A Conscious Choice?
By Grigory Yavlinsky. Novaya Gazeta, 6 February 2015
Russia’s place and role in the modern world is under the attack of the “collective West”, and not the political regime. Action needs to be taken now – otherwise it will soon prove impossible to stop the rollercoaster as it gathers momentum.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared recently that Russia’s decisions and the West’s reaction to them represented one of the causes of the current crisis, but added that this was a “conscious choice”. What might this “choice” actually consist of and are the consequences of such action really conscious?
It had become clear by the end of 2014 that Russia was being drawn into a qualitatively new phase, one that is unprecedented and extremely dangerous for the country. Over the past three years Russia has drastically changed the strategic direction of its development, gradually but stably embarking on the path of isolation from the Western world and de facto disengagement from global politics and economy. This disengagement was the result of major practical steps adopted by Russia to withdraw from the paradigm of rules and constraints on international actions that had been developed by the early 2000s, in direct opposition to all the key subjects of modern international relations. Russia tried to dictate new rules of the game to the world (perceived by the country to be fairer), proceeding from the idea of Russia’s special role as a “unique civilisation” and alternative pole of the “multipolar world”.
At the same time, however, it is becoming increasingly evident today that Russia failed in these attempts. After deciding to disregard the West and its opinions as factors requiring serious consideration when determining Russia’s zone of interests (the area identified by the current regime in Russia as the sphere of its vital interests), our ruling elite committed gross errors when assessing its own capacity and the comparative weakness of its “partners”. The elite failed to achieve the goals of its “Blitzkrieg” and force the West to change the rules of the game, and does not and never will have the resources required for the attainment of this goal through long-term confrontation (over decades). A reluctance to admit that it had failed and to try and develop new and more realistic policies will merely exacerbate the potential implications of the erroneous decision taken by the elite.
As a result, the conflict between Russia and the West, which has already harmed its strategic interests, will escalate into rigid antagonistic confrontation, rapidly moving to the “point of no return”, and there is a risk that it will move to a principally different level where both economic and political interests, and also the historical destiny of the country are at stake.
Aggressive ambitions, leveraging both covert and overt blackmail, unpredictability, and a desire to oppose strategically the group of the most powerful and influential political and economic forces of the world today have not simply exacerbated Russia’s relations with the West, but have also – and this is even more dangerous for the future of our country – established in the West consensus regarding the need to undermine at all costs Russia’s geopolitical status as an accessible and effective way of countering its present and future demands. This is a fundamentally new phase of the crisis in relations between Russia and the West: the latter, convinced that it cannot influence the strategic course of Russia’s leadership, will inevitably look for another, more radical way to eliminate what it considers to be a serious threat.
Judging by its recent words and deeds, the West as a whole (the sum total of opinions and attitudes determining the vector of developed countries, regardless of individual deviations and special positions on specific issues) does not intend to wait for political change or “regime change” in Russia – such methods take too long to eliminate a factor that has been irritating the West, and the likelihood of attaining sustainable results is also dubious. It is far more likely that the West will choose a simpler solution to the problem of Russia as a country, which is “breaking up” the post-Soviet and European space and is perceived by the West as the main danger for Europe: the West will deprive Russia of its ability to act as an unpredictable but influential player capable of complicating significantly global policies of the 21st century, which have already unravelled independently into a mesh of problems. Even though such a strategy towards Russia is fraught with danger under all scenarios, and its apparent simplicity is deceptive, Western policy is nonetheless clearly turning this way.
What does this mean? Primarily, that the prime goal and target of the pressure is not so much the regime in its current form or effective system for developing policies, but rather the global role and place of the Russian state as a player and even potential subject of international politics. In other words, the West is adhering to the old principle: anything that is not subjugated to its influence and constraints represents a threat and must be neutralised.
I am not referring here to military scenarios, which the West will do its utmost to avoid through imaginable and unimaginable ways and means, but instead comparatively slow, but implacable economic pressure on Russia in a bid to radically reduce the possibilities of its leadership.
