In 1947 the legendary diplomat George F. Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” from his desk as charge d’affaires at the United States embassy at Moscow to the State Department in Washington DC. Perhaps the most significant document outlining the future relationship between the United States and the then Soviet Union. It describes amongst many important political items, the origins of the historically Russian disposition to the world beyond its frontiers and specifically the West. Today, in a post-Cold War era, Russia is still acting in much the same way that Kennan described in his report:
“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity… For this reason, they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it”.
To ascertain whether or not Russia will be a successful rising power as US foreign influence dwindles is a naïve undertaking. For this depends heavily on the outcome of this year’s presidential race between the incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. What is important however, is to understand how Russia is acting in a global playing field less dominated by the US. For this is the first period in foreign relations history that the word has been left without a real western claimant to hegemony since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Putin’s leadership of Russia since taking power, Russia’s recent pervasive interference in foreign affairs, and how Russia has handled this plague of coronavirus each explain how Kennan’s words shine light on the eternal political crux of Russia, this sense of “insecurity”.
Putin — The ‘Tabula Rasa’
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, former KGB operative in East Germany and hand-picked successor to Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia. Putin is on course to reign longer than any other Russian ruler in the Kremlin, leaving an indelible impact on Russia’s role in the modern world. A mercurial mix of criminal, Machiavellian nihilist, dictator, regent, and populist, the West has always had trouble in its dealings with him. In 1999, when he first took power as Acting President and later being sworn in officially on 7 May 2000, he was considered a ‘nobody’ that the Kremlin’s courtiers would be able to easily manipulate. However, after the ‘Russian Apartment Bombings’ in 1999 and his extremely bloody campaign in the Second Chechen War (1999–2009) which saw the whole capital city of Grozny flattened and estimates of up to 200,000 civilians killed in the two Chechen wars combined, his popularity skyrocketed and he began to establish himself.
[President Putin] will likely be the leader of Russia until 2036 at the age of 84.
In order to understand the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” as it is playing out now, we should observe the recent “All-Russian Vote” referendum held from 25 June — 1 July 2020. Out of many changes to the Constitution proposed in the referendum, Article 81 is by far the most important. It now allows President Putin to run for office for two more terms, meaning that he will likely be the leader of Russia until 2036 at the age of 84.
This vote, which the President won by a wide margin of 78 per cent according to the Russian Central Election Commission, has been criticised for being unfair and undemocratic. The new Russian Constitution was in fact already being sold in bookstores while the vote was ongoing. In some regions, raffles were being held for voters to win new cars and other accoutrements for their livelihoods. Despite that, this referendum shows that even though Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian system, for a strange reason ‘democracy’ is being used as a thin veneer of legitimacy for the Kremlin. Despite being in full knowledge that his rule is almost completely unopposed, as most opposition figures have either been arrested, murdered, or exiled. This deeply held Russian sense of “insecurity” prompts a need for “legitimacy”. Though it is clear to the passive outside observer that there is none to be found.
Recent dramatic events in Belarus will in future expose how the Kremlin is still very much interested in meddling with the politics of its neighbours. The main contender for the Belarusian presidency, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who took over her husband’s campaign after he was arrested and detained, had fled for her safety to Lithuania after the election. On 17 August 2020, Lukashenko conceded to pressure and seeks to revamp the Constitution in order to allow some form of “power-sharing”. However, the incumbent seemed to be speaking under the protection granted by the graces of the Kremlin, as after a telephone call between Lukashenko and President Putin it was made clear that:
Worried about uprisings itself, perhaps Moscow would like to quell resistance to an autocrat in a neighbouring state to prevent a ‘domino’ effect in Russia.
Even with the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the callous campaign in the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 following the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Putin’s popularity remained strong amongst the domestic populous. Now, with Coronavirus, a failing rouble, and rumblings of dissent, President Putin has grown increasingly worried at the signs of early pre-pubescent dissent; his reactions showing only how right Kennan was.
However, marked as the “biggest popular challenge” towards Putin by the New York Times, the protests following the arrest of opposition figure Governor Sergei Furgal in the city of Khabarovsk have shown light to a growing opposition. Upwards of 90,000 people have come out to protest against growing authoritarianism, and what they see as Kremlin encroachment on their regional government. In a sense, this is not really a protest against the figure of the President but rather a debate over how much power Moscow should have; centralisation has long been an issue in Russia even before the establishment of the Soviet Union.
Historically, the transition between leaders in Russia has not been without turbulence. It is then clear to see, that the circumstances and power structure that President Putin has built over the past twenty years, will leave Russia in a very difficult position when Putin has to leave office. For he has built a loyal circle of oligarchs and politicians who rule over Russia’s most precious economic and political assets which, up until the dissolution of the USSR, were state owned industries.
Whatever the outcome will be, when President Putin leaves office, Russia will face major challenges in preserving political, social, and economic stability.
Any disloyalty in this economic power group has severe consequences for the losing belligerents. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest, sham trial, and 10-year imprisonment in 2003 was a politically motivated power grab of the Russian judicial system, which to this day de facto remains in the Kremlin’s jurisdiction. The void that will be left when the centre of this system leaves office will leave a great amount of room for the traditional Russian insecurities to possibly disintegrate into violence and political thuggery. Whatever the outcome will be, when President Putin leaves office, Russia will face major challenges in preserving political, social, and economic stability.
