By George Friedman
Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as president of Russia. This is not the kind of Russia nor the kind of president Western liberal democrats expected when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They wanted and expected the values and institutions of the European Peninsula to become Russian values and institutions, and expected Russia to align itself with the West.
In retrospect, it is not clear why this was expected. Russia is in many ways fundamentally different from the West, and has been so for centuries. And it hasn’t been apologetic about it. Apart from small groups of Westernizers – intellectuals enamored by the West – the Russian public has embraced, or at least accepted, Russia for what it is. This is shown by the fact that Putin is enormously popular, in spite of Russia’s economic difficulties. Western liberal expectations have been disappointed by Czarist reformers, Soviet rulers and now Putin. The problem is that liberal reformers see Russia, and other countries, as nations eager to become like them. It is a form of Western narcissism that leads to a misunderstanding of the world.
An Irresistible Force
Russia is geographically fundamentally different from the rest of Europe. The rest of Europe is a maritime region, with extensive rivers leading to ports and where no one is more than 400 miles (650 kilometers) from the sea. Russia is essentially landlocked. The ports on the Arctic Ocean are frequently frozen and the ports on the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea could have their access to the oceans blocked by enemies that control narrow straits. All of these ports are distant from most of Russia.
Thucydides distinguished between Athens, a maritime power whose inhabitants lived in wealth and had time for art and philosophy, and Sparta, a landlocked territory whose people lived a hardscrabble life with limited opportunities for self-indulgence but were able to survive conditions that would break Athenians. Both were Greek, but they were different.
The same can be said for Russia and Europe. As a landlocked power, Russia’s opportunities for international trade or even efficient internal development are limited. The lives of its people are hard, and they can endure privation that would (and did) break other European countries. A vast country with a dispersed population, Russia can only be held together by a powerful central government, controlling an internal political and security apparatus that manages the centrifugal tendencies inherent in any country. It requires a regime that not only has ultimate authority over the whole country but also has the appearance of authority – an irresistible force that cannot be challenged.
There have been massive disruptions in Russia of course, including the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union. But the West continually confused the collapse of institutions as liberalization, and failed to recognize this as both disastrous for Russia and alien to Russian culture. The West was always surprised when Russia returned to what it was, blaming Stalin or Putin for re-establishing the institutions that stabilized Russia, and regarding this as a misfortune due to the wickedness of one man. Wicked they might have been, but they understood the Russian problem better than those who thought Russia might become like Italy or France.
Russia has also experienced terrible wars that taught the Russians that war is always a possibility, and that the greatest defense was strategic depth. The Swedes, the French and, twice, the Germans taught them this lesson. Westerners feel that Russia should get beyond ancient history. But much of the rationale behind the European Union is the memory of the two world wars, and the desire that they never be repeated. In the United States, the Civil War is still the prism through which much of its history and many current debates are framed. Wars that have been fought haunt the memories of nations, and the wars the Russians fought shape the thinking of all Russians. They look for a state and a leader strong enough to prevent another such war or, if it must come, strong enough to lead Russia to victory. If Europeans fear the return of nationalism, and Americans fear racism, Russians fear weakness.
A Weak Country
If Vladimir Putin had been hit by a car in 2000, he would have been replaced by another Putin with a different name. Holding Russia together – preventing insurrection and protecting the homeland – is the task facing any successful Russian ruler. Putin – through his intimidation of enemies, both foreign and domestic – is what Gorbachev and Yeltsin were not. He is governing a weak country, wracked by low oil prices and increasing defense costs, a combination that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is well aware of the weaknesses, and knows that acknowledging them and showing fear, as Gorbachev did, can create havoc. It is important to see Russia for what it is: a weak country led by a ruler who understands that the appearance of weakness is more dangerous than the weakness itself.
Russian history is filled with bluffs. Take, for example, the stories of Potemkin villages in which what looked like impressive, reconstructed structures were really just the fronts of buildings with nothing behind them, to make it appear as though Russia was more developed than it was. There is much behind the facade now, but not as much as Putin wants us to think.
Russia must be understood as Russia is, not as the West wants it to be. It is important not to delude ourselves into believing that reconciliation with Russia is possible, or that the interests of other countries are the same as those of Russia. That is another Western illusion: the belief that understanding adversaries leads to peace. Sometimes, it leads to an understanding that a country is truly and irrevocably an adversary. But for the moment, it is necessary to grasp that Putin has not taken Russia to an unfortunate condition, but that Russia has returned to the mean, and Putin has presided over the return. He did not create Russia; he merely faced the Russian reality and didn’t flinch.