The West can achieve this goal through Russia’s major Achilles heel – through its economy, by depriving the country of sources and resources for growth. Such rationale is proceeding and will proceed to make sure that the country is unable to seriously influence the world (due to the fundamental weakness of its economic potential and the need to constantly focus on resolving multiple perpetual and short-term problems), becomes secure and predictably sterile globally and regionally, even if the current political regime is preserved. In this sense, the hopes of some of the opponents of the current regime that “the West will help us” are naive and erroneous. The present political structures in Nigeria or Zimbabwe can be preserved for centuries – and no one will allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the ruling regimes there. Furthermore, this is even more unlikely in Russia, where the prospects of total destabilisation as a result of external inept and reckless interference could bring the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse. Moreover, there are ideological justifications: thanks, to a large extent, to the increasing level of confrontation in both Russia and the West, a convenient opportunity is emerging to renege on the idea of global peace based on common values and openly use the comfortable theory of the “fragmentation of civilisation”.
Russia is already being driven out of the “Big World” (barred from participating in the search for solutions to global problems, regional conflicts and other issues) and this will continue without war, or even the use of armed force. To achieve this goal, the leaders of the global economy simply need to maintain the course of isolating Russia using the tools at their disposal.
Legally formalised sanctions represent only a minor component and by no means the most dangerous aspect. I am referring here to issues of wide-ranging proportions: Russia’s actual expulsion from the global financial system, its isolation from global capital markets and inability to attract global financial, technological and entrepreneurial resources for the development of the country. More stringent restrictions on any forms of debt financing and technology transfer to all intents and purposes eliminate any opportunities for significant foreign investments in Russia, including the repatriation of capital previously exported by Russian business. To all intents and purposes, this undermines opportunities for the country’s economic growth (incidentally, recent statements by Western experts openly state that this is the goal of the new sanctions, and not some concessions in the Donbass confrontation).
In addition, one should not disregard the power of inertia. The more the Russian economy operates on the basis of administrative and military mobilisation against external threats, the more difficult and even problematic it will be to return to normal life and peaceful growth. The logic of economic and consumer behaviour is changing, motivation is changing, and finally the people themselves are changing. Over the next few years the composition of the government and senior leadership of large state corporations will inevitably change. Whereas present directors and trustees timidly hint at the desirability of lifting sanctions soon and returning to normal interaction, these new people will find themselves in a familiar and comfortable environment against the backdrop of the “hostile encirclement”.
The situation will become simpler and more defined for Western “partners” as well. Whereas there really was a powerful group of interests in the first few months “after the [annexation of] Crimea” that hoped that everything would be reduced to a local “incident” based on the model of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and that they would be able to capitalise somehow on the efforts and resources invested into Russia in the previous decade, the situation has changed now. Most of Russia’s western counterparties at governmental and non-governmental levels realised that everything was “serious and for the long haul” this time, and have to all intents and purposes already accepted the inevitable losses – both material and non-material – that they will have to incur. This supports the policies aimed at the isolation of Russia being implemented by virtually all the powerful interest groups in western countries. In this case, the key issue is not that these policies are also sincerely backed by the Russian elite (according to the principle “yes, this is what we actually wanted”) – rather that the policies of encircling Russia with an invisible, but high fence, become engrained for the long term.
It goes without saying that the total isolation of any country, especially Russia, is impossible in the 21st century. At the same time, effective isolation is quite possible. The call from the US Department of State “not to do business with Russia in the usual way” will not be implemented immediately and literally, but will definitely work in the long run. The country will lose not only external resources, without which accelerated “catch-up” growth is impossible, something that Russia still desperately needs, at least for the time being – it will also lose a necessary measure of internal stability. In actual fact, economic growth is the only mechanism capable of alleviating domestic social, intercultural and inter-ethnic tensions and contradictions, and mitigating the risks of social and political instability. On the contrary, a decline in economic activity exacerbates them in every possible way, and such a reduction cannot be replaced by a druglike dependency on TV in the long term. The intensification of internal conflicts and tensions, which are inevitable against the backdrop of shrinking incomes and growing unemployment, will make Russia highly vulnerable, transforming the country into a target on a global scale for all types of extremist and destabilising forces. Moreover, given the country’s specifics, it could objectively result in the country’s disintegration according to different scenarios.
