Why Russia Fed the Limitrophes

People are conditioned so that most, while being extremely compromising in words, in practice perceive an agreement solely as the acceptance of their terms by the opponent. Therefore, during the revolutions and coups the compromise centre is almost instantly eroded, and the main political forces are stretched to opposite poles. Similarly, if you want to be noticed during elections, then put forward radical ideas.

Modern steady political systems have learned to fight against radical populists, either by neutralising them via their incorporation into the existing political and power structures, or (in especially advanced cases) blocking them on the distant approaches to power. But this mechanism works only as long as the system is stable. Once the serious political crisis starts, radical populists instantly begin to pull society towards the poles, pumping their supporters with irreconcilability towards their opponents and reverence for the “only true” idea.

It must be kept in mind that all these “only true” ideas are also present and discussed in a stable society. It’s just that their impact on the masses is microscopic, even though it seems to their adherents (who only communicate in a narrow circle) that “the whole world is with them”, and all who think differently “were paid off”, “intimidated”, or just initially “not one of ours”. Political strategists/organisers of “colour” putsches learned to use this feature of the human psyche. One of the main conditions defining efficiency of a putsch, along with the existence of external support and an internal fifth column ready to paralyse the resistance of the legitimate authority (or at least to reduce its efficiency), is the presence of an active minority so confident in their super-valuable ideas, and also that “the whole world” is with them, including the passive majority of their own country that it is ready to kill and die “for the sake of a bright future” if not for all of mankind, then at least for their own people.

I remember how future Maidan supporters in Ukraine during the Georgian coup (which happened just a year before the first Ukrainian putsch) said: “It’s impossible that this can happen in Ukraine. We are not Georgians”. They, by the way, cited as an example the PR campaign “Ukraine without Kuchma”, which ingloriously ended two years prior. Back then the radicals trying to demolish the authorities by force were too few (the active minority did not have time to increase its number sufficiently). The fifth column could not permanently paralyse the resistance of the authorities. But less than a year later, “non-Georgians” admired the Georgians and tried to go even further.

Now I often hear from “Russian laypeople” that it’s impossible that a Maidan can happen in Russia (“we are not Ukrainians”). Right now, the fifth column in Russia is weak and unable to paralyse the government, and certain radical groups are absolutely marginal. However, the experience of other countries (even the US, where the anti-Trump “Vagina Maidan” in November-December 2016 was organised in only a few weeks) demonstrates that adverse conditions can suddenly come, and centres and forces designed to shake the situation are constantly at work, trying to find the slightest weakness.

As mentioned above, the most important thing for the emergence of a radical active minority is the presence of a super-valuable idea. In the information space of Russia there are several such potential super-valuable ideas (from the restoration of the monarchy, to the restoration of the USSR, or a return to the “saintly 90s”), whose adherents are ready to at any moment make Russia and the universe happy via mass executions. But in order for the idea of rebuilding society to take a hold among even an active minority (rather than a few dozen marginals), it is necessary to convince people that the current government, no matter how good it is, isn’t coping with its responsibilities.

Such attempts are constantly made, and from different directions. Even during the coronavirus epidemic forces worked against the authorities from several diametrically opposite positions, from “there is no virus, they are lying to us about everything” to “the government is hiding the scale of the epidemic”. But epidemics come and go, and the boat should be swung constantly. Stories about Putin’s palaces and trillions” have already ceased to even cause laughter. Children from who Putin personally “stole taxes”, from money they never even earned, are not even detained for unauthorised rallies: they are shown on TV so that parents recognise their children and become ashamed of their incompetent years. The “collapse of medicine”, as well as the “collapse of education”, is aimed at very specific groups that will never unite for mass street protests. Although as a background for the real super-idea these two subjects can be used very effectively (someone is always dissatisfied with medical treatment, as well as education).

A true super-idea has to unite right and left, communists, monarchists, nationalists, the poor and the rich. Considering that Russia has in general been living rather steadily over the past 10 years, and the horror of the 90s has not yet faded from the memory of the generations who survived it, it is almost impossible to unite a more or less considerable group of people on the basis of internal political opposition to the authorities. There are always dissatisfied people everywhere, but in our case, even the majority of dissatisfied people are not dissatisfied enough to risk a concrete cozy present for the sake of an abstract “bright future”.

