Russia’s “Pillars of Strength”

Is Stratfor worth paying attention to? I’ve never been clear on this. Some of their articles seem pretty insightful, but on the other hand some of them seem like something a bright sophomore might come up with after half an hour with google.

This recent article about Russia seems closer to the latter category to me, but maybe I’m missing something. The article discusses six “pillars of Russian strength”:

Geography — Russia is adjacent or close to all the areas that are strategically important to Russia.

Politics — Russia has a stable authoritarian system. The government is securely in power and doesn’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.

Social System — Russia’s population is docile .

Natural Resources — Lots!

Military — Getting better. Also, nukes.

Intelligence — Best in the world, and still has most of the “Near Abroad” wired for sound.

Well, hum.
All of those things are true as far as they go. And, to be fair to the article, it’s written as a corrective to the idea that the financial crisis will cripple Russia, or at least make the Kremlin more cautious and/or inclined to play nice. On this very broad point, I’m inclined to agree.

But as for “pillars of Russian strength”… well, we could pick these apart one by one: the Russian military may be getting better, but that’s because it was in really horrible shape until recently; reasonable people can disagree whether a stable, authoritarian government without meaningful opposition is really a strength; there’s a case to be made that Russia’s natural resources are nearly as much a curse as a blessin; yadda, yadda, yadda.

But what comes to mind instead is this: twenty years ago, this exact article could have been written about the USSR. Powerful military, natural resources, the KGB… you wouldn’t have to change a dozen words in the whole thing.

I dunno. What do the rest of you think?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Political issues and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

38 thoughts on “Russia’s “Pillars of Strength”

  1. In Friedman’s recent book, he says with all apparent serious is that there is no reason why the tides can’t be reversed and we can’t see a Hungarian occupation of Kiev some day soon. Also, a weak decadent Germany is more than ready to launch a preemptive invasion of a rising Poland.

    It’s trash.

  2. I’d rather have Russia’s problems than Ukraine’s or some other countries’.

  3. I’ve always been a fan of Stratfor, mainly because they give a view of the world that is entirely foreign to me, rooted in an understanding of geopolitics that to my mind, must be close to that of those who make decisions at the top of the US military. At the same time I’ve always been aware of what they do not understand, and that includes economics.

    The description of Russia’s economic situation, especially in regard to the currency, is about three months out of date. Russia faced its decision in December-January, and unerringly voted in favour of a managed depreciation, sacrificing some of its reserves to do so. But do not forget that a lot of those reserves were built up in 2007-8, preventing the rouble from rising too much. In fact, much of Russia’s fiscal and monetary policy in the bubble years was textbook – they acted to neutralise the massive monetary inflows that they were enjoying, instead of assuming they would go on for ever, unlike the Hungarians and the Ukrainians and the Baltics. So the fact that they have reserves to spend is a tribute to Kudrin’s policies, and I’m sure a lot of countries envy their situation. Yes, there are problems, and huge weaknesses in Russia’s economic policy – but the monetary and fiscal situation is not too bad. Unless, that is, oil goes below $35 again, in which case they will have to devalue again. But the second devaluation will be easier than the first, because there will be less risk that the population will panic and cause a run on the banks.

    Now, to discuss the other “strengths”. Again, this betrays the Stratfor view of the world. They envy Russia’s lack of dissent and accountability for the military powers, as well as their ready access to natural resources. No doubt the Allied military planners in WWII had similar envy for Hitler’s lack of political opposition and ready access to slave labour. It’s much easier to run a military when you have a war, and there is no one to question your unlimited access to resources. So naturally the military camp would see Russia’s authoritarian regime as an advantage. It’s like in “A Few Good Men” – it’s much easier to prosecute the dirty business of war if you don’t have to look over your shoulder the whole time.

    But what they don’t understand is that American’s military strength derives from the fact that its economy generates such tremendous wealth and innovation. And this is because its system of checks and balances allows policy flexibility that stops the government interfering too much in the economy. I often wonder how good the Russian military would be, if the KGB had not been so good at stealing Western military technology. My understanding is that the Russians were shocked during the Georgia conflict by how much better the Georgians were than expected, because of their US training and US/Israeli technology.

    As for intelligence, it’s really only useful if you can use it and process it well. Again, to do this, you have to have a pluralistic debate, to ensure that weak arguments are defeated. This works much better in an open society than an authoritarian one, and while the Russian intelligence community is probably a lot better at interpreting its intelligence than the military one, that doesn’t really say a lot.

