Robert E. Berls Jr., PhD
Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia
Survival of the Russian State: Protecting It from Foreign and Domestic Threats, Part II
In the first part of this essay, I examined how Russians assess the complex issues that help to ensure the survival of the Russian state and the policies the leadership pursues to protect Russia from foreign and domestic threats.
In the second part of this essay, I dig deeper into the underlying internal and external factors that influence efforts to protect Russia from those threats. In some cases, those factors serve as guardrails that provide a natural channel for policy by keeping it within certain bounds. In other cases, they can either restrict or broaden policy options for the Russian leaders.
Russia, I posit, is and has always been a relatively weak state. Unbalanced in its development, Russia has managed to survive through a combination of factors, including sacrifices—often enormous and devastating—by the Russian people who in general share a sense of fatalism and indifference; the cunning deception of government leaders, despite episodic ineptitude; a large reserve of resources, both natural and human; and weakness, lack of vigilance, and vulnerability on the part of Russia’s adversaries, both domestic and foreign. Russians believe that they are a superior civilization. Despite their economic and technological backwardness, Russians are convinced they are unique and exceptional—a reality, in their view, that the West has long failed to recognize.
Outsiders often are baffled by Russia’s ability to survive after having experienced traumatic shocks that would likely devastate more economically and socially developed countries and might shake to the core the very foundations of their state structures. In the introduction to this essay series I quoted Winston Churchill who said in 1939 that “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” More than 80 years later that statement is still relevant. Despite the immense trauma it has experienced over the centuries, Russia, albeit with altered borders and a transformed political system, has survived.
The factors I am about to discuss have contributed significantly to Russia’s ability to survive and have helped to maintain an equilibrium in Russian society that is fundamental to its survival.
In the first essay in this series, I examined how Russia’s place on the map exposes it to external threats but also offers Russia opportunities to expand its frontiers until it either reaches natural barriers or confronts the countervailing forces of its neighbors. Geography also contributes to how Russia defends itself from its adversaries.
Russia is essentially a landlocked country. Although it does border on seas in the northwest, southwest, and east (the Arctic Ocean in the north is frozen much of the year and offers limited access to the world’s maritime network, although global warming is changing that), much of the access to those seas is controlled by foreign powers. This means that choke points in the hands of other countries could block Russian ships in the event of elevated tensions or hostilities.
One of the first measures Peter the Great took when he founded St. Petersburg and “opened a window to the West” at the beginning of the 18th century was to start building a Russian Navy to gain access to the world’s seas. Catherine the Great and her successors pursued Peter’s dream by sending Russia’s military forces south in search of a warm water port on the Black Sea. In so doing, Russia engaged the Ottoman Empire in frequent conflicts until it succeeded in conquering the territory bordering on the northern and eastern shores of this important body of water.
Despite its territorial conquests, Russia was hindered for centuries in its ability to develop a maritime capability that rivaled that of other world powers due to a combination of geographical restrictions and domestic constraints. This maritime weakness exacerbated Russia’s vulnerability and prompted leaders to compensate through other military means.
Although geography complicated Russia’s efforts to become a global sea power and secure a strong maritime defensive perimeter, its position on the eastern half of the European Plain with few natural barriers facilitated its expansion across the broad terrain that extends beyond the Ural Mountains (the dividing line between Europe and Asia) through sparsely inhabited Siberia to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This expansion was followed by Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus region in the first half of the 19th century and of Central Asia in the latter half of that century. In many instances, expansion into these territories was motivated by explorers, merchants, and trading companies in pursuit of their economic interests. They were followed by Russian military forces and the establishment of political administrations subordinate to the government in St. Petersburg.
Russia’s location on a vast plain made it vulnerable to invading forces from both the east—most consequentially by the Mongol Tatars in the 13th to the 15th centuries—and the west by the Poles, Swedes, French, and twice by the Germans. Those frequent invasions greatly enhanced Russia’s sense of insecurity and played a major role in how Russia’s leaders approached the challenges of ensuring the survival of the Russian state.