Therefore, the eyes of creators of the super-idea regularly turn to the foreign policy sphere. It is such a Klondike for populists. Firstly, in the foreign policy sphere, like in the economic sphere, “every Gascon has been an academician since childhood. The majority of the population is not only interested in these issues (even after their favourite TV series), but also considers themselves to be the largest authorities in these spheres. Secondly, if falsifications about the economy, like “40,000 plants were destroyed by Putin personally, are easily disproved by messages and photos from places (every citizen of Russia is capable of evaluating the changes happening in their own region), then foreign policy is a closed sphere, and the benefit or harm from today’s decisions becomes visible not immediately. Moreover, even after decades (when politics becomes history), the assessment of a specific event depends on its interpretation (often emotional). So the foreign policy sphere is fertile for producing interpretations that point to the alleged “fallacy” of the policy pursued by the government. On the basis of these interpretations, one can try to intensify distrust of the government and a desire to change it. And from here, from the foreign policy sphere, it is possible to take the super-idea that vaguely describes the “beautiful new world”. It is vague because the more specific you declare your intentions and preferences, the fewer supporters you have (people quickly notice small differences from their own position, and you become in their eyes “paid off” or “sold out”).

Today, in the sphere of foreign policy, there are several perspective embryos of oppositional super-ideas. All of them revolve around the same topic: the government is accused of “foolishly” or “cowardly” “surrendering” or “selling” the national interests of Russia. As a rule, they come from two sides. Some say that Russia lost to the West in the fight for the post-Soviet space because it was “too greedy”, “didn’t help enough”, and “didn’t rely on the right people”. Others blame the Russian authorities for “not immediately removing [the scattered republics of the USSR – ed] from the maintenance bill”. Both draw the same conclusion: “Russia surrendered or sold to the West its interests in neighbouring countries, and the policy of the authorities in power does not correspond to the state interests of Russia”. There are, by the way, skilled craftsman (actually paid to do this) who manage to defend both of these points of view at the same time.

We’ve repeatedly considered the first point of view (about the “insufficient eagerness” of Russia in the fight for the “minds and hearts” of the people who ran away from it). Let me remind you concisely. Firstly, Russia invested much more money in the former Soviet republics (in joint economic projects) than the US and the EU. When they say that this is how Moscow financed the oligarchs, where as the US, they say, worked with people, this is not true. For a start, American state and private projects “for the creation of civil society” were created together with local oligarchs. Moreover, the West sought to quickly transfer to local residents the lion’s share of financing. At the same time, the economic projects that were financed by Russia ensured the wellbeing of wide layers of the “ordinary people” (hard workers from those plants that produced products that were needed by nobody except Russia). And, for example, the low energy prices for Ukraine and Belarus supported not only the economy, but also social stability in these countries for decades.

Secondly, Russia in principle could not compete with the US in throwing free dollars around. Russia proposed to earn money together (that “rod instead of fish” which liberals like to talk about). But if Moscow made an attempt to buy up the “creative class” (which the Americans satiated with free “fish” instead of offending its tender feelings by the offer of a “rod”), then it would instantly become clear that the US will easily print more dollars than Russia would earn (and “the creative class” did no accept rubles back then).

Thirdly, when they say that “the wrong people were helped”, they, as a rule, cannot answer the question: who should have been helped with money? Chernomyrdin, for example, helped Vitrenko, and everyone knows what the result of this was. Some say that it was necessary to help them personally. These are people who are sure that, having received one million dollars, they would immediately seize power in the country. Actually, having received one million, they would buy an apartment/car, and would use the rest to go on vacation. Just because you cannot acquire much with one million dollars (you can, for example, publish an average newspaper for five years or a bad one for ten years), but even for a serious systemic party much more is needed (and not just a one-time amount of money, but an annual one). Therefore, the Americans also hook up the local “creative class” to local financing ― a grant from the US or the EU was only a tag for the locals, to whom the money had to be given.

The fight “for hearts and minds” was blocked precisely because the local oligarchy (and therefore the government controlled by it) of post-Soviet countries was happy to accept the concept of “using Russian money to join the EU and NATO” and financed civil initiatives in their respective countries, and also joyfully limited the presence of Russian media in their information market, leaving Western propaganda in a monopoly position.

Representatives of the second point of view (in whole or in part) agree with all the above-mentioned (that it was necessary to instantly, already in 1992, “remove parasites from maintenance” and “spend money on our own people”). It would seem that this is logical: why spend hundreds of billions of dollars on outright enemies and unfaithful allies if it is possible to cut all funding to them, and let the US, the EU, and NATO covers their expenses?

Unfortunately, politics is dialectic and formal logic does not work in it. Could Russia really have ended economic cooperation with the former Soviet republics on a one-time basis? No, it could not.

On the surface lies the story with the Baltic ports. In order to bypass them, it was necessary to construct our own capacities in the same Ust-Luga, to expand the capabilities of St. Petersburg and other ports, to provide logistic corridors for different types of goods, and to reorient shippers (not only our own, but also foreign ones). All of this cannot be done in just one year and demands a lot of money. As soon as these issues were resolved, the Balts were “removed from maintenance”, having deactivated cargo flows to their ports.

