Putin and Gazprom corruption (Image: J. Crabon, BBC.com)
That Vladimir Putin lives in a different reality than do other world leaders is now more or less common ground. Now, two commentators have described respectively what the Kremlin leader dreams about and what his worst nightmare might turn out to be.
In a commentary of Kyiv’s “Novoye vremya,” Yury Felshtinsky, a Russian historian who now lives in the US, says that Putin’s dream is that the world will treat his Russia as having a status equal to that of the United States, something the writer says is beyond his capacity to achieve.
For Putin, Felshtinsky says, “the US is the main problem. Not Chechnya, not Georgia and not Ukraine.” But he has a problem: “Perhaps America would be glad to recognize Russia as an equal partner but Russia has nothing besides Gazprom, and the earnings of Gazprom are less than those of the American company Apple.”
“America has no ideology regarding Russia. It wants to see Russia as it wants to see everyone else as a peaceful and reliable partner in politics and business,” he continues. However, “there cannot be relations of parity between the two because Russia in the literal sense is not a great power. It exports raw materials and imports everything else.”
“Over the course of the last century,” he writes, Russia “has destroyed its farmers and its own intellectuals, carried out the terror famine in Ukraine, and conducted a global purge of its own Soviet communist nomenklatura and army. And the Soviet Union fought with Hitler only because the latter attacked it.”
In contrast, “Washington dreams only about one thing” – that Russia will stop causing problems. “No one ever expected anything good from Russia, only something bad,” although when periods of a warming of the relationship happen, “all are ready to accept this as a long-term strategic change and look with hope into the eyes of Putin, a KGB guy who, as President Bush said, one could believe.”
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “ordinary Americans on the whole do not think or know anything about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict: if you turn on the main American television channels, you won’t hear about Crimea, Luhansk or the Donbas.”
And when Putin annexed Crimea, “almost all world leaders indicated to Putin that they were ready to recognize the annexation if Putin would declare an end to his plans for seizing the territory of the former Soviet republics.” Putin spat in their faces, declaring the existence of a Russian world that he would defend and denying that Ukraine was a state at all.
But now it is clear that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have the resources to carry out his threats. “There is a lot of boldness, bluffing, and even more bad behavior, but the boorishness of Zhirinovsky and Rogozin won’t help you to take on America.” What you can do and what Putin has done is to harm Russia.”
“One can intimidate the entire world with nuclear weapons; one can help Iran and North Korea; one can kill Nemtsov; one can poison Kara-Murza; and one can ban the import of sprats from the Baltics,” Felshtinsky says. But those who will suffer as a result of this ban are not the Balts but the Russians.
Putin, of course, “is thinking in other categories. This is already not about money; it is about eternity, empire and glory. Putin has to prepare Russia for global isolation from the West in the case of the beginning of a major war. Sprats are a serious test of Russians’ firmness, because if they are not ready to live without sprats, they won’t fight for Putin. But if they will, then they will be able to do everything else.”
“The time for talks with Russia, unfortunately, has passed,” Felshtinsky concludes. “Russia does not plan to reach agreement with the West, but the West sincerely does not understand how one can reach an agreement with a negotiating partner if he does not plan to agree on anything.”
If Putin’s dream is to have his country be treated as the equal of the United States, his nightmare is that he is on course to become a second Gorbachev and preside over the disintegration of his country into a plethora of smaller states with himself ousted from the stage of big politics and history.
In a comment on Ekho Moskvy, Aleksandr Goldfarb, the head of the Litvinenko Foundation in London, says that there are some good reasons why Putin may have such fears. The Soviet Union fell apart “quickly and unexpectedly” because of the coming together of five factors: there was a war in Afghanistan, a collapse in oil prices, the non-existence of the Soviet economy, corruption and cynicism among the elite, and pressure from the West.
Now, all five of these have been recreated: there is a war in Ukraine, a collapse in oil prices, a systemic economic crisis, corruption and “colossal income differentiation,” and Western sanctions and “a course directed at isolating Russia.”
“Economists predict,” Goldfarb says, “that the stabilization fund will run out of money within a year, that then inflation will reach 25 percent and social dissatisfaction will rise. Oil apparently isn’t going to become more expensive. The Ukrainian fiasco will be no smaller than [the Soviet one] in Afghanistan, and the West will not weaken sanctions.”
Moreover, he continues, “whatever anyone says, [the West] has clearly adopted a course directed at regime change” in Russia. “In this situation, Putin has three options.”
First, he can leave office and transfer power to one of his slightly less corrupt comrades in arms, hoping against hope that they won’t turn him over to the international court even as they reverse his policies and his support disappears “like smoke.”
Second, Putin can “tighten the screws, extend the war, completely break with the West and build a mobilization economy.” That could extend his rule for “many years,” but he could achieve these things only by instituting the kind of purges of his colleagues that Stalin used to maintain his power.
And “finally” there is “the third path: do nothing and await the collapse of the economy, an uncontrolled disintegration with an unpredictable outcome” as the situation spins “out of control.”