One low-profile remonstration in the last week of September emphasized the pronounced tendency to self-isolation in Russian foreign policy in the late autumnal cycle of Putin’s regime. Sergei Naryshkin, the chairman of the State Duma, opted not to attend the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, complaining that his “strategic proposals” would hardly find support from “the leaders of Russophobic delegations” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 27). There are indeed serious censures in the Council of Europe regarding Russia’s poor compliance with its commitments, including the legislation curtailing basic democratic rights adopted recently by the State Duma, but Naryshkin’s demarche reveals the dwindling confidence among the Russian elites in the soundness of Putinism (Kommersant-FM, Gazeta.ru, September 28). It is impossible to deny that “show trials,” like the one that found three young women of the Pussy Riot punk-group guilty in blasphemy, signify Russia’s regression to mature authoritarianism. It is impossible not to have doubts about the destination of this trajectory, so the only way to deny the plain facts is to rebuff them as “Russophobe.”
Another manifestation of the conscious self-isolation was Russia’s tough stance at the annual UN General Assembly in September. President Vladimir Putin did not grace it with his presence having nothing new to say on the two crises that dominated the debate: the civil war in Syria and the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 28). The firm line on asserting UN primacy in conflict resolution might appear principled, and Putin warned yet again that attempts to force regime change in Syria through unilateral or bloc-based interventions “carry the risk of destabilization and chaos” (Newsru.com, September 26). There is, however, a rather unprincipled intention behind this line as Moscow upholds the centrality of the UN only in order to ensure its ability to block any action that it deems improper, thus incapacitating the presumably indispensable international organization (Gazeta.ru, September 27). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued from the UN rostrum that concerns about human rights could not be instrumentalized for “illegitimate interference into internal affairs,” essentially saying that his government is defending in Syria its own prerogative to crush domestic opposition as it sees fit (Kommersant, September 29).
Afghanistan received scant attention in this round of debates in New York, but Moscow is spinning an intrigue targeting this ever-evolving conflict. It argues that the UN mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) does not end in 2014, and since NATO aims at terminating the operation, it should produce a report on the implementation of the mission (Kommersant, September 25). For the US forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a new UN mandate would presumably be needed, which would be rather difficult to obtain, if the still ongoing operation is evaluated as a failure. Putin has added weight to this intrigue by travelling to Kyrgyzstan and generously writing off a large portion of its debt, as President Almazbek Atambayev pledged that the US base at Manas would be shut down in 2014 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 21). Putin’s visit to Tajikistan is scheduled for October 6, and a key point would be another subtle hint to the US about the vulnerability of the Northern Distribution Network that delivers crucial supplies to Afghanistan.
Such bluffs could only be convincing if there is military might to play with, but Putin’s “strategic” bribes ensuring the prolongation of two crumbling Russian military bases in Central Asia are merely maneuvers from the position of feebleness. They are hardly more useful than the attempts of the ageing Black Sea Fleet to show a bit of a flag in the Eastern Mediterranean. The recent series of military exercises from the Caucasus to the Arctic has produced much noise, but demonstrated yet again that Russia’s military reach is very limited, while the “new look” brigades are strikingly old-fashioned (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, 20 September; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 28 September). Putin’s promises to reinvigorate the defense industry are translated into massive increases in funding, but money is not enough. As the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin admitted, without deep reforms, the famous Russian space industry would become non-competitive in just three-four years (Newsru.com, September 27). One embarrassing example of degradation of the shipbuilding industry was the sea trials failure of the aircraft carrier “Vikramaditya” (former “Admiral Gorshkov”) that has been undergoing modernization for the Indian Navy since 2004 (Lenta.ru, September 18).
Putin is looking for inspiration in the early Soviet breakthrough in industrial modernization, but it is worth reflecting on the massive expulsion from the USSR of insufficiently loyal intellectuals, as the so-called “Philosopher’s ship” departed from Petrograd exactly 90 years ago (Novaya Gazeta, September 29). The “thinking classes” in present-day Russia are offended by the Soviet-style patriotic propaganda blended with sermons of the Orthodox church, so that even the rock classic “Jesus Christ Superstar” has become politically incorrect (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 29). They are also feeling threatened by the rush of new legislation targeting civil society, the latest addition to which is the law expanding the definitions of “treason” and “espionage,” so that any contact with Western state agencies or think-tanks becomes a punishable offence (Vedomosti, September 24; Grani.ru, September 25). Treating all independent-minded men of letters and women of keyboards as potential traitors and sympathizers of the “white opposition,” Putin condemns his own ruling class to retardation.
“Smart power” is strikingly lacking in Russia’s foreign policy and the autocracy-protectionist course appears to aim at accentuating rather than compensating for this deficiency. Putin assumes that as the EU is sinking into the quagmire of crisis and the US is looking into the fiscal abyss, his position is becoming stronger, if only by default. But in fact, Russia is linked to the West, financially and technologically, intellectually and blogospherically, so tightly that every spasm of the crisis affects it no less than Greece or Michigan. The turn to “reset-cancelled” is therefore more dangerous for Russia than the collapse of détente was for the USSR in the early 1980s. Putin used to be good at making himself indispensable, but now he experiments with the profile of being “barely tolerable” and does not seem to know where to stop.