I will remind that more than a half of the enterprises of the Soviet military-industrial complex was located on the territory of Ukraine. Without them, the closed cycle of production of most types of defence products collapsed. And Belarus has some unique strategic production facilities that Russia has been able to replace only now (or will be ready to replace them in the coming years). Without economic cooperation, the production cycle in Russia collapsed, and even the ability of the army to perform its functional duties was under threat. Let me remind you that already at the time of Alexander III an attempt was made to grow even cotton in Central Asia, and especially in large quantities this business was organised under the Soviet authorities, not because for tailoring soldier’s gymnastyorkas it was difficult to buy better one abroad, but for reasons of strategic security (cotton was a part of gunpowder).

But maybe it was possible to at least sell energy at a more expensive price? It’s also unlikely. To begin with, as was said, an overwhelming part of the Ukrainian and Belarusian industry worked for the Russian market, and not just for an abstract market, but for the benefit of the Russian military-industrial complex. The cost of energy in Ukraine was from 20% to 60% of the cost of end products in various industries. Respectively, when Ukrainian production became more expensive, Russian final products also became more expensive. For the Russian budget (including the military budget) each extra kopek of expenses in the 1990s-2000s was a significant encumbrance.

But not even this consideration is primary (we can say that Gazprom would have earned the lost defence industry, and it would have turned out for Russia like no differently). The point is not only that any state has to ensure the fighting capacity of its army, which is impossible without a rhythmically working military-industrial complex, but also that the Americans sought to break the energy link between the EU and Russia since the time of the USSR. Since the collapse of the Union, they have actively promoted the idea of supplying energy to the European market from the Caucasus and Central Asia, pushing Europe to finance the construction of gas and oil pipelines bypassing Russia. But the assiduous Europeans, having Russia as a reliable supplier of adequately-priced energy, formally considering different projects, were in no hurry to implement them. In order to force them to get down to business seriously, it was necessary to create a threat to direct supplies from Russia.

In the beginning in Ukraine the “gas wars” with Russia were unprofitable neither for people, nor for the oligarchs or politicians. They didn’t care what happened to the Ukrainian economy if Russian gas supplies were cut off, the most important thing was that at the same time gas would stop coming to the EU. But before the February 2014 putsch, even the most inadequate Ukrainian politicians did not risk being left without Russian energy resources or even significantly limiting their supplies. They understood that the instant shock from economic collapse would be so strong that they themselves would be demolished. In Ukraine the “gas wars” with Russia was at first unprofitable for the people, the oligarchs, and the politicians. But they could not pay the full (European) price for energy: the low energy prices were the only competitive advantage of the post-Soviet industry, otherwise it would not be able to hold onto even its own market.

With the growth of power of the Ukrainian oligarchy and the formation of a favourable environment for global metal prices, Ukraine had the opportunity to pay more, and it was immediately implemented by Yushchenko, who literally forced Gazprom to initially raise the price of gas by one and a half times (and at the peak, after Yushchenko, by nine times) compared to the contract (at $50 per thousand cubic meters until 2009). Yushchenko starting a gas war to raise the price would seem like foolishness, but in the next five years similar “foolishness” was regularly allowed by Ukrainian politicians. The matter is that presidents, their entourage, and the leadership of Naftogaz had their own percentage from the price of Russian gas, since a part of it (at the initiative of the Ukrainian side) was delivered through intermediary structures. The higher the price, the more the money that came from this percentage. In addition, Ukrainian oligarchs realised that it is possible to earn even more from high prices than from low ones, if, of course, someone who will pay for it (and it was the people who had to pay) can be found. As for the people, by this time the system had become stronger and was no longer afraid of them.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Russia accepted reduced gas prices and intermediary schemes (where Ukrainian politicians could steal) not out of great love for Ukraine, but out of necessity. Gazprom needed to hold on to its European consumers in the conditions of a lack of alternative to the Ukrainian gas transit route. But by 2010 the situation had changed. No matter how many times Yanukovych and Azarov went to Moscow, trying to convince Russia to drop the price of gas in exchange for smiles, the Kremlin firmly stood by its position – a price reduction is possible only if Ukraine joins the Customs Union on common grounds for all members of this Union.

Kiev could not understand why they started to be “suddenly removed from maintenance”. The former regionals who remained in Kiev and dreamt of returning to power even now think that Yanukovych simply did the incorrect ritual dance in front of Putin, and that’s why there was no good hunting, whereas they will be definitely able to return everything to the way it was. They can’t, and neither can Lukashenko, who is also surprised and indignant that the loyalty fee has ended (or, in his case, has sharply decreased).

