The former KGB men who run Russia have the wrong idea about how to make it great
“OUR pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life.” So said Vladimir Putin as he sent Russia’s nuclear bombers back aloft on the world-spanning patrols they had suspended after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This comes hard on the heels of talk of reopening a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, joint war games with China and the planting of the Russian flag in the polar seabed. The Soviet Union is dead and communism long buried. But Mr Putin wants you to know that the Russian bear is backwearing a snarl with its designer sunglasses.
How has this situation come about? It is tempting to search for mistakes by Western governments, to look for the culprits who “lost Russia”. Yet as our briefing this week explains, the role of outsiders has been secondary. The best way to understand both Mr Putin’s ascent into the Kremlin and his rule since is to see them as the remarkable recovery of the culture, mentality and view of the world of the old KGB.
When Mr Putin was plucked from obscurity to become first Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and later his successor as Russia’s president, few in the West had heard of this former KGB officer, who had briefly been head of the FSB, the KGB’s post-Soviet successor. Just before he became president, Mr Putin told his colleagues that a group of FSB operatives, “dispatched under cover to work in the government of the Russian federation”, was successfully fulfilling its task. It was probably a joke. Yet during his two terms since then, men from the FSB and its sister outfits have indeed grabbed control of the government, economy and security forces. Three out of four senior Russian officials today were once affiliated to the KGB and other security and military organisations.
Why they do it
What motivates these so-called siloviki? In part, the wish for revenge on those who challenged them in the early 1990s, especially after the abortive KGB coup of August 1991. Greed may be the most powerful motive: some Kremlin insiders have hugely enriched themselves in the past decade, and corruption may be worse even than in the later Yeltsin years. But the new elite also has an ideology of sorts. They see the break-up of the Soviet Union as, in Mr Putin’s words, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Capitalising on a widespread sense that Russia has been humiliated, they want to create as mighty a state as the Soviet Union once was. They see the West as a foe bent on stopping them.
In this, Russia’s rulers have strong domestic support. It is hard to gauge Mr Putin’s popularity in a country with such tightly controlled media, but his opinion-poll ratings are impressively high. That nobody doubts his ability to choose his own successor owes a lot to his suppression of all dissent, but it reflects also the fact that voters have little love for the tiny liberal opposition remaining. Thanks to GDP growth that has averaged almost 7% a year under Mr Putin, many Russians feel better off, even if a lot are still poor. And many share the desire to reassert Russia’s greatness and a deep-rooted belief that the West is Russia’s natural enemy.
It is foolish for people in the West to deny that Russia is a great power and that, in some ways, its influence has increased. When Mr Putin became president, its GDP was the world’s tenth-biggest and foreign reserves stood at $8.5 billion. Today Russia’s economy is the world’s eighth-largest, and the reserves are $407.5 billion. The Kremlin has played adeptly on Europe’s dependence on Russian gas to enhance its influence. On issues such as Kosovo or Iran, Russia has used its seat on the UN Security Council to force the West to pay it attention.
To achieve true greatness, unclench that fist
Yet the siloviki’s ambitions remain misguided. That is not because there is anything illegitimate about wanting a strong Russia. What is wrong is how they define that strength in the Soviet terms of awe and anxiety and how they pursue it. The economy, for a start, is heavily dependent on high prices for oil, gas and other commodities that may not last. Russia is weak in manufacturing, services and high-tech industries. Putting spies in charge of big firms is a recipe for failure: they know how to grab assets and jail foes, but not how to run real businesses. Foreign investors may still covet Russia’s natural-resource sector, but a climate in which assets can be arbitrarily taken back by state officials and then redistributed to cronies is not welcoming. Both foreign and, more strikingly, domestic investment are very low compared with China.
Nor is it sensible to revive Russia’s old anti-Western, zero-sum strategic thinking. The West tried to be a friend in the Yeltsin years, but has since been put off by Russian belligerence. A resurgent Russia can throw its weight around the neighbourhood and intimidate ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltics; but by alienating its neighbours Moscow harms its own interests too. By dint of size and military strength, Russia is a power in the world. Yet today even the “soft power” that the Soviet Union once wielded through communism has mostly gone. In its place is only fear.
The biggest misreading of all is over Russia’s own political future. The siloviki have shown they can squash opposition, suborn the courts and stay in charge. But, as in all autocracies, they are acutely nervous about the future. Mr Putin’s popularity will not easily transfer even to a hand-picked successor. More generally, as ordinary Russians get richer, they may grow dissatisfied with their present masters, especially when they see them stealing and mismanaging the economy. Russia has huge problems: crime, poor infrastructure, secessionism and chaos in the north Caucasus, appalling human-rights abuses and a looming demographic catastrophe. To counterbalance these woes, the new elite may resort to even wilder forms of nationalism; and that nationalism could turn into a monster that even its creators cannot control.
In truth, the biggest threats to Russia’s future stem not from its “enemies” but from internal weaknesses, some of them self-inflicted. For a Russian ruler, or ruling class, to accept that truth would take real courage and real patriotism.
August 24-31, 2007