At the same time, Russia’s vast expanse also worked in its favor by allowing Russian forces, as well as critical elements of its industrial base, to retreat into the heartland (during World War II the Soviets moved key industrial enterprises east of the Urals), thereby creating the strategic depth needed to outwait their enemies and eventually force their retreat or defeat them in battle. The wars that Russia fought over the centuries helped shape the nation, and geography and climate played a key role in how those wars were fought and ended.
Russia has historically employed massive ground forces and an extensive intelligence network to provide for the defense of the homeland and to undertake offensive operations against its weaker neighbors to secure and control a buffer zone, particularly along Russia’s western border that is home to much of the country’s population, agriculture, and industry. The extensive use of force has traditionally compensated for Russia’s economic and technological weakness and has played a major role—though often at a terrible human price—in defending Russia against invading forces, including those led by Napoleon and Hitler.
Geography also has played a key role in several traumatic shocks that Russia experienced over the centuries—most recently the loss of large parts of its territory at the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The geopolitical imperative for Russia has been to recover from the damage done by the loss of buffer zones on its western frontier and strategic depth for the homeland, which are vital components of Russia’s traditional defensive posture. That imperative has been a driving force behind Soviet and Russian foreign and defense policies. It remains so today as Putin’s regime assesses and reacts to current challenges it perceives from Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States.
Writing recently in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the future of Putin’s state, one of Putin’s ideological advisors at the time, Vladislav Surkov, argued that “the great internal tension caused by the need to control huge, heterogeneous geographic areas, and by the constant participation in the thick of geopolitical struggle make the military and policing functions of the government the most important and decisive.” This tension is not unique to Putin’s Russia; it has been a challenge that has plagued Russia for centuries.
Domestically, as I noted in a previous essay, the history of Russia has been marked by a struggle between the centrifugal forces attempting to pull the country apart and the centripetal forces that seek to maintain tight, central control over the country. This struggle is exacerbated by Russia’s geographical challenges.
Concerning its defense posture, Russia has struggled for centuries how to balance the allocation of resources to build up and maintain the armed forces and defense industries with the need to develop the civilian economy and improve the standard of living of the population. With rare exception, the former has been the dominant priority, while the latter is left with the remaining budgetary scraps. The reason for this is quite clear. The devastating impact of military conflicts, and most importantly of World War II, on the Russian state and the Russian psyche has been the fear of weakness and the overwhelming conviction that Russia must never again be defeated. This fear has been amplified over time by the strong belief that the West, and most importantly the United States, is pursuing a policy aimed at destabilizing Russia, with the ultimate goal being regime change. Consequently, the driving force behind Russian policy for centuries has been the defense of the Russian state above all else, and that remains the case for Vladimir Putin’s Russia today.
In examining Russia’s contemporary challenges, it is most useful to compare how the Soviet Union provided for the defense of the homeland in contrast with how Russia has addressed this challenge in the post-Soviet period.
The Soviet Union’s staggering military power was the leading indicator of its strength and the justification for its status as a superpower. From a ragtag band of partisans and poorly trained and equipped recruits, the Red Army emerged from the battle over the remnants of the tsarist army and other opposition forces to claim victory and to form the basis for what was to become a formidable fighting force that defended the Soviet homeland and served as the key vehicle by which the Soviet Union projected power throughout Eastern Europe and around the globe.
However, the path to emerging as the world’s most powerful military force after the United States was a costly one. It required the massive transformation of a country that was overwhelmingly a peasant society with only a nascent industrial base, and it required the induction of a large number of young men, mostly from rural regions with minimal education and skills, into what would become a massive army that drained the country’s resources but was justified by the perception of an international threat to the very existence of the Soviet Union.