The matter is that Russia paid not just for smiles and political curtseys, as some think. Russia solved the strategic task of protecting its national economic interests in the conditions of economic self-insufficiency and complete domination of the enemy vis-a-vis trade routes. And Russia achieved its goal. When the Americans were finally able to cut its production ties with Ukrainian enterprises, most of the duplicate production had already been created, and some of the ones that Russia still depended on (turbodiesel for the Navy and helicopter engines) were operational over the next two years. By 2020 most of the bypass gas pipelines became operational. In addition, Russian companies (Gazprom, Rosneft, and others) have created alternative ways of delivering liquefied gas to Europe and have also entered the Chinese market, which creates space for them to manoeuvre.

It is impossible to say, of course, that the Americans have not at all been able to create difficulties for Russia: “Nord Stream-2” still hasn’t been completed. But firstly, these difficulties are surmountable, and secondly, by plotting against Russia, the Americans are simultaneously striking at the serious economic interests of their European allies. And not only Germany. Several major companies from leading European countries have been integrated into the same “Nord Stream-2” project. And they incur additional costs (at least in the form of lost profits, although shareholders suffer direct losses from delays and rising construction costs). All of this slowly but surely undermines mechanisms of American influence in the EU.

It was good while cooperation with the Americans made profits for the Europeans, but when the actions of the US started to yield serious losses, and even a crisis, European businesses start to demand a reaction from their politicians. If the acting politicians are incapable of providing them with adequate protection, they start to look to the “new right” (eurosceptics), playing the national interests card. Gradually, the national administration of the states of the EU start to enter into an increasingly rigid standoff not only with the Americans, but also with pro-American European bureaucracy. Moreover, the positions of pro-American European bureaucracy are also weakening (while it is in the European Parliament that they are appointed at the suggestion of the national governments, and approved by the vote of the same French, Germans, etc).

All this does not happen at once, but the droplet sharpens the stone.

Well, to make it clear what Russia risked if it did a one-time severance in 1992 (or later) of all economic ties with the former Soviet republics, let’s turn to the example of the Black Sea shipbuilding plant in Nikolaev. It was the only shipyard in the USSR capable of building aircraft carriers. In addition to it, large-capacity warships (nuclear-powered missile cruisers) were built by the Baltic plant. The Americans managed to quickly destroy the plant in Nikolaev. Russia has not yet been able to restore the production of aircraft carriers, although it expects to do so by 2030. Perhaps they will be built at the Far East “Zvezda” plant, the first stage of which came into operation only in 2016. But the enterprises of the Union republics supplied parts for the entire range of weapons that are manufactured in Russia. And some of them were as difficult to replace as it was to re-establish the production of aircraft carriers.

Thus, Russia solved its strategic problems without “removing from maintenance” some Union republics. As soon as these problems were solved, the “removal” began. Somewhere in the mid-2000s, “smile diplomacy in exchange for economic preferences”, which was actively used by “allies”, started to fail, and in recent years it has not worked at all.

Now “allies” actively accuse Russia of not wanting to maintain them anymore and use as a threat “the example of the lost Ukraine”. But Ukraine, like others, was lost long before it was removed from maintenance. They were lost at the time of the collapse of the USSR, when their elites placed a stake on the “independent milking of their own cow”. From now on, it was clear that the strategic interests of the new state elites would sooner or later (and sooner rather than later) diverge from the interests of Russia. Moscow needed to buy time to reformat its own economy, to avoid dependence on the Union republics both concerning the supply of strategic goods and control over its own trade routes. Even the issue of food security in Russia was fully resolved only in 2012-2014. And had this issue not been solved, Western sanctions would have hit ordinary Russians. The food wouldn’t have run out, it would just have gone up in price by a lot. This is what partners were counting on, trying to internally destabilise Russia. But this didn’t work either.

The problems of economic self-sufficiency have generally been solved. But this comes at a cost. Moscow paid for its economic self-sufficiency today with trade and economic concessions in the past. Therefore, when we consider how much money has been invested in the economies of “non-brothers” [post-Soviet states brainwashed by US propaganda – ed], it should be understood that had it not been for these investments, the costs would have been much higher, and it is not a fact that by now Russia would be able to solve all the problems of self-sufficiency, without which it is impossible to effectively pursue its global interests.

Any financial-economic measures taken against anyone can return like a boomerang and hit one’s own forehead. No matter what, as with our Western “friends and partners”, who imposed sanctions on Russia and now do not know how to lift them (so as to not lose face), a precise calculation and a long-term program of action are needed. This all costs money, but the results achieved so far have been worth the cost.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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