International

Russia’s Woes, viewed from the Pearl

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With an economic collapse underway, internationally alienated, Russia looks to be a weakening demon to the West. But it is a bitter scenario from a Sri Lankan perspective.

When the Russian ruble began to plummet recently, jitters went through my body as I feared another fall of the Great Russian Bear. Russia more than any other country has gone through downfalls. From the sacking of the Rus by the Mongol hordes, the October Revolution to the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has fallen from grace like an arc angel. In the search for global stability, another Downfall is the last thing the world needs; nuclear material proliferation and looting of arms caches by dealers is an aspect of the 90s which should be a mere memory of dread.

The author will not placate Russia for any of it recent actions, it has had its vices, but the world should stop pushing it into a corner with Putin at the helm. Detente ended in 1979 as Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan and the Reagan administration began its engagement policy and a massive over bloated arms race in an attempt to break the spine of the Soviet economy. It drove the Soviets crazy. Gorbachev struck the last nail when he tried to carry out all encompassing reforms in the form of Perestroika and Glasnost. With the Communist fervor broken and with no real economic power to keep its welfare system and military running, the mighty USSR crumbled. Crumbled under its own weight – bloated by an arms race that really didn’t exist other than in ink. USSR collapsed due to economic collapse – comrades forgot their patriotism to the cause when they had no food to eat. The author fears the same for Putin’s New Russia forged upon utter ‘Russianness’. The Lada might be the cheapest car in the market due to exchange rates, but Russia is dependent on food imports to keep its people fed. Rousseau declared in the 18th century, that a strong independent state must be agrarian to ensure self sufficiency; a state dependent on food imports for basic consumption, becomes open to interference by foreign powers. The recent sanctions on Russia had this effect when Putin decided to retaliate by banning food imports from Europe. Thus, Russia is now at the mercy  of developing countries for food imports.

What impact can that have? Developing countries have agricultural produce for which they have no demand due to protectionism in developed nations. China procures, but most developing countries are unable to supply in quantities it requires. This is apparent in Africa. For Russia to secure imports from these countries, it needs to return some favors. These developing nations cannot always sell their surpluses risking food security in emergencies. Thus, Russia must promise arms exports at discounted prices and lines of credit.

What better for militaristic regimes in Africa than the idea of cheap Russian weapons systems that they have never before had access to? African petro states like Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and others like Uganda have billion dollar military expansion projects including aircraft carriers and fighter jets. It will add hay to an all ready burning Africa – it needs aid to reduce poverty and fight the cause of conflict at its roots, not more weapons in the hands of the henchman of autocratic rulers. Russia is often described as a bloated petro state due to its heavy dependence on oil income – accounts for 52% of federal budget revenue. With the oil prices falling, demand plummeting, the Federal income will reduce dramatically causing budget deficit. The OPEC is refusing to reduce its oil production as it attempts to retain its market share undermined by the Shale boom in USA. While Saudi Arabia and its oil Sheik allies have sufficient sovereign reserves to starve off a period of low oil prices, Russia with its massive military and welfare bill does not appear to have the resilience to survive such a period. Yet those bills seem unending.

Recent statements by French President Hollande and the German Vice Chancellor, warned that continued sanctions on Russia would only harm Europe’s future. Why? As Schelling said in his strategic realism during the Cold War, coercion should never push a country to the point it has no other option than to be an aggressor. The military maneuvers carried out by Russia, including bomber flights over Western Europe and Guam, are evidence of growing military aggression. The result is uncertainty and instability. Russia is traditionally a big spender and its capital flights to Europe has always added to the West’s meager growth rates. A wavering Euro needs stability to ensure consumerism and increase domestic demand.

The 90s nuclear proliferation based movies is enough evidence of the scare an unstable Russia had in the West. No one would ever want to go Back to that Future. The Russian military is on a spending spree that it has not indulged in since the height of the Soviet Union. The strategic nuclear forces have been so well revamped that it has made USA’s seem old. The National Interest recently reported about Russian plans to build a stealth bomber to rival US plans. Already payments have been made for the French Mistral carrier, a deal sitting in limbo.

The question is can Russia afford all this? Can it continue to fund the research and development of prototype stealth bombers and then place orders to begin production? Will these plans face the same plight as those of the last phase of the USSR? Looking at the Russian economy, which is not predicted to grow till 2017, the answer seems yes. It is not easy for a Sri Lankan to accept Russia’s weakness. Alongside China, Sri Lanka sees Putin’s Russia as the biggest ally in the international stage. The massive Russian embassy complex being built in Colombo is evidence of the strong bi lateral relations and the Russian interests within the island. Ever since the Soviet aid grants to Sri Lanka in the 60s and 70s, Sri Lankans have seen it to be a natural friend and the inclusion of ‘Socialist’ in the country name is reflective of the connection. A weak Russia means a weak friend for Sri Lanka. Thus one less friend to defend Sri Lanka in the UNHRC and UNSC. China is there but it’s reassuring to know that two independent and powerful P5 nations are ever present to defend Sri Lanka from any UN led interference over the human rights atrocity claims. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was weak and vulnerable to interference on the promise of aid – the developing world doesn’t desire such a Russia. Today’s Russia is synonymous with Vladimir Putin. He is undoubtedly the most admired world leader on a global scale, especially in the developing world where people dream of having such strong leadership running their weak states. In 2000, Russia was a mess with Chechnyan  independence a strong possibility. Putin is accused of planting bombs in Russia to ensure his initial victory. He is an utter realist with a Russian style of machismo. The Crimean annexation was a master piece of his realism, though the diplomat within me weeps for the negative precedent it has set. He is clearly no Gorbachev. He is definitely more of a Stalin. Stalin purged his military, while Putin purges his oligarchy. Stalin returned Russia to its glory and so has Putin. If history repeats itself, this is where it becomes scary. The USSR never had a real leader after Stalin, the era of stagnation was a result of a lack of strong decision making.

If Putin is similar to Stalin, then what happens after him ? He will keep Russia strong, lean and mean. But even he fails to be immortal outside history. With a shrinking population, increased international isolation, a failing Eurasian Economic Union and economic woes, the Russian future looks bleak. Putin will keep the lights of power flickering in the eyes of the Great Russian bear. Yet a Post – Putin era seems to be one of darkness.

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