The sacrifices made by the Soviet people were enormous. The transformation of Imperial Russia into the Soviet Union demanded a total restructuring of the economic, political, military, and social structures. In the years leading up to World War II, Joseph Stalin forced intensive industrialization upon the country’s largely peasant society to build a base for the modernization of the Red Army. Fearing, however, that a strong military could become a rival to the political leadership, Stalin took steps to ensure political loyalty and subservience of the Red Army to the Communist Party. Political commissars were attached to every military unit to instill the party line and monitor and report on the political reliability of the officer corps and the troops. The secret police also penetrated the armed forces and controlled special counterintelligence units that existed in all major military units.
Despite these efforts to control the military, Stalin remained suspicious of his military leadership. In 1937, on the eve of World War II, he ordered the arrest and execution of thousands of senior military officers. This purge of the Red Army’s most experienced and capable leaders severely impaired the Red Army’s capabilities in the initial years of World War II, or as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War.
The Great Patriotic War was the most momentous event in the defense of the Soviet Union and Soviet history. The losses were astounding. More than 26 million Soviet citizens—military and civilian—perished. The weaknesses of the Red Army following Stalin’s purge encouraged Hitler to launch a large-scale invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and to press his offensive deep into the Soviet heartland. Although Hitler’s forces were unable to occupy Moscow and Leningrad, they exacted a devastating toll. Leningrad remained under siege for more than 800 days, resulting in approximately 800,000 civilian casualties.
Hitler’s advance was finally stopped at the infamous Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and resulted in an estimated two million killed, wounded, or captured. It was the largest battle of World War II and marked the turning point in the war. Like Napoleon in the early 19th century, the invading forces suffered from overextended logistical lines, the severity of the Russian winter, and the tenacity of the defending forces. To this day, the Battle of Stalingrad is revered as the most dramatic example of the heroism of the Soviet people. A visit to the enormous monument erected on a hill overlooking Volgograd (the current name of Stalingrad) to commemorate the victory of the Soviet people is an exceptionally moving experience.
In the years following the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Armed Forces recovered from the devastating losses they incurred in battle. Under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership, the Soviet Union invested heavily in the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. Party-military relations improved, and the military leadership was elevated to more prominence than under Stalin. Nevertheless, the Communist Party remained wary of the military and took measures to limit its role in decision making. Although the armed forces received significantly more resources during the decades following the Great Patriotic War, budgetary issues remained a frequent cause of strain in party-military relations. This tension was particularly evident during the early 1980s when the economy experienced a downturn and in the final years of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership. Gorbachev cut the military budget to invest more heavily in the civilian sectors of the economy. He also engaged the United States in arms control negotiation to reduce the military threat and strains on the Soviet economy.
By this time, the Soviet Union had amassed more conventional forces and nuclear weapons than any other power in the world, even the United States, and could project power beyond its borders, not just to Eastern Europe, but also to parts of the developing world. The Soviet Armed Forces were formidable and were the principal prop of the Soviet regime, no matter how much the Communist Party leadership sought to portray itself as the crux of Soviet power. The Soviet Armed Forces and the military-industrial complex, however, were also the Achilles heel of the Soviet system because of the huge drain they put on the country’s economy at a time when other factors, including political and social tensions, were threatening the very system they vowed to protect. In the end, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Armed Forces were unable to prevent its demise.
The breakup of the Soviet Union had a devastating effect on Russia’s defense capabilities. Not only did Russia lose huge swaths of territory and suffer devastating cuts to its defense budget, but it also lost a notable portion of its military cohorts and equipment, including nuclear weapons, and a significant share of its defense industry that was now located in newly independent countries. Nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were returned to Russia where they were dismantled and destroyed with assistance from the United States and the Nunn-Lugar program. Other assets were lost for good.
Russia thus became much more vulnerable to outside threats. Its traditional buffer zone in the west was gone, and former members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. Ukraine and Georgia, which had been integral parts of the former Soviet Union, drew closer to NATO and aspired to become members.
The breakup of the Soviet Union also resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their foreign deployments in Eastern Europe and socialist-friendly countries in the developing world, including Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola.
