Torn between neo-imperial ambition and the limits of its own system, Russia lives under the dual risk of American sanctions and Chinese encroachment. As hyper-focused as Vladimir Putin is on the task of elevating Russia to the status of global power, does he not see that he is playing right into the hands of the United States and China, whose common interest lies in encouraging a slow Russian slide into irrelevance?
Thirty years ago, in January 1992, the world entered the new year with the Soviet Union no longer appearing on the world map, having extinguished itself at the close of the previous year, in December 1991. Thirty years later, in 2022, Russia has its restored power on full display; its neo-imperial ambitions manifesting as the return of the Russian giant to the big leagues. Vladimir Putin has been in power since 1999, alternating between the roles of Prime Minister and President. He lives only for a single purpose: to regain Russia’s status as a power to be reckoned with, no matter the cost, and to cement Russia’s place as a pole in what can only be a multipolar world. As he himself declared in 2005 to an audience of parliamentarians gathered in the State Duma (Parliament), the fall of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century.” Since then, he has striven to repair this affront, which the Kremlin continues to see as a humiliation, and thus to chart a course of power for Russia. Re-elected to his current term as President in 2018 (expiring in 2024), Vladimir Putin has made the necessary shuffling of institutions to ensure that he will remain in power until 2036, in accordance with constitutional reforms which allow him to seek two new terms, until he is 84 years old. If all goes as planned, the current host at the Kremlin will reign for 36 years, seven years longer than Stalin (1924-1953). Vladimir Putin plans to—without openly admitting it—beat all the odds and achieve the impossible: namely a Russian Empire matching the borders of the former Soviet Union. It is a daring bet, to say the least, which begins with the weak links of the former communist bloc, Belarus and Armenia. His plan to integrate Belarus into the Russian Federation marked a turning point in November 2021, during a Putin-Lukashenko videoconference, the result of which is the Union State between Belarus and Russia gradually becoming a reality. A little further south, in the Caucasus, it is through violence that the idea of integrating Armenia into Russia is gaining ground, notably with the Armenia electoral alliance led by former President Robert Kocharyan, who pleads in favor of this prospect of integration, in the Armenian thinking, as a forward guardpost of Russia.
This process of restoring the greatness of Russia is part of a desire to constitute a distinct pole of power by distancing itself from the Western space, as if Putin’s authoritarianism rediscovered the basis of its attractiveness within anti-Western rhetoric. As proof of this, he points to lauded achievements with emerging authoritarian powers such as China, Iran and Turkey, with whom trade relations are increasing year after year. From this attractiveness to these former imperial powers, Russia intends to take strategic advantage and to build up spaces within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) devoid of any Western influence. It is in this logic of hostility to the West that we must read Russia’s position in the 2020 Artsakh War, where the Armenians of Artsakh fought against an Azerbaijani-Turkish-Pakistani coalition supported by Israel and under the cynical and ambiguous observation of Russia. One of the goals of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement was to defang the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States.
Everything seemed well orchestrated until the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shattered Russian hopes, revealing that the Russian model of power is faltering and showing signs of running out of steam, to the point where some international observers consider that the Russian exception is not viable in the long term. Why? For several reasons. At first glance, the Russian economy appeared stable in 2021, with 4.2% growth (compared to -4.1% in 2020), public debt contained at 18% of GDP and financial reserves of €535.2 billion, a comfortable cushion to face turbulent times. But behind the scenes, the picture is quite different: Russians’ standard of living continues to decline. Their purchasing power fell by 10 points in 2020, and inflation is on the rise again. As a result, the Russian economy is severely unattractive. It can only count on sales of weapons and hydrocarbons (oil, gas) to weigh on the world market as the international community seeks alternatives to fossil fuels at a time of ecological transition. In addition, the management of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is proving disastrous, as in most of the states of central and eastern Europe. Mistrust of power is growing and vaccination rates remain low in Russia, while the death toll is on the rise. In addition, although Russia was the first to release a rather reliable vaccine, it turns out that the Russian system failed to market it as Vladimir Putin would have liked, to put the quality of Russia’s pharmaceutical industry on display. The opposite has prevailed: lack of storage, restricted production circuit, indigent distribution network. In short, one of the mainstays of the service economy was sorely lacking in Moscow. Added to this are the Western sanctions put in place since the annexation of Crimea, which continue to hamper the country’s economic recovery. Not to mention the Russian mistrust of the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, responsible for the opposition’s lockdown, not to say repression. And the mistrust of Moscow’s neighbors, especially in the former Soviet (Baltic States) or People’s Republics of Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary), who see Russia more as a threat than a partner. This is evidenced by the case of Ukraine, which is increasingly in Moscow’s crosshairs. The EU and NATO have expressed that they will toughen sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion.
In this context of tensions with the West and of enhanced cooperation with China, Russia is struggling to impose a pace of development of an appeased power. On the contrary, the more Russia turns against the West, the more it will be economically asphyxiated and the target of ever stronger Western sanctions; and the more Russia attempts to insulate itself from the Europeans and Americans, the more it will cooperate with Beijing, risking playing second fiddle to China. Sanctions on the one hand, perfusion on the other; this is the dilemma which characterizes Russia in the present times and which it will face in the years to come. Putin’s authoritarianism would thus be the paradoxical reflection of a common interest between the Chinese and the Americans, the two great players of the world considering that Russia lacks the means to once again become in the 21st century the power it was in the 20th century. It is therefore up to Putin to think of another less belligerent path with his near abroad and his giant neighbors to get Russia out of the impasse. But does he have the means and the desire? Wouldn’t this new path carry the seeds of the beginning of the end of Russian authoritarianism? Moscow would thus have the choice between an impasse or the fall of Tsar Putin? A cruel dilemma for the host of the Kremlin.
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