MOSCOW – Strategic vision has never been a Russian attribute, and it certainly was absent in 2012. Russia’s vast territory continually seems to obscure for its leaders the need to plan for the future, while its seemingly infinite supply of natural resources convinces them that the country can handle any contingency.
As a result, Russia is perpetually unprepared for the future. Indeed, just as its leaders failed to prepare for the fall of communism, the softening of the Russian economy shows that they are poorly equipped for the coming decades, which will be characterized by depleted resources, a declining population, and shrinking territory.
Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency this year marked a new low for Russian strategic vision. After all, the past is the only future that Putin has ever wanted for the country.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kremlin lost not only control of vast portions of territory, but also half of the USSR’s nearly 300 million people. Since then, the population has fallen by millions more, owing to Russia’s high mortality rate, especially among men. Over the same period, the population of the United States has grown from 248 million to more than 300 million.
Despite calls by the Russian public for reform – from modernization of the military and decrepit and corrupt legal institutions to diversification of the economy beyond natural-resource extraction and the military-industrial complex – Putin has stuck to his autocratic guns.
When Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov tried to reform Russia’s armed forces – by expanding the military’s training in modern defense techniques, cutting costs, and boosting efficiency – he was replaced by Sergei Shoigu, Moscow’s former governor and a die-hard Putin loyalist, who restored the outdated system. Even the army’s new uniforms, which border on the comic with their eighteenth-century epaulets and World War II jackets, invoke the past, rather than provide the comfort and efficiency needed in modern warfare.
More ominously, in a move reminiscent of Stalin, Putin has initiated a new anti-extremism law, according to which anyone can be accused of terrorism, espionage, being a foreign agent, or disseminating hatred. The law has proven to be a powerful tool in stifling dissent, which can include mass protests against election fraud, journalists working to expose corruption, or a librarian in Siberia fulfilling a patron’s request for a banned book.
Likewise, Putin’s foreign policy remains mired in old Russian obsessions, beginning with restoring the empire in whatever form possible. In his effort to prove that losing its imperial status has not diminished Russia’s global role, Putin has meddled relentlessly in international decisions, opposing sanctions against Iran and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even as it slaughters its own citizens.
Furthermore, while Russia has finally joined the World Trade Organization, doubts about the country’s human-rights record persist. In 2009, for example, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer, was accused of embezzlement after uncovering a fraudulent tax-refund scheme run by Russian officials. He died in prison after he was badly beaten and denied medical treatment.
In response, the US Congress has just enacted the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which prohibits anyone implicated in Magnitsky’s detention or death – or others suspected of gross human-rights abuses – from entering the US or using its banking system. Similar laws have been adopted in Canada and across Western Europe. But, instead of admitting the crime and working to bring the perpetrators to justice, Russia’s leaders have fought back, declaring that certain Europeans and Americans will, in turn, be barred from visiting Russia.
Putin’s unwillingness to heed popular discontent, and his failure to develop relations with the West during his 12 years in power, has backed him into a corner – and he is running out of ideas. In his most recent attempt to restore Russia’s empire, he announced the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. (Putin is courting the other ex-Soviet Central Asian countries, as well as Ukraine and Georgia).
But, even here, the President is bullying the very leaders he seeks to woo. Given that Ukraine’s participation would significantly enhance the union’s legitimacy, Russia is using all available tactics – from lower gas prices to trade sanctions – to persuade its leaders to join. But Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, who nurtures his own thuggish reputation, wants no part of it.
Putin’s effort to unify the ex-Soviet states is hardly the only initiative that exemplifies his flawed vision. In order to appeal to the leaders of East Asia’s fast-growing economies – which Putin has called the most important factor for Russia’s long-term success – the government spent billions of dollars this year to modernize the dilapidated port of Vladivostok. But, given that Asian leaders view Russia as little more than a natural-resource milk cow, it is far from clear that the investment will pay off, particularly given the absence of a comprehensive economic-development plan for the region.
Putin hopes that harsh policies, at home and abroad, will allow him to maintain a stranglehold on Russia. But they have merely ensured the country’s decline. As 2013 begins, Russia is back on the hamster wheel of history, treating the past as prologue – and thus wasting its resources and blighting its people’s lives.