “second government” awaits the society that embraces Russia without the honed acuity that will take time to develop. It’s hard because the hazard has no name.
The name will come after the history has been written. With it will come awareness and caution. With adequate societal defenses, the Kremlin may eventually reconsider this form of conflict.
Thanks in advance, Mr. Mueller.