The 1990s were traumatic years of transition from the old Soviet system to something new. The future of the country was unknown. The economy and the political system were in chaos. Crime was rampant, and poverty overtook the country. The armed forces suffered a similar fate. Budgets were drastically cut, and manpower losses were extensive. The heroic Soviet Armed Forces were no more. What remained under Russian control was a mere shadow of a gallant past.
Vladimir Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The repercussions of that collapse reverberated across domestic, foreign, and security spheres of post-Soviet Russia. Ever since then it has been Putin’s highest priority to reestablish Russia as a superpower that parallels the influence and prestige of the former Soviet Union. Rebuilding the Russian Armed Forces into a modern, formidable fighting force has been one of his most urgent tasks.
Putin reversed the drastic cuts to the budget of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex and approved a major reform and modernization of the military. Sweeping changes were made to personnel policy, and a robust program was undertaken to upgrade Russia’s extensive nuclear forces and develop long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons systems. Russian military doctrine, strategy, and operational art underwent a makeover in response to important lessons the Ministry of Defense learned from the weaknesses revealed during the two Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s and Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008. The use of “little green men” in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the expansion of other elements of hybrid warfare, including cyber warfare and the enhanced use of Russian military intelligence assets, reinforced the role of the Russian Armed Forces as a vital element in defending the Russian state and enhancing Russia’s great power aspirations. The projection of Russian military power abroad in places like Syria has further strengthened those aspirations.
Russia also has added paramilitary forces to its force projection capabilities. The Wagner Group is known as a Russian private military company whose contractors have taken part in conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine, but some believe that the Wagner Group is a unit of the Ministry of Defense. Currently, the Wagner Group is reportedly supporting government militias in the Central African Republic (CAR). Two years ago three Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Group in the CAR were ambushed and killed there. Two other Russian journalists who were looking into the Wagner Group suffered serious consequences for their work. One mysteriously fell to his death from a balcony in Yekaterinburg; the other was forced to go into hiding following threats to his life. There are rumors that the Wagner Group has already sent some of its mercenaries to Libya. Regardless of whether the Wagner Group is a private military organization or a unit of the Ministry of Defense, its role in conflicts is useful to the Kremlin when deniability is crucial.
Today, the Russian state remains strong militarily, despite deteriorating economic conditions and an increasingly problematic political future as Putin serves his fourth and perhaps final term as president. The likelihood of an external military threat is minimal. The Russian Armed Forces today have been transformed from the cumbersome, mass forces of the Soviet years into a smaller, more balanced, more mobile fighting force capable not only of defending the homeland but also of conducting the full scope of modern warfare. As Russia continues to invest heavily in building up its military to achieve military supremacy—a goal President Putin claims is possible with the development of new nuclear “superweapons”—there is a real danger that the heavy emphasis on the military, like in the Soviet Union before it, could put a serious strain on the socio-economic structure of the country.
Of equally grave concern to the defense of the state, as I pointed out in the first part of this essay, is instability and even possible disintegration due to the inability or unwillingness of the Russian leadership to address domestic challenges. This threat is not new. Previous regimes going back to tsarist times have also faced economic and social challenges. When reforms were undertaken to address them, they were usually minimal or ineffective. Consequently, regimes have often resorted to force and intimidation to control potential threats to the stability of the regime and the state. In a speech at the annual defense conference of the Russian Academy of Military Science on March 2, 2019, the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, claimed with no supporting evidence that the Pentagon was developing a new “Trojan Horse” strategy directed against Russia and elsewhere. Among the tools of this alleged strategy was the use of high-precision weapons mixed with “color revolutions” (a term the Russians use to refer to revolts against post-Soviet autocratic rulers in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and their replacement with democratic governments), and most interestingly, the active use of the “protest potential of a fifth column in the interest of destabilizing a situation.” Gerasimov claimed that this “Trojan Horse” strategy is being used now by the United States in Venezuela, and warned that Russia must be prepared, implying possibly by using the military, to suppress efforts to incite “fifth column protests” as part of the U.S. goal of effecting regime change in Russia. Thus, it could be argued that what the Kremlin fears is some of its people may side with the United States if it tries to bring about regime change. To the outsider, this may seem quite far-fetched. To the Kremlin, it is not. Although the military could conceivably play a role in suppressing internal dissent, whether as part of an alleged U.S. “Trojan Horse” strategy or some other expression of popular discontent, it is the security services and the police that have traditionally been used to maintain order and control the population.