Russian Interference in Foreign Affairs
On the 21st of June 2020, the UK Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament published their long-awaited report on Russia. While it caused brief political turmoil for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, coronavirus took precedence. However, the views expressed in the report are much the same as the general view expressed by Kennan in the last century. Russia, the report states, “seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia”. This view is especially pertinent as on 4 August 2020 it was revealed to the BBC that the former UK Trade Minister, Liam Fox, had his personal email account hacked by “Russian actors”. The information stolen from the former Minister’s account was reportedly used by Labour in its 2019 campaign to show how the NHS was “at risk”.
“Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia”.
In the past five years the West has been a target of official and unofficial Russian foreign policy. Most significantly, the Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections shows the aggressive stance that Russia takes in this “zero-sum game”. The famed Mueller Report makes it clear on its first page that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion”. This level of interference led to significant allegations that President Donald Trump had colluded with Russian forces to doctor the election. So serious were the allegations, that the US House of Representatives, after a tiresome hearing process, voted to impeach the sitting president on 18 December 2019.
Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Ron Johnson threatened “crushing” sanctions against the German port that receives the Russian gas from Nord Stream 2.
Ultimately, this action to damage the West’s most stable democracy until January 2017, did work in Russia’s interest and was “fundamentally good for Russia”. As this even led to tensions between the EU and US over the US’s plans for ‘Secondary sanctions’ on crucial Russian energy exports. The Russian ‘Nord Stream 2’ natural gas pipeline, which these US sanctions aimed to damage, has sparked tension between the EU and US as recently as 14 August 2020 when Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Ron Johnson threatened “crushing” sanctions against the German port that receives the Russian gas from Nord Stream 2. A fact that seems to have disappeared in light of the current pandemic.
Furthermore, Russia has intruded aggressively in UK politics as well. As the parliamentary report points out:
“Open source studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.42 We have sought to establish whether there is secret intelligence which supported or built on these studies. In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the Inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text”.
The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury with the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ in March 2018, show that aggressive Russian foreign actions ought to be observed as a feature of its “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”. These more recent events strongly echoed the 2006 murder of the organised crimes investigator Alexander Litvinenko in Bloomsbury, UK. His assailant, Andrey Lugovoy, who poisoned him with polonium-210, was charged in 2007 by the United Kingdom. However, Russia formally declined the extradition request. What is particularly interesting about Andrey Lugovoy is that since December of 2007 he has served as a deputy in the Russian parliament, the Duma.
A note on the ‘New Coronavirus’ vaccine
On 11 August 2020 Vladimir Putin announced to a global audience that Russia had successfully developed a vaccine to combat the world’s most central problem. Struggling through a crippling case of exceptionalism at the beginning of the pandemic, Russia long held a position in the top three nations when it came to total infections. The nation’s only independent polling agency, the Levada Center, published that Putin’s approval rating had fallen to 59 per cent, making it “the lowest rating he has had in 20 years”. This vaccine appears to be the latest of developments in Russian politics that seems to be done in a rush. The massive 75th anniversary parade of victory in the Second World War in Red Square on the 24th of June following the consecration of the massive “Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces” on the 14th of June could not be scrapped despite health concerns, and instead were rushed through in grand displays of pomp.
Despite this, typically Russian methods of espionage and hacking targeted extra-Russian organisations trying to develop a vaccine
This new vaccine has been touted by the Russian state as a great breakthrough, and Putin is planning on a mass vaccination push in October of this year, after bragging to a national audience that his own daughter had participated in the tests. While it is incredibly unlikely that the President of Russia would deliberately want to poison his own population, it is no surprise that the vaccine, the first one made for general use, has drawn criticism from scientists and medical experts from around the world. The rush to develop this vaccine is twofold. First, the current health crisis requires a vaccine as soon as possible. Second however, this “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” perhaps can explain for the large part why Russia would cherish the trophy of being ‘the first’.
Despite this, typically Russian methods of espionage and hacking targeted extra-Russian organisations trying to develop a vaccine. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) stated that these actors “almost certainly” operated under “Russian intelligence services” in July. This rush to be first, despite plausible health concerns, and to beat out competition using shady means, shows a “neurotic view of world affairs” in conjunction with a “fundamentally nihilistic” outlook, as the UK Parliamentary report states, on world politics.
Russia always has been, and will likely remain, a very complex land. Under Putin’s leadership the world has bared witness to the growth of insecurities and the respective measures to combat them. Russian foreign policy, both official and unofficial, produces a defensive realist perspective on global affairs that ultimately leaves Russia more isolated than it was before. This rush to produce the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, which may or may not work, and which may or may not be safe, before every other nation shows a clear insecurity.
Of course, it is not possible to give specific policy recommendations in this paper, as its scope is far too general. Especially Western nations ought never to treat Russia with disrespect. She is a foe, who acts against Western interests, and who represents ideals in political affairs that nations accustomed to strong legal systems and separation between church and state would find utterly repugnant. However, what the poetry of Russian history should teach us is that nations ought always to keep an eye on Russia, and act defensively.
Russia does indeed have a chance at becoming a rising power in the current void left by the US’s significantly reduced influence and command on the world stage. The US presidential elections this November will play a very large part in how Russia will place itself on the global stage come January 2021. It will then be no surprise if Russia attempts, in perhaps a similar fashion as it did in 2016, to interfere with the US elections. At all political inflection points, and especially in dealing with a politically formidable opponent, realpolitik must be practiced on an international level.
Istanbul — Κωνσταντινούπολη
Author’s Note: This work is part of the joint journal between Warwick Think Tank and York Think Tank, Summer 2020.