Opinion |

Putin Not Putting 'Russia First'

'What are we doing in Syria?' is not just an innocent question – it’s a harbinger of dissent in Russia that Putin can’t keep ignoring

Dmitriy Frolovskiy
Dmitriy Frolovskiy
Russian President Vladimir Putin poses with members of the "Night Wolves" motorcycle club in Sevastopol, Crimea
Russian President Vladimir Putin poses with members of the "Night Wolves" motorcycle club in Sevastopol, CrimeaCredit: AFP
Dmitriy Frolovskiy
Dmitriy Frolovskiy

Russia’s political reality in the years following the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula echoes in many ways the atmosphere that prevailed during the Cold War era, with tensions boiling to a point of no return behind closed doors.

Dissent is gradually building in Moscow, even though it might appear to be a political monolith, unabashedly supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s notions of realpolitik and the end of liberalism.

Five years before U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed Russian operatives’ coordinated attack on the American political system, the Kremlin’s vision of relations with the West was different. Although Russia did not miss a chance to challenge the post-Cold War order and unleash diatribes, few there truly wanted to break up with the West.

The legacy of the rapprochement achieved following the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed unshakable. The EU's share in Russia’s foreign trade totalled at almost 50 percent in recent years, Western companies eyed to modernize the Russian army and the Kremlin rallied around the idea of a unified continental market from Vladivostok to Lisbon.

Crimea’s so-called return home, as it has been dubbed by supporters of the move, was the thermidor for the revolution in Russia’s foreign policy. From the times of Communist Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev, much of Russia’s public discourse was split between a desire to become part of the West and the will to embrace Russia’s “own way” of being somewhere between Europe and Asia. Putin ended this debate, denounced Russia’s Western path and condescended into the nativist orbit by embracing the role of a defender of traditional values and disruptor of the Western-centric world order.

Crimea, which was transferred to Ukraine by former Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushev in 1954, had a nearly sacral meaning to the majority of Russians and specifically to the nativists. The latter are not referred to as an organized group, but rather represent an ingrained set of nationalist, revisionist and somehow isolationist persuasions that equally exist within society and the highest corridors of power.

The peninsula was claimed as the birthplace of Russia’s Orthodox Christianity, while the city of Sevastopol became a landmark of the national military glory. It also continued to serve as a grave reminder of the millions of countrymen who were left outside the homeland after the collapse of communism. When addressing the annexation, Putin stated that “the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders’’ and two years later said that ‘‘the Donbass inclusion in Ukraine was a Bolshevik political mistake.’’ These statements were especially welcomed by the nativists, who perceived Ukraine as an artificial state and welcomed expansionism.

‘What are we doing in Syria?’

A fear of disrupting world orders and challenging the West, which broke its promise to Gorbachev not to expand NATO to the east and saw Russia as a threat, helped propel Moscow back to its position as a global power.

Russian nativists still backed Putin when the notorious ‘‘little green men’’ marched through Eastern Ukraine, but they could not understand military ventures as far out as the Middle East and Africa.

People with national flags and various political party flags gather during a protest in Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2019.Credit: Pavel Golovkin,AP

Although the Orthodox Church and other conservative commentators tried to portray the aerial campaign in Syria as Russia’s “holy war” to defend Christians in order to appeal to the nativists’ sentiments, public opinion has been growing increasingly skeptical. According to the latest numbers by the Levada Center, the major independent pollster, 55 percent of Russians want their country to withdraw from Syria.

Russians are still haunted by grim memories from the Soviet-Afghan War, which has been dubbed the Afghan syndrome; few in Moscow want to see it embroiled in another Middle Eastern quagmire.

Depictions of the campaign as a tool to assert Russia’s status as a global power broker and prevent the Gulf monarchies from building a gas pipeline to Europe were received better as a justification for the intervention in Syria’s civil war, but this still didn’t suffice. Following reports of hundreds of Russians mercenaries being killed by American soldiers in February of 2018, Alexey Navalny – Russia’s major opposition figure – openly asked the question that bothered many: “What are we doing in Syria?”