We should not harbour the illusion, as some do, that our current problems represent the peak of external pressure, which will subsequently decline, in particular, owing the inefficacy of the sanctions. Other methods will be used, but the overall pressure will increase. It is true that the government will try to limit the efficacy of this pressure, respond, and accuse the West of “double standards”, but Russia will have no one to remonstrate with and demand justice and will have nobody to appeal to. In reality Russia has nothing in its arsenal to counter such pressure.
From the perspective of the impact on the Russian economy, the policies of external isolation and self-isolation represent a special type of policy. Figuratively, it does not cause visible physical injuries, but at the same time destroys the body’s ability to keep the vital organs functioning. It is impossible and pointless to oppose such policies through curses or to count on some miraculous emergence of some unknown new forces within, as the present government has been trying to do.
It would be wrong to say that Russia will not survive a “head-on collision” with the West, or a new “cold war”. There will be no collisions, as we are talking here about dramatic asymmetry, rather than the inequality of forces. Globalisation has already changed the world to such an extent (for better or worse, we will not discuss this now) that it is simply impossible to enter the water that departed a quarter of a century ago.
Russia has no allies. The army and the navy and strategic nuclear forces had virtually determined the position of the country by the end of the last century, but in today’s world, this is categorically inadequate. It is also inadequate for the Western countries to deal with the fundamentally new threats that have emerged, but Russia will feel this earlier and more acutely than anybody else.
In this case, the search for alternatives to the West [as a partner], reliance on the “turn to the east”, south or anywhere else, is also absolutely groundless. At a time of a worsening crisis there is no help or sympathy for Russia and the fate of its economy and never will be. India and China are driven by their own interests: economically, they actually depend on the West, and they perceive their connections with the leading economies of the world as the driver for the growth of their future wealth and power. For China, the United States represents an incomparably more important sales market and source of resources for its growth. Even Belarus and Kazakhstan do not support Russia politically. They are discovering their own interests and are adopting their own stance in the post-Soviet space. However, more importantly, they categorically don’t want to share with Russia the international pressure and sanctions applied against the country.
Political errors committed by Russia’s leadership in recent years have raised questions as to whether the country will be able to continue existing as such. The collapse of the USSR did not become a fatal national catastrophe for only one reason: there was a clear perspective [that Russia would adopt] the West European model of state-building and a modern market economy. Now that such an option has been rejected, the prospects of the collapse of the Russian state, resulting from impending economic disaster, can be felt almost physically. In these circumstances, preparing for some “collision”, “confrontation”, and talks about the mobilisation of the resources lead to a dead end, and escape from reality; in reality, this is catatonia and idleness. To prevent such a disaster and save the country, we need to think and implement a different mindset.
However, the Russian media lacks adequate public awareness or understanding of this fact. Fundamentally new threats are discussed in old terms that cloak the nature of these threats under something familiar, understandable, and therefore appear not so frightening (for example, “we have experienced far worse”). Talks about confrontation with the West and the rest of the world, the “war of sanctions” and a new “cold war” are becoming part of everyday awareness and do not intimidate people regarding the possible consequences, but are instead transformed into part of an endless political “talk show”. A mutual blame game has become routine practice when the statements of the opposing party are not taken seriously and do not result in an attempt to forecast possible events in the future, both in the short term and long term. A rhetorical “rebuff” to the enemy becomes an end in itself, determining all other reactions.
In actual fact, the topic of “sanctions” and their possible abolition, which has been the centre of so much debate, does not reflect the severity of the situation at all. The very use of the word engenders associations with the policy of the “Western” world against Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and other “rogue states”, but Russia is a completely different story. Sanctions against “rogue states” were introduced and maintained for a long time in a situation of total indifference to their long-term consequences by both sides. Nobody believed in the rapid “democratisation” (Westernisation) of these societies, or that they would be able to represent a real threat for the Western world in the foreseeable future. That is why, for example, that during the more than three decades that Iran has been living under sanctions neither the country’s place in the world, nor its future economic and social development prospects have changed significantly.
What we have today in the relations between Russia and the West is a situation of a fundamentally different nature: if everything continues in the same vein, the process of Russia’s forced transition into a third-world backward country will become irreversible. We must act now – otherwise, it will soon be impossible to stop the rollercoaster as it gathers momentum. Due to its tremendous inertia, after a while, even a change of regime in Russia will no longer help and will not solve the problem, as the numerous conditions for accelerated economic growth will be lost forever and their recovery could take years, if not decades. And losing several few decades for growth and development in the 21st century is an inexcusable luxury for our country. We don’t have such a margin of safety, and absolutely no “historical greatness” will save the country from the fate of a weakening Colossus incapable of maintaining control over its own degradation and decay.