    So the bottom line, in my opinion, is that yes, Russia does potentially have a lot of strengths, but its basic weaknesses will preclude it exploiting them. Russia could open up, deal with corruption, which would unlock its economic potential, and create a political environment that would allow them to deal with both China and the US as an equal partner. But for the time being they cannot do this, because there are too many entrenched interests that are stopping this happening, which makes them easy fodder for smarter opponents, like China and the US.

  4. The Russian military is strong enough to handle the likely missions.

    20 years ago one could not write that the USSR had been improving for a decade. This is the crucial difference to today.

  5. Geography — Russia is adjacent or close to all the areas that are strategically important to Russia.

    That’s a weakness as well. They have long borders with many neighbors, some friendly and some not, and little in the way of natural defenses.

    Politics — Russia has a stable authoritarian system. The government is securely in power and doesn’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.

    Talk about over-simplifying it. For starters, I’d hardly call Russia’s authoritarian system “stable”; it depends heavily upon Putin and his coterie, and the parties are largely personality-based parties.

    Contrary to the second point, the Russian government very much cares about what everyone thinks. Perhaps he means that they’re not responsive to everything.

    Social System — Russia’s population is docile .

    The Russians who rioted in Vladivostok when the government raised tariffs on imported cars might be surprised to hear that.

    Natural Resources — Lots!

    This is true.

    Military — Getting better. Also, nukes.

    They’re getting better – at climbing out of the deep hole they ended up in after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even now, only, what, 75,000 of their troops really count as top-notch, combined arms troops? The rest are low-morale conscripts with outdated weapons (usually those who weren’t capable of evading military service). That doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility; they could beat the crap out of Georgia, but they’d be hard-pressed to do something a lot bigger than that.

    The nukes are getting better, but again, that’s coming out of the hole the Soviet Union’s fall put them in. Most of their SSBN fleet is still in “rustbucket” shape, although they’ve been upgrading their ICBMs and building bombers.

    Intelligence — Best in the world, and still has most of the “Near Abroad” wired for sound.

    The “best in the world”? At doing what? There’s no specifics; this sounds like some Russophile’s opinion that they copied off the Internet.

  6. EH wrote:
    > Geography — Russia is adjacent or close to
    > all the areas that are strategically
    > important to Russia.

    Any area close to a country is strategically important to it.

    > Politics — Russia has a stable authoritarian
    > system. The government is securely in power
    > and doesn’t have to worry about what anyone
    > else thinks.

    Oh ho ho ho. No authoritarian system is secure – ’tis a popular fallacy. Such systems survive because of popular content and as such those running the Government are petrified of doing things which cause genuine discontent. A type of paralysis consequently exists. Reforms which cause discontent (e.g. economic austerity) are impossible.

    > Social System — Russia’s population is docile.

    How is this a good thing? it permits massive State corruption, for example.

    > Natural Resources — Lots!

    Not much use when the State monopolies working them are so massively inefficient and corrupt.

    > Military — Getting better. Also, nukes.

    Getting better from a *very very very VERY low base*. Hell, the military of Iceland are “getting better”…

    Nukes are the only thing really which make Russia different.

    > Intelligence — Best in the world, and still
    > has most of the “Near Abroad” wired for sound.

    Best in the world? I doubt it. They’ve gone political and that’s the end of competence.

  7. Even, if they are not powerful now, they will be. They will do everything for defense own land.

    Questioning military might of armed forces that have missiles like: Sizzler, Topol-M RS12, S-400 system with radar which work in 3D X-band and see so called stealth jet, like on palm, etc. What do you think why US installing radars in Czech Republic. Their ICBM flying 3 miles per sec., in same time it’s capable to change trajectory very quickly. Only way to be destroyed is in very early phase of launching. It is simply viscous weapon.

    For six years US Navy trying to figure how to stop Sizzler cruise missile from Club-M and Club-S class, which are flying at sub and supersonic speed capable of flying at 2.6-2.9 Mach. Phalanx and Aegis anti-missile system is not working against them. Should I mention cavitation high speed torpedoes capable of carrying nuclear heads.

