Japan-World Trends [English] The author of this blog will answer to your questions and comments. And this is the only place in the world where you can engage in free discussion with people from English, Japanese, Chinese and Russian speaking areas.


June 7, 2022

When Russia Loses Its Great Power Status in Eurasia

(this is the introduction to my new book "The Rise and Fall of Russia", which has been published just today. So far there is only Japanese version.)

 Russia is now at a crossroads in its history. The question is whether Russia, or rather this large region called Russia, can survive as a country, or even as a form of civilization. If Russia only clamps down domestically and dominates its surroundings by threatening and invading with force, it will only shrink like a white dwarf star as its sources of income, namely oil and gas, lose their meaning.

Russia has been fighting an uphill battle, as evidenced by the destruction of more than 600 tanks, or one-sixth of its tank fleet, as early as the beginning of the war with Ukraine. In the end, Russia will not be able to consolidate its control over Eastern Ukraine, creating a permanent conflict zone.

For now, Russia's economy has not yet collapsed, as Russian crude oil and natural gas exports continue and prices have soared. However, as the world enters a recession, led by both the U.S. and China, energy prices will eventually fall, and the EU will embargo Russian crude oil by the end of this year, while steadily reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas, too.

Thus, Russia will face the same situation of falling oil prices and inflation as it did after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Putin's approval rating will decline as it did at that time. Putin will not be able to run for the presidency in 2024, and he will eventually be forgotten by everyone, just like Czar Nicholas I in the first half of the 19th century, who oppressed reform movements in the society only to be discredited by the failures in the Crimean War.

The Putin era, which lasted for 20 years, is about to come to an end. Russia will now enter a period of instability in anticipation of the 2024 presidential election. The siloviki, or the secrete police FSB (formerly the KGB) who have been the mainstay of Putin's power, will feel uneasy to continue to carry him on their shoulders. In the September 2021 general election for the lower house of parliament, the opposition Communist Party made a considerable leap forward, winning about 20% of the vote. It is quite conceivable that the siloviki could carry the Communist Party's presidential candidate. They are familiar to each other since they both were the main ingredients of the Soviet communist society.

But more factors should be reckoned with for the next presidential post. If Putin resigns in the middle of his term, Prime Minister Vladimir Mishustin will become acting president under the Constitution, and presidential elections will be held within three months.
In the elections quite a few ambitious politicians will join the race, including Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma (Lower House of the Parliament). Some of them will not hesitate to resort to use of violence and terror.

One has to note that the upper echelons of Russia's various organizations have aged almost across the board, and Putin's replacement will lead to a generational shift in many of the country's organizations, causing internecine battles in each organization. All of these will create a vacuum of power in the center.

This reminds one of the situation at the end of 1991, which was engendered by the struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

A power vacuum in the center unleashes wanton assertion of power by local entities: in late 1991 the autonomous republics of different ethnic groups or powerful states attempted to usurp powers similar to national sovereignty, refusing to transfer tax revenues to the central government. If important transportation lines, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway, are impeded by the presence of such entities, Russia will cease to function as one country.

In addition, the countries of the former Soviet Union will change their attitude to Russia. In Central Asia and elsewhere, the prevailing view used to be "China is the trump card for the economy, but Russia is the trump card for security". But this will no longer be the case.

The war in Ukraine has spread the perception that Russia is a fearsome country that invades neighbors by force, or that the Russian military is weak and unreliable. These are conflicting attitudes, but both turn the minds of former Soviet countries away from Russia.
Putin has repeatedly used force to annex the territories of former Soviet states that defied him, or to recognize them as independent states. In August 2008, he invaded Georgia and made South Ossetia and Abkhazia "independent," in March 2014, he "annexed" the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, and in February 2022, he recognized parts of Lugansk and Donetsk in Ukraine as independent states.