What can be done immediately to extricate our country from the dangerous negative spiral?
First of all, initiatives should be implemented aimed at resolving the situation in Ukraine and normalising relations between Russia and Ukraine, opening up prospects and creating the terms and conditions for dialogue. We must act immediately, solely on the basis of common sense and long-term national interests. Above all, the Russian side must propose an International Conference on Crimea with the participation of the representatives of the peoples of the peninsula, Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and the widest possible range of interested parties. This is the best way to demonstrate openness for dialogue, which is necessary if Russia is to become again a party to the dialogue, so that the other parties talk to and listen to the country.
One should proceed on the premise that the key issue when deciding the status of the peninsula is the opinion, interests and position of Crimea’s population. The optimal solution is to hold an internationally recognised referendum in accordance with present Ukrainian laws and under an objective control, with due respect shown for the people living in Crimea. The International Conference may decide that practical implementation of the referendum and control over its objectivity will be carried out under the auspices of the UN or the OSCE, in accordance with internationally recognised standards. It goes without saying that this would take time, but at this stage the key issue is the commencement of dialogue and a break to the deadlock. This is a serious approach and a dignified method of attaining longstanding solutions. At the same time, this will be a conversation with the West in a language that it understands, and the opening of real opportunities to recover from the crisis.
Secondly, at the same time, a fundamental change in the situation in eastern Ukraine is required. If the present situation is maintained, no truce is sustainable, and Russia will be always accused of escalating the conflict. The solution of this problem lies within the capabilities and competence of our country’s leadership. Russia can take the necessary steps to bring an end to the armed confrontation.
The key issue is to implement the Minsk Agreements on the withdrawal of “illegal armed formations, military equipment, as well as militants and mercenaries from Ukraine” and to ensure guarantees regarding the safety of the population in Donbass with the large-scale involvement of OSCE observers and neutral peacekeeping forces. Such actions will evoke negative reactions within Russia, but this does not constitute force majeure. Such a reaction can be overcome for the sake of the country’s survival. We must understand that rejection of the so-called “doctrine of limited sovereignty” in respect of Ukraine, and also all other post-Soviet states, is an absolute imperative of the 21st century, and the sooner Russia takes this step, the better.
Thirdly, it is necessary to return to the general problem where Russia’s direct cooperation with the West can be significant, and perhaps decisive. The topic is an old one – international terrorism, in particular, terrorism based on Islamic fundamentalism. The “Islamic State” represents a fundamentally new danger, not in theory, but in actual fact, which threatens our country from a geographically vast foothold. ISIS represents a direct threat to the Caucasus and other potentially unstable Russian regions. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, followed by the arrival of the Taliban, will expand and strengthen this foothold. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is evidence that neither the USA nor the West in general has come up with an adequate solution for the problem. However, the fight against armed extremism represents an area where Russia’s military-intellectual, military-technical, and military-force potential can be used efficiently.
This is the minimum critically important political steps that would enable the country to stave off the threat of degradation and begin its actual development for the long historical perspective.
I count myself among the democratic opposition. Regime change has been and remains my goal and the goal of the party and I am honoured to be one of the leaders of this party. However, my colleagues and I refuse to accept the collapse of the economy, attempts to cast off the country as a “third world” country, its degradation and decay, regardless of who is to blame. To simply document that we have not played any role in this situation (for example, “we warned you, said, demanded, and predicted…”) is pointless. Such an approach would not console anyone, just as the people who failed to retain Russia in 1917 could not be consoled to their dying days by the thought that the Bolsheviks were to blame for the national tragedy. Our underlying political principle is to save our country. Our conscious choice is Russia as a modern and free country. And it is from this point of view in the current situation that both the stubborn implementation by the current regime of the present policies, and a mere statement of the evident shortcomings of the regime and the need for change, appear in our eyes equally unacceptable.
The proposed measures represent the only real way out of the dangerous impasse facing our country today. And we are ready to cooperate with anyone who is ready to start making progress along this path.
Posted: February 21st, 2015 under Economy.