    Economy have stabilized recently, as far I know. They managed to stabilize currency. In this process wealth of oligarch is wiped out. It helped Kremlin to put control over them, whether it is good or not it is different story. I’ve read somewhere Putin put in charge it’s friend from KGB on position of oligarch.

    They have the best programmers and matematichians on the world (according to Western sources) and they can make any algorithm for intelligence community.

    Maybe they are weak and insecure, but I wouldn’t dare tempting them in any way. They potential are enormous.

  8. I used to get their free email letters. Initially I was impressed by their “independent” reporting. They use a lot of buzzwords, assert to know the real deal. But over time I got the impression that articles were often a poorly researched opinion. Sometimes pretty biased/propaganda. I’ve decided to unsubscribe. It was not worth my time – and so far I am not missing them.

  9. Guys,

    As a Russian citizen, I’m just furious about all these crazy articles about Russian “authoritarian” system etc. Russia is not USSR. And please, oh please, stop this cold war rhetoric.
    We have lots of problems, and may be our political system is a bit of a mess, but all these fairy-tales about “totalitarian state” are complete crap. If anything, Russia is the second Italy. With corruption all over the country and elections being highly manipulated by the media. So, the right comparison for Putin is Silvio Berlusconi, not Stalin or Hitler like western media likes to portray him.
    What we have today looks much more like crazy capitalism without any kind of control whatsoever.
    As for the future of Russia, I’m personally very optimistic because (1) I expect another much stronger commodity boom in the coming decades and (2) despite all of its problems, we have the most competent government in 50 years or so.


  10. To Petr

    I do not agree. We do have authoritarian system, indeed. Not totalitarian USSR-like, thanks god.

    On stratfor

    The main problems of Russia are internal ones. Economy, dutch decease, corruption, political system – etc. So the pillars stand on sand as long as internal issues are not properly addressed. The aggresive “military” noise is coming mostly for domestic use as it channels population economic discontent to the outside “hostile world”.

    P.S.Many arbitrary suggestion of stratfor reminds me soviet-era stereotypes about Russians (kind of “red heat” movie)

  11. @ Brett, @ Blank — Can I suggest reading and commenting on the article, instead of my brief summary of the article?

    @ Larry O, yes, it was striking to read an article on Russian strength / weakness that never once mentioned the demographic issue.

    @Petr, nobody said “totalitarian”. But “authoritarian”, yes, that fits. Berlusconi can lose elections and get pushed out of power. Putin, not so much.

    Doug M.

  12. Well, just to pick one so far uncommented example from the Stratfor article, I’d be sceptical of any text which states with a straight face that St. Petersburg is suffering from a logistical handicap because “the Gulf of Finland freezes over during winters”.

    I mean, dude. This ain’t the 18th century; breaking across the ice cover on the Baltic hasn’t exactly been a problem for the last 150 years. It’s like saying that the contacts between the United States and the rest of the World are permanently suffering because the Eastern Seabord is regularly ravaged by hurricanes.

    But, in general: the article is pretty boring, and it focuses almost exclusively on the potential of Russia becoming the main adversary of the United States once again. As already said, this is a somewhat antiquated mindset.

    The article sort of makes me think that the real pillar of Russian strength could be the willing American/Western tendency to miss the point. I’m not saying that there’s something deeply alien or incomprehensible in Russia itself (the “mystery wrapped inside a riddle in a middle of an enigma” is also an antiquated mindset in this day and age, although Putin himself has tried to exploit it at least sometimes), but simply that the outside observers _themselves_ are looking at things in a bit slanted fashion, perhaps deliberately. As already noted, the Stratfor article reeks of Cold War rhetoric.

    Of course Russia is a serious factor in the European and international politics, and will remain so, notwithstanding the impact of the financial crisis and whatever other crap might happen. Of course Russia has spheres of interest. Of course Russia may sometimes decide to adopt a deliberately confrontational attitude or pitch diplomatic test-balls; such things are what one should expect from a country of that size, and one should take them seriously. And of course Russia has problems and weak spots – some of which may sometimes become our problems; as said, they’re a big country, and great powers occasionally export their problems, not always deliberately. And of course Russia also has advantages and strengths, some of which may be of benefit also to the rest of us.

    Why not be pragmatic about it? As for the impact of the financial crisis, my guess is that it’s probably going to re-shape the World in a new, multi-polar fashion; and after that, the mindset of the article will look even more antiquated.