But, in fact, none of the former Soviet republics recognized any of them. As for the current war in Ukraine, many countries have maintained a neutral stance. Thus, Putin, in trying to stop the momentum of the collapse of the Soviet Union in Ukraine, may have inadvertently consolidated the break-up.

Such an ironical phenomenon sometimes takes place in history. For example in August 1991, conservative forces resorted to a coup attempt, trying to stop the Soviet Union from becoming a federation state, but their failure led to Yeltsin's rise and eventual fall of the Soviet Union.

China, India, and other countries are protecting Russia for now, but as Russia sinks, they will abandon it. For there is no way to save Russia, and relations with Russia will only become a burden for them.

 During the Soviet era, most companies were state-owned and operated in a planned economy where production, prices, and sales destinations were dictated from above. This was the envy of the world when the world suffered from the Great Depression in 1929, but in the mass consumer society of the postwar era, only its shortcomings became noticeable.

Companies were able to fulfill their plans as long as they produced the ordered items, to the ordered specifications, in the ordered quantities, and delivered them to the ordered recipients. This bureaucratic endeavor entitled them to a bonus. Because there was no competition, companies did not care about the quality of their products. In other words, the planned economy became a "fake economy" with commodities of no use, and Russia decisively got behind the "truly" industrialized nations.

Even today, Russian companies lack the skills to operate in a market economy, and they lack the funds to develop new technologies: the sheer size of their business is much smaller than that in the West. Some sectors, such as automobiles, have begun to catch up by bringing in foreign capital, but after the break-out of war in Ukraine almost all foreign companies have stopped or abandoned operations in Russia.

I remember the cheerful faces of Moscow citizens the morning after the August 1991 conservative coup d'etat was foiled by popular resistance. The confidence that they had defeated the conservative forces by their own power and the hope for the future were visible on their faces.

But that hope is gone now. The reason is that those who know only the Soviet-era model of governance are sitting on the throne of power, with Putin at the helm. The intellectuals who should show the way for reform are but a weak presence. Almost no one among the intellectuals can discuss politics and economics in a combined manner. Some intellectuals indulge in debates that have nothing to do with the reality of Russia, such as the debate between the "Westernizers" and the "Slavophils. The Westernizers are those who yearn for Western liberalism and economic systems. And the Slavophils are those who cling to the ancient Eurasian values, claiming that Western liberalism and individualism would destroy the patriarchal and despotic order in Russia.

Such arguments do not matter to the general public. The Russian intelligentsia is separated from the general public. The middle class, which should be the foundation of democracy, is also weak in Russia; officials, teachers, employees of state-run companies are supported by the state budget.

Are the youth Russia's brightest stars? Russia's low life expectancy makes it a country with a large youth population: those under the age of 34 account for more than 40% of the total population. Young people are not afraid, and they are far from authoritarianism. When you go to a live bar in Moscow, the atmosphere is exactly the same as in the U.S. or Europe. It is free, cheerful, and full of energy. Russia might change if people like them were to go out into the society.

However, when I was teaching at a university in Moscow, I felt that today's students are more conservative than those of the 1990s. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, students' eyes lit up with the expectation that a free society had finally arrived and that they could do and be anything they wanted.

With the subsequent default of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO and sanctions against Russia by the West, students lost the easy liberal orientation of the 1990s. On the contrary, more and more students became hostile toward the West. They began to attribute Russia's economic slump to the West's "unjustified" oppression of Russia. Walking through the city, one can feel a certain irritation and hatred in the air, as if one's skin is being rubbed down with a grater.

The Russian society, which has lagged behind in industrialization has been maintained only by oil and gas revenues and tightening of control. They are upset with the West for criticizing them, and take refuge in a desperate patriotism, trying to subdue recalcitrant neighbors by military force. The intelligence services in Russia on the one hand and in the West on the other hand tend to forever remember and reproduce the Cold War-era rivalry again and again.

In this quagmire of hopeless dynamics grounds have been lost for Russia to join the world of modern civilization.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and amended by the author