A possible military confrontation with Israel and the coalition forces has also been perceived as major threats. In fact, following the imposition of U.S. sanctions and despite multiple strategic disagreements, Russia has been increasingly looking to Israel as a valuable intermediary in communications with Western nations.

Despite the Soviet-era confrontation with Israel, the current Russian strategy in the Middle East recognizes Jerusalem as an independent regional power rather than just a staunch ally of Washington. Putin’s close relations with Netanyahu, which continue to evolve via public diplomacy and the work of Jewish communities, have helped decrease anti-Semitism and aided in fostering mostly neutral public attitudes toward Israel, as highlighted by the recent Levada polls.

The example of Israel, however, is an exceptional one. Although the Syrian bet paid off and asserted Russia’s status in the Middle East for a relatively modest cost, foreign policy gains have not been transplanted to a political capital at home.

Some Russian strategists hope to join the scramble for resources and resurrect Soviet ties in Africa, but others remain skeptical. A Russian logistics base in Eritrea, military contractors in the Central African Republic and increased cooperation with Sudan illustrate the Kremlin’s growing interest in Africa. At home, however, such plans are viewed with caution. The legacy of the Soviet overstretch in Africa and billions of dollars in aid that were never repaid cause the nativists to grow increasingly disenfranchised.

While the Kremlin tries to present military campaigns in the Middle East and Africa as a return of the Soviet-like influence driven by economic interests, the public – and specifically the nativists – think that military involvements are pointless gambles and believe that it's more important to fix domestic problems first.

Russians don’t want to pay the price

At the height of the Cold War, a political principle of internationalism dictated the Soviet foreign policy. In attempts to spread the communist ideology and make more allies to confront the West, Moscow distributed massive amounts of aid and a big chunk of its imbalanced budget. While the volume of it is almost impossible to calculate, Moscow claimed $140 billion of Soviet assets abroad.

Although aid and involvement indeed helped the Kremlin assert and maintain a global power status, the ultimate cost created a perception domestically of an overstretch that led to the communist collapse. The following decades of Russia’s retrieve and expansion of NATO to the East inflated feelings of national humiliation that further empowered nativist sentiments among the public and politicians, and strengthened a firm belief in the rightness of a cynical realpolitik approach abroad, as well as a policy to keep Russia first – a non-interventionist agenda.

Russia’s foreign ventures make headlines and the public still supports the motivation to preserve the global power status, but few Russians actually want to go global at the expense of domestic hurdles.

A lack of economic reforms in times of stagnation and poor labor productivity amidst this century’s biggest decline in working-age Russians only enhance the argument that Putin’s government has betrayed the ‘Russia first’ ideology.

Attempts to resurrect certain aspects of the Soviet past could lead the public to feel that some of the great Russian pride has returned, but in the age of the internet and social media, Russians can no longer ignore domestic problems.

At the beginning of August, more than 50,000 demonstrated in Moscow for the fifth week of protests in what turned into the largest opposition rally since 2011. The recent Levada poll showed that more than a third of Muscovites support the protesters, which marks a gradual shift in public opinion and a decline in the popularity boost the Kremlin had gained after the annexation of Crimea and the military success achieved in Syria.

The agenda these days is dominated by claims for fair elections and domestic reforms, but that hasn’t distracted Russians from their growing preoccupation with the outcomes of the anti-Western crusade, including sanctions and the erosion of liberal values. This has inspired a loud call for a change in foreign policy.

Russian authorities may sense the growing public discontent, but a hermetically sealed system of power seems to be unable to change. Putin has surrounded himself with vicious kleptocracy that has grown increasingly similar over the years to the communist hierarchy.

The Kremlin tries to maintain the status quo by portraying leaders as political strongmen, as well as defenders of the notions of traditional values, while still supporting the nativist tenets. That, however, leads to a bizarre domestic dichotomy as the nativists strive to push the non-interventionist agenda further but lack the agency to act.

With domestic hurdles rapidly eroding the president’s approval rankings, reliance on traditionalism might be a shot in the foot in light of the Kremlin’s inability to convey even cosmetic changes in politics and in the economy. The nativists will inevitably gain power at one point. Now the real question is which direction Russia will take when they do; the answer, for now, continues to elude us.

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