    Also, about the comparison to the USSR twenty years ago… the most obvious difference is that twenty years ago, the integrity of the Soviet Union was already threatened by some serious separatist movements, many of them enjoying an international legitimacy. These days, the Russian Federation still has ethnic issues, but these are low-level tensions; and as we’ve seen, on the international scene, Russia has shown itself to be able to exploit the latent separatism within _other_ countries.


    J. J.

  13. As a subscriber to Stratfor I am somewhat ambivalent about its usefulness. However, it does provide a different view of international affairs – and, yes, it is a conservative view to which I do not subscribe. Nevertheless, its analysis of MENA, and Central Asia is somewhat better than that of the FSU. I don’t see much that is new in the Stratfor analysis presented as a guide regarding Russia, Ukraine and the Caucuses. I agree with the comments above that its view of Russia seems derived from previous USSR analysis and is oversimplistic.

    Having lived in both Russia and Ukraine for about nine years, I would say that their view of Russia as authoritarian is correct. At the end of the day, Putin has introduced what the Russian people wanted, stability and economic prosperity at the expense of press freedom and a political opposition. His economic policies were largely based on luck – a huge increase in oil and gas prices. But, if the middle class starts feeling apprehensive about jobs and money, his popularity could easily fall.

    Stratfor is correct to the extent it identifies the concern of Russia for its bordering regions. However, it is also simplistic because this concern is historical – whether imperial Russia, the Soviet Union or the current Federation are concerned. Nothing new here.

    All in all, there are times that Stratfor can provide some interesting coverage of events that are otherwise largely ignored elsewhere. A prime example is its recent analysis of the virulent attacks by al Queda against the Saudis.

    But then they, as correctly pointed out by Sleeper, don’t mention the surprise at how effective Georgian troops were when they were not in the process of being overwhelmed. In fact, the only service that performed well,both from a strategic and tactical standpoint, was the navy. There was poor coordination between the air support and ground troops and ground intellegence was poor. Politically, the Russians are depending on Europe.

    In my opinion, Stratfor needs an upgrade of its FSU staff – or more detailed reporting with better analysis. Too frequently, for the FSU it falls short. In other areas, on the whole, though, I do find it useful and credible.

  14. Douglas Muir,

    “Berlusconi can lose elections and get pushed out of power. Putin, not so much.”

    That’s a strong statement. Putin is not a president anymore. Technically Medvedev can change the government if he likes. It’s unclear how much they depend on each other.


  15. Here’s some critical issues with the actual article-

    Russia borders most of the regions it wishes to project power into, and few geographic barriers separate it from its targets.

    This is a two-way street, as I imagine the Russians are all-too-familiar with.

    5. Military: The Russian military is in the midst of a broad modernization and restructuring, and is reconstituting its basic war fighting capability.

    My basic point still stands, though – they’re doing this in terms of the hole they fell into after the Cold War. They’ve got a long ways to go just to get back to that level of military power.

    Russian intelligence has infiltrated political, security, military and business realms worldwide, and has boasted of infiltrating many former Soviet satellite governments, militaries and companies up to the highest level.

    This sounds more propagandistic than real – I’d like to hear this from someone who has actually tried to do counter-intelligence against the Russians.

  16. @ Petr: Putin is also the “Supreme Chairman” of United Russia, and the parliamentary wing of the party is full of his hand-picked supporters. So, yes, technically Medvedev can change the government if he likes; technically he can also hold his own hand in a fire until it burns off. One is about as likely as the other.

    @ Jussi, agreed about the freezing Gulf — this is the sort of thing I meant when I said “half an hour with Google”. I also notice that the writer buys into the whole “rivers run the wrong way, no warm water ports!” school of geographical determinism, which makes me a little sad.

    (On the other hand, in spring 1989 “many” of the USSR’s separatist movements were “enjoying international legitimacy”? Hey?)

    Doug M.

  17. Douglas Muir,

    Ok,ok I agree that Putin is well-positioned to keep the power. So, let’s call it “authoritarian system”. I just don’t like the negative feeling this term brings. Putin was pretty effective as a country leader and solved lots of problems. There were very good reasons to suppress the press and “opposition” financed by crooks like Berezovsky, so he did it. I don’t mind.

    You could argue that he is still in power. Though he should have gone after his second term is finished. But who cares? I mean, why should we get rid of the competent people? Just to have “democracy” as everyone else? What’s the point? I don’t want people like George W. Bush to run my country.