Russia’s security services have a long history of protecting the state from internal dissent and suppressing threats—real and potential—to the regime in power. Emerging centuries ago in Tsarist Russia, the security forces struggled to protect the royal family and government leaders from a growing threat of terrorists and revolutionaries. Tsar Alexander II was killed in 1881, and other prominent officials met similar fates at the hands of assassins. Repression and retaliation were severe and reverberated throughout Russian society.
The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, promoted the use of terror and violence to solve political, social, and economic problems. In fact, without the widespread use of terror against its people, the Soviet Union would probably not have survived its formative years.
Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, elevated the role of the secret police, using them to eliminate all opposition—real and imagined—to him and his plans to consolidate his power and exert absolute rule over the entire Soviet system. The secret police exercised unprecedented cruelty, and their reign of terror penetrated all aspects of Soviet life. Stalin instituted one purge after another and exterminated millions of innocent people. The senior leadership of the Communist Party and the Red Army were decimated in the purges of the 1930s. Of the 1,961 members of the Communist Party who attended the 17th Party Congress in 1934, 1,108 were executed in the purges of 1937–1938. Three of the five marshals of the Red Army, more than 1,000 generals, and hundreds of lower-ranking officers were shot on the eve of World War II. Secret police agents and informers penetrated all sectors of society, striking fear among the entire population. People routinely betrayed friends and relatives to protect themselves from a similar fate. At the height of the purges at the end of the 1930s, more than 12 million people were arrested. Many were summarily executed; others were sent to the wide network of prison camps known as the gulag where they faced disease, starvation, and unbelievably harsh conditions. Only the heartiest and luckiest survived.
After Stalin died in 1953, the worst abuses by the secret police—renamed the Committee of State Security (KGB) by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954—were curtailed, and some political prisoners were released from the camps. The KGB, however, remained a powerful arm of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov—the latter a former head of the KGB—and was particularly effective in suppressing more vocal political dissent in the 1980s. Dissidents were sent to prison camps in the gulag, committed to psychiatric hospitals where they were often tortured and administered heavy doses of psychotropic and other drugs, or forced into exile.
The Soviet secret police also played a leading role abroad. During World War II, Soviet agents conducted extensive operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. Following the war, the Soviet secret police were instrumental in the consolidation and maintenance of Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Soviet agents remained active throughout Western Europe and extended their activities in the postwar years to many third-world countries. Soviet agents even penetrated U.S. and British weapons programs and intelligence agencies.
The impact of the powerful Soviet secret police was devastating for the Soviet people. Millions were exterminated or subjected to years of torture and imprisonment in the gulag, and the overwhelming majority of the population suffered from the oppressive nature of the regime. People distrusted all but very close family members and friends. The psychological toll was deep, and generations suffered. Many are still coming to terms with the past. Others—younger generations who did not experience the horrors of the Soviet past—do not bear the scars of the terror, but they also do not understand the depth of suffering of those who went before them. There has never been proper official atonement for the sins of the past. Unless that occurs, there will be those who reflect on the past with nostalgia or seek the return of Stalin-like “iron-hand rule,” and Russia will not be able to move forward to a better place.