  18. As you may remember, Douglas, the Singing Revolution was well underway in 1989. At least I remember. The separatist tendencies in the three Baltic republics were quite visible, and were having an impact on the supposed indivisibility of the USSR.

    And yes, these movements also enjoyed legitimacy, because by then, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the fact that the Baltic states had been annexed and occupied against their own will were finally becoming acknowledged also by the ruling regime. By August, the Soviets had publically recognized the existence of the Secret Protocol, condemned and denounced it – and by so doing, they had also recognized that the demands of the Baltic states were justified.

    Granted, the struggle of three republics may not constitute “many”, but as said, they enjoyed legitimacy on the international level.

    There’s quite simply nothing comparable going on in the present-day Russia.


    J. J.

  19. I recently stumbled upon this stratfor article:

    “The rumors of Sweden’s interest in NATO membership are growing stronger as Stockholm prepares to assume the European Union presidency on July 1.”

    That doesn’t seem to be bad analysis as much as pure delusion.

  20. Jussi, we approach nitpicking, but you said “international legitimacy”. No Soviet separatist movement enjoyed this in 1989.

    (Also, in the spring of 1989, all the opposition movements in the Baltics were emphasizing local autonomy, not independence; public discussion of secession barely existed and was not encouraged.)

    @ Petr: well, you may be right. Perhaps Putin has been good for Russia. Perhaps he’s been /very/ good, better than most plausible alternatives.

    But an authoritarian system has some problems. Most obviously, if the leader stops being good, there’s no way to replace him.

    Doug M.

  21. agree, Stratfor is totally hit and miss. they had a good piece on Iran few months back , but otherwise proceed with caution

  22. Blank Xavier – writes

    > Natural Resources — Lots!

    Not much use when the State monopolies working them are so massively inefficient and corrupt.


    Alrosa has a virtual monopoly in diamond mining, but I can’t, immediately, think of any other state monopolies involved in extraction.

    I’ll grant you Rosneft and Gazprom have state majorities, respectively 75% and 50% ownership.

    That makes the generalistion that there are multiple ‘massively inefficient and corrupt’ monopolies, somewhat sweeping and rather subjective?

  23. Europe seems currently much more energy-dependent on Russia than it ever was in the 1980s.

    And though Russia has since then lost most of Eastern Europe (not all of it – it still owns Belarus for example), it keeps gaining many allies in South America: Venezuela, Bolivia, etc. Territory that once upon the time was solid US backyard.

    More importantly it has even manager to place a number of agents high in Western European governments: Schroeder that was proven to be a Russian agent when he was rewarded by a high position in Russia after his retirement, Prodi (if we go by Litvinenko’s accusations by him). And Russia completely owns the political systems of certain smaller countries, like Greece and Cyprus.

  24. Uh, Douglas? As I’ve reminded you before, not a single western country apart from Sweden had ever once recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states _de jure_. The United States maintained embassies for all three countries all through the post-war period.

    Perhaps you define these matters differently, but to me, the “international legitimization” already existed. And by 1989, when the walls were already crumbling down, everyone in Europe, including the Soviets, was in tacit agreement that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an injustice, and that the Baltic states were right in pressing their demands. True, for practical reasons, no one was meddling with the Soviet internal affairs; but the legitimacy of these demands was recognized.

    As for your assessment on the situation in the Baltic states in 1989, sorry, but you’re just plain wrong, or you have a bad memory. As you know, I hate people who pull rank and state blandly “I was there”, but well, _I was there_. Public discussion on the possibility of separation and independence was alive and well in every single restaurant and pub in downtown Tallinn. Even the state-paid Estonian travel guides talked about it openly to every visiting group of Finnish intourists.

    And I’m sorry, but the talk of “local autonomy” is out to lunch. Things were taking place step by step, and no one was certain how to pull it off, but there was no doubt that the locals were not going to settle for anything less but the restoration of independence.

    I mean, seriously. I don’t know what you were doing back then, but I haven’t forgotten the declarations of “sovereignty”, and their stated goals of national independence, which all were taking place in the spring of 1989. And by the next year, Lithuania had declared independence.

    And once again; there’s nothing comparable taking place within the territories of the present-day Russian Federation.


    J. J.

  25. Stratfor is really not valuable. Friedman used to have a comments section but it bacame an outlet for those taking serious issue witht he certitude about the sophmoirc. His undoing was his stance ion Iraq and in particular the NIE. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I used to think his analysis was worthwhile, but he became a mouthpiece for status quo with lots of esoteric theoires and arguments. In short, not much value add.

  26. Heh, I just read that Stratfor article on Sweden, Finland and the NATO. Pretty funny.

    No sources, no citations, no quotes, not even the names of any politicians or commentators mentioned. Just pure speculation that woo boy, the Russians sure would not like it if those two Scandinavian countries joined the NATO. And _this_ is presented under the magnificent title of “intelligence report”?

    The Finnish position and the local “debate” on the NATO would deserve a post of its own, but I’m not going to write it here and now. Still, suffice to say that if that article was based on some knowledge of local geopolitics, it should also briefly mention the relative military strengths on the region.

    And the fact is that even now, after the Finnish wartime reserves have been diminished due to the aging population, small age cohorts and the desire for a more lean and mean army… still, the wartime mobilization of the Finnish Armed Forces would put on the field a massive army that’s larger than the forces of Sweden, Norway, Estonia and the military district of Leningrad _combined_.

    And not just in men, but also in most parts of hardware, especially in artillery. It’s weird, but in rough terms, currently, Finland has the capacity to conquer every goddamn neighbouring state.

    Small wonder that some of those politicians who want to enlist this country in the NATO also want to get rid of the conscription and the territorial defence.


    J. J.

  27. “Perhaps you define these matters differently, but to me, the “international legitimization” already existed.”

    By this standard, it had existed continuously since 1940.

    Also, if they had anything, it was legitimacy — formal, international recognition of their pre-existing independence. But legitimacy is not “legitimization”. One is a fact, the other is a process. And there wasn’t any process of “international legitimization” in spring 1989 (or in 1989 at all); various countries were watching with interest, but there was little connection between the little diasporid governments abroad and the Singing Revolution, and no outside actor was “legitimizing” the Baltic independence movements.

    As for independence vs. autonomy, I said the opposition movements did not encourage discussion of independence — and they didn’t. Yes, it was what people wanted. But what was said in cafes was very different from what was put forth for public consumption; all the Baltic opposition movements went through a liminal period of publicly insisting that, oh no, we just want more autonomy and greater self-expression.

    “I haven’t forgotten the declarations of “sovereignty”, and their stated goals of national independence, which all were taking place in the spring of 1989.”

    Huh. Which Baltic opposition movement had openly stated national independence as a goal by the spring of 1989?

    Doug M.

  28. I don’t know, I am usually pretty skeptical of any website, blog or publication dedicated to ‘strategy’ and ‘geopolitics’. I follow several francophone blogs of this nature and they do tend to be very hit and miss.

    The problem, I think, is that you very easily get with very facile statements like ‘joining the alliance would allow Sweden to monitor other NATO states like Germany’ and similar nonsense.

    ‘Geopolitics’ very easily lends itself to this sort of armchair-strategizing, crude ‘realism’, and general talking as though the world were a giant chessboard. It is nothing of the sort.

    A state’s ‘power’ cannot be measured like that of a Super Sajan, nor is the ‘balance of power’ in my view the prime determinant of international affairs nowadays. There are many far more important factors, including globalization, demilitarization, democratic politics, and technical advancement that make cheap 19th Century-style thinking not terribly useful in most instances.

  29. Leaving aside the semantic nit-picking part about the fundamental difference between the concepts of “legitimacy” and “legitimization”, I honestly don’t know what you’re talking and where you’re getting this from, Douglas.

    Sajudis issued a public declaration of its goal of Lithuanian national independence in February 1989. You _really_ don’t remember that? Tautas Fronte followed suit in Latvia in May.

    And the black-blue-white tricolour was raised in the Pikk Hermann tower in Tallinn also in February 1989. As I said, I remember. And the Popular Front was definitely encouraging public talk of independence.

    The spring of 1989 was precisely the time when the previous talk of “autonomy” was replaced by the more radical demands of the restoration of national independence, in all three republics.

    I don’t know where your position is coming from, but as I said, you’re just plain wrong. But hey, whatever.


    J. J.

  30. The idea that the modern-day Russia is somehow a remake of the old Soviet Union is being fanned by Western journalists for two reasons.