Were the Soviet-era tools of terror and violence necessary to ensure the security and survival of the Soviet state? Certainly, it could be argued that they were essential for the Communist regime in its effort to consolidate and maintain power during very adverse conditions. But necessary for the survival of the state? Historians and political scientists have wrestled with this question for decades. I would argue that terror and violence failed over the long term to sustain the Soviet state. We saw what happened in the dark days of the Great Patriotic War when Stalin had to turn to the Russian Orthodox Church and the faith of the people in “Mother Russia” for support in the battle against the Nazi invaders. We also saw that in the final days of the Soviet Union there was little the secret police could do to prevent the collapse of the system. By that time, they were suffering from the same ills that affected all of society—bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and the inability to bring about change to a decaying political and economic system. In the end, although the KGB played a role in a failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, the security forces were unable to save themselves or the Soviet state. By that time, collapse was inevitable.
After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was transformed. Its functions were divided between the newly formed Federal Security Service (FSB), which became responsible for internal security, and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which was tasked with foreign intelligence. Together with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU), these three intelligence agencies became a formidable force in Russia’s struggle with its internal and external foes.
President Vladimir Putin is a product of the KGB. He spent his formative adult years as a KGB officer. From 1984 to 1990 he was stationed in Dresden, East Germany. Upon the collapse of the Soviet empire, he resigned from the KGB and returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg where he worked as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of the city. Later, President Boris Yeltsin selected Putin to head the KGB and then made him prime minister shortly before he resigned. Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president on January 1, 2000. Putin’s years in the KGB shaped his mentality and molded his worldview, and as president, Putin has surrounded himself with like-minded men from his days in the KGB and his years working in St. Petersburg.
Putin relies heavily on the intelligence services to defend the Russian state. In the international arena, the GRU has become one of Putin’s most important tools although the SVR and increasingly the FSB are also very active in the international arena. The SVR, for example, was responsible for managing the 10 Russian sleeper agents, including the infamous Anna Chapman, who were expelled from the United States in 2010.
The GRU was founded a century ago and has continued to function as the main military intelligence agency. Its operations extend worldwide. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian mafia and Russian intelligence agencies described in an interview several years ago on National Public Radio, “The GRU is basically a war-fighting organization. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Russia is at war. It’s a political war, but it’s at war with the West.” The GRU has played a prominent role in Russia’s cyberattacks around the world and notably in the United States presidential election in 2016. The GRU also was instrumental in carrying out Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and it continues to be involved in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas.
The GRU is also an active player in so-called “wet affairs,” a euphemism for assassinations. For years assassinations were quietly carried out by Russia’s security agencies with few if any claims of responsibility. In 2006 the Kremlin became more open about the use of this deadly tool when Putin signed a law legalizing targeted assassinations abroad. Two GRU agents were identified in the West as the perpetrators of the attempted assassination of former GRU agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England in 2018. Other GRU agents are suspected of numerous attempted or actual murders around the world. The Kremlin views the use of offensive cyber operations, disinformation, interference in foreign elections, hybrid warfare, assassinations, and spies and agents as critical to its efforts to disrupt and weaken the democratic process in the West, and particularly in the United States, which it sees as its main enemy.
The FSB today is the primary agency protecting the state against internal dissent and threats. As the main heir to the KGB, the FSB, in cooperation with special police units of the National Guard of Russia known by the acronym OMON, ferrets out activities it deems threatening to the state and the Putin regime and enforces the increasingly draconian laws the Russian legislature adopts to restrict political activists and discourage public protests. Recent laws adopted by the legislature and signed by Putin, for example, prohibit online “blatant disrespect” of the government and dissemination of “fake news.” Violation of these laws can result in hefty fines or imprisonment.