    1) Their lack of understanding of the variety and magnitude of changes the country undergone since 1991. Journalists by definition cater to general audiences and have limited time and column space so they tend to simplify things and stick to stereotypes. It turns out the Russian story is not easily simplify-able without distortion. The country is just too big and complex.

    2) They are afraid to ruin their careers by implying that, well, all-out democracy is not good for everyone, of which thesis the very recent Russian history (the wild nineties) is a fresh testament. Therefore, they try their best to maximize the occurence of the word ‘KGB’ whenever they write about Mr.Putin, and call him a tsar or a dictator, and to stress any problems the country is facing, and to diminish the progress that has been made.

    What Mr.Putin immediately recognized is that you don’t want to run ahead of the train (the history) and institutionalize a system for which the country is not ready. The main lesson Russian people learned the hard way from the 70 years of communism is that you don’t want to make large-scale social experiments and that evolution is way better than revolution. For a democracy to work, there must be some conditions in place. The foremost among them is predominant law-abidedness on part of the people, businesses and the government. Since this not yet in place in Russia, her democratic institutions must be reasonably restricted, or they will be abused.

    The real pillar of the present-day Russian power, in stark contrast with the USSR, or Imperial Russia, or Bush’s America, is a complete lack of ideology. No spread-communism-around-the-world stuff, no Moscow-is-the-third-Rome, no whats-good-for-America-is-good-for-everyone, no anything like that! Free-market rules, and that’s it. People just live their lifes, work hard, and look forward to make the country a better place to live.

  31. @Jussi: you’re right and I’m wrong; Sajudis did indeed go public in spring 1989. I thought it was later. For some reason I was certain the first declarations didn’t happen until after the Baltic Way that autumn. Perhaps my memory was using the Armenian schedule as a template for other Soviet republics; whatever. My bad.

    But as for “legitimization”, no, it’s not nit-picking. The international community was sitting on its hands until much later than spring 1989. In spring 1989 the international reaction to the various movements was confusion and nervous foot-shuffling. The majority opinion was that sooner or later the Soviets would bring the hammer down, so there was no point ruining good relations with Moscow.

    You corrected my wrong idea about the timing; that’s great. But if you can come up with a cite showing “international legitimization” of the independence movements at this time, I will be… quite pleasantly surprised.

    Doug M.

  32. Nah, we can just settle the argument. When I used the term “international legitimization”, I was speaking very broadly, combining several factors in that one statement.

    As said, by then, the public opinion in Europe mostly accepted that the Baltic nations really, honestly had a just case, because the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been an injustice; and politically, no _de jure_ recognition of the annexation had ever existed, so the framework of the international law was already in place; also, as I mentioned, on that same year, the Soviets themselves finally, even if indirectly, denounced the legitimacy of the annexation.

    “Legitimization” was about the only short-hand term that I managed to come up with.

    The various European governments were sitting on their hands, true enough. But at the same time, there were many public demonstrations of sympathy – for example, on behalf of Estonia, in Stockholm and even in Helsinki. Making comparisons is always difficult, but I’d say that on balance, the sympathy towards the Baltic nations and the recognition that they had a just case was on stronger ground than, say, the Free Tibet movement… although not nearly as high-profile [1].

    But anyway. Again, what I originally said; the present-day Russian Federation simply has no comparable separatist problem within its borders. Obviously, because most of the regions that were annexed by the USSR have broken away; and of those that are left, I rather doubt that the Kuril Islands or the Karelian Isthmus are likely to result in any crisis in the future.


    J. J.

    [1] Or weird.

  33. I really don’t know how “docile” the Russian population is and whether docility has a correlation with authoritarianism, in fact. When it mattered, Russians did manage to start a few unrests in the 20th century like the revolution, civil war or lots of [relatively peaceful] activities in the 90s.

    The quiet of the present days, in my opinion, is an indicator of the fact that most Russians simply don’t care about politics. It’s a deeply rooted “us and them” type of attitude, and very few people see politics as something that has practical relevance.

    Which doesn’t make the current political regime inherently more or less stable. If and when the economic conditions deteriorate to an extent that it affects everyday lives of the general population, the political context may well change.

  34. Doug- no offense here. I was mistakenly assuming that it was the Stratfor’s article that made the comparison, so my criticism was aimed at the author, not you. I should have read more careful before posting! Anyway, I finally figured we are on the same side on it. 🙂

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