Although most public protests in recent years have been motivated by grassroots dissatisfaction with local conditions (environmental problems, corruption, and inept governmental policies) and Kremlin policy decisions (the return of Putin to power in 2012, changes to the pension system in 2018, and current plans to cut off Russia from the internet), authorities attribute many of these protests to either direct foreign involvement or encouragement by foreign governments and non-governmental organizations. On December 20, 2018, Russia marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police, known at that time as the Cheka. In commemorating that event, the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, praised Stalin’s vicious secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, and warned that “the destruction of Russia is still an obsession for many” foreign powers. Speaking on March 6, 2019, at a meeting of senior FBS officials, Vladimir Putin reinforced the point that foreign intelligence services have stepped up their activities in Russia by stating that they were “doing everything they can to obtain access to political, economic, scientific, and technological information.” He claimed that in 2018 Russia’s security services had uncovered almost 600 operatives and agents of foreign intelligence services and urged Russia’s intelligence agencies to “be efficient” and use techniques “based on modern methods of work.” Putin did not mention any foreign powers or intelligence agencies by name, but the United States most certainly figured prominently in his mind. The arrest of two Americans, one of whom—Paul Whelan—has been charged with espionage, is cited in the Russian state media as evidence of the continuous effort of the United States to damage the Russian state.
Dissent in Russia manifested by public protests has been tightly controlled by the security forces and the police and has been largely ineffective. Leaders of the opposition are constantly monitored and are often arrested on the eve of demonstrations they have organized.
There was a wave of popular demonstrations in major cities in late 2011–early 2012 against a corrupt election to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian legislature) and Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012. Harsh action against those demonstrations put a severe damper on attempts to turn a nascent protest movement into a more meaningful expression of popular discontent. For the next several years, those who sought change and tried to spread an anti-Putin message found little support among the population. People were either afraid or indifferent. It was only the government’s plans in 2018 to raise the pension age that brought many people—both opposition forces and ordinary citizens—out onto the streets to protect. Those demonstrations were not principally political; they were focused on pocketbook issues and the ability of ordinary citizens to deal with what they considered to be a threat to their economic well-being. The demonstrators represented all economic and social layers of society. Not only did senior citizens come out to protest, but young people did as well, some as young as pre-teens. The police did not discriminate in cracking down on the protestors. Pictures appeared on the internet of police arresting pensioners and children as young as nine years old.
What is different now from the public protests of 2011–2012 is that ordinary citizens (admittedly, still a small segment of the population) feel that government policies are hurting rather than helping them. Protesters today tend to represent a poorer cohort of the Russian population as distinguished from the largely middle-class protesters of 2011–2012. With a stagnant economy, declining living standards, and little prospect for improvement in people’s lives, the Kremlin has every reason to be concerned. Although the overwhelming majority of the population remains strong supporters of the Russian state and believes Russia is a great nation, the Kremlin and its security forces remain suspicious and vigilant.
On more than one occasion in world history, political explosions have occurred in societies that on the surface appeared calm and under control. Russia’s leaders have reason to worry. The North Caucasus region remains a breeding ground for insurgency and terrorism, and historical animosities among various ethnic groups still exist. The mass deportation to Siberia and Central Asia of non-Russian ethnic minorities by Stalin during the Great Patriotic War has not been forgotten. Discrimination against Muslims, particularly against those from poorer parts of Russia and migrants from Central Asia, is not uncommon. Russia’s so-called “Muslim problem” will become even more acute in the coming decades. Russia’s grand mufti recently predicted that within the next 15 years, one-third of the population of Russia will be Muslim. For the Kremlin and its security services, this raises the question of loyalty among certain segments of the population. In the minds of some, General Gerasimov’s bizarre claim about the Pentagon’s “Trojan Horse” strategy serves as a serious warning that the Russian state is imperiled and it must be prepared to repulse any possible threats from enemies, both domestic and foreign.
I concluded Part I of this essay with a warning that perhaps most threatening to the cohesion of the Russian state in the long term was not a physical attack from the West, over which the Kremlin excessively obsesses, but the gradual erosion of Moscow’s control over parts of Siberia and the Far East as a result of Chinese intrusion into the economic and eventually the political life of the region. I would like to expand on this point.
Russia’s relations with China are much more complex than what is portrayed in their respective media. The growing friendship and strengthening economic, political, and even military ties cannot hide the fact that this relationship is being increasingly dominated by China, with Russia, despite its military superiority, emerging as the weaker of the two partners. China as an economic powerhouse sees Russia not only as a source of much-needed resources and investment but also as potential Lebensraum for a burgeoning population that could benefit from expansion into the sparsely populated, resource-rich territory. We must remember that unlike European countries that do not lay claim to any Russian lands (Crimea excluded), China has a long history of territorial claims and disputes with Russia. The Treaty of Aigun of 1858 transferred more than 600,000 square kilometers to Russia and defined much of what is the present-day border between Russia and China. The most recent violent manifestation of their territorial dispute occurred over seven months in 1969. Military skirmishes erupted along the border, but the most serious one occurred in March over the Damansky (Zhenbao) Island in the Ussuri River—one of the rivers that marks the boundary between the two countries. The issue was not resolved until the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement was signed in 1991, by which Zhenbao Island was recognized as Chinese territory. Other territorial issues, however, remained unresolved until they were settled in additional border agreements in 2003 and 2008. Some in China still consider the Treaty of Aigun an unequal treaty and retain irredentist claims that large portions of Siberia and the Russian Far East rightfully belong to China.
From a practical perspective whatever territorial claims China may still entertain, there are few, if any Chinese who would suggest that these claims be resolved militarily. On the contrary, China’s interest in the region and its strategy for extending its influence are economic.
Chinese economic investment into Siberia and the Russian Far East has mushroomed in recent years. With investment come Chinese workers. Currently, there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Chinese workers in Russia. Although the influx of workers and investment can be economically beneficial to the relatively weak local Russian economy, the presence of the Chinese can breed resentment and stir ethnic animosity among the Russian population. This is further exasperated by the fact that Russian businessmen are often in collusion with their Chinese partners and are gaining profits at the expense of Russia’s national interest, the local economy, and the local inhabitants.
A case in point is the furor several years ago over a Chinese project in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. Lake Baikal is considered part of Russia’s sacred patrimony. A Chinese project, in partnership with Russian businessmen, which had been seeking to bottle Lake Baikal’s water and then build a pipeline to transport the lake’s water to China, outraged the population across Russia. Chinese press reports further exacerbated the situation by suggesting that Lake Baikal was a Chinese lake. Russian environmentalists warned that the Chinese were attempting to turn Lake Baikal into a swamp. Anger among Russians reached a fever pitch. The project was put on hold after a Russian court ruled that local authorities had illegally issued a construction permit for the bottling plant.
This is an example of how foreign investment projects, if not properly managed, can go wrong. But what does this kerfuffle mean for the future of Chinese investment in Russia and Russo-Chinese relations? Much depends on Russia. It is clear to even the most ardent Russian patriots that Moscow has been lax, if not corruptly negligent, in investing its resources into improving the infrastructure and quality of life of large sections of Russia, particularly rural areas, towns, and cities far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The contrast between what China is offering and what Russia is failing to do, or is doing at an inferior level, is stark. Russians cannot fail to take notice. There comes a point in the struggle between patriotism and a better life when people may be willing to sacrifice the former for the latter. Unless Russia steps up its investment and undertakes serious economic reform, including getting control over rampant corruption, Chinese influence in Siberia and the Russian Far East will continue to grow. How this will play out politically is yet to be determined. There are clear warning signs that the Kremlin needs to step up its game if it does not want to lose out to China.
There is another scenario that some analysts cite about how the future of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and by analogy other regions of Russia, could develop. They argue that local authorities could reject both Moscow and Beijing and decide to go it alone and try to build regional power centers. Although it is commendable that they would want to take responsibility for bringing major improvements to their region, they would most likely struggle to find sufficient investment to make that possible. Private companies would be reluctant to commit the necessary resources to projects without proper government approval. Given the way Moscow and Beijing do business, this scenario is not realistic. If it were, significant changes way beyond what has already been accomplished in Russia would have already occurred. Instead, the vast area of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and other regions of Russia remain vulnerable to China’s growing influence and the weakening of Moscow’s control. This is a serious, long-term problem and one that requires the Kremlin’s immediate attention before it affects the security and stability of the Russian state.
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