The world buzzes with headlines of Vladimir Putin and Russian action and reaction to world events. On the surface it seems virtually all Russian foreign policy responsibility is vested in Mr. Putin alone.
Certainly the Russian governmental decision making process is not bestowed solely upon one man, but it seems that little happens in Russia’s name that Putin does not endorse. Russia’s, and by extension Putin’s, actions and reactions tend to confuse and mystify us despite the rhetoric of various politicians indicating that they clearly understand Russian intentions. Actually understanding how Russia will act or react is as difficult as it has always been. In the West we tend to default to Winston Churchill’s famous epigram on forecasting Russian actions: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”
This frank admission by Mr. Churchill about forecasting Russian actions and reactions holds today. If a politician of Churchill’s grasp and intellect placed prognostication of Russian proclivity within virtually impenetrable concentric circles, why should we assume to be blessed with better equipped political actors on today’s stage? The answer is simple: we should not because we are not.
Churchill’s observation of Russian predictability is quoted so often we sometimes fail to remember that he did not stop with merely his observation of Russian inscrutability, and we can be thankful for it. He left Britain and the West with an insight into deciphering Russian will with his additional surmise that “perhaps there is a key” to Russian reaction to political stimuli. Wisely Churchill posited, “That key is Russian national interest.”
Churchill’s prescient observations were aired in an October 1939 broadcast and concerned his speculation on how Russia would act throughout the course of WWII. Offering insight into solving the Russian riddle Churchill shrewdly noted that Russia would not put aside anything that “would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.” It is very important to note that Churchill was not simply referring to what the Soviet leadership of Russia would do in a specific instance; he was looking instead to how Russia had historically acted, and he was predicting that Russia’s future actions would be in keeping with the major Russian interests exhibited in the past.
In 1939 Russia was faced with a Nazi threat to establish a physical presence on the shores of the Black Sea, occupy the Balkans, and subjugate the Slavonic population in Southeastern Europe. Churchill knew then what we should know now: Russia will act and react in traditional ways as it evaluates its national interests. Correctly interpreting Russia’s “historic life-interests” allowed Churchill to predict Russia’s future actions only a month into WWII. Nazi Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact less than two months before Churchill stated his conviction that “Hitler, and all that Hitler stands for, have been and are being warned off the east and the southeast of Europe” by Russia.
Churchill knew that Russia would not allow its traditional geopolitical aspirations to be threatened without mounting a serious response. A precursor to the coming Nazi Germany-Soviet Russia death struggle came with the 1940 invasion of Romania by the USSR. This invasion underscored the conflict between the Russian “historic life-interests” and the strategically critical Nazi requirement for oil and other war material. Hitler had to see from Stalin’s actions that the USSR would be a competitor for the Balkans, and this knowledge, correlated with his view of “Slavic races”as Untermenschen and his ambition, propelled Germany’s massive preemptive strike against the USSR in June of 1941.
Hitler sowed the wind with his invasion of Russia, and Germany reaped the whirlwind of defeat and occupation. German defeat in effect gave Russia the Black Sea, the Balkans, and rule over the Slavonic people of Eastern Europe. With Germany’s defeat Russia’s traditional geopolitical interests gained a large measure of satisfaction.
Russia may be the most traditional actor of all the major and secondary powers of the earth. But the assertion that Russia acts according to traditionalist tendencies runs the risk of venturing into an academic definitional fog because of the strand of religious belief known as Traditionalism. The difference between “traditional” and “Traditional” is largely a spiritual demarcation.
Traditionalism, either lowercase or uppercase, implies a handing down or generational passing on of beliefs and/or practices and may be applied across a range of practices from cuisine to courting to fashion. Uppercase Traditionalists believe that spiritual and religious truths have existed from time out of mind and that only certain groups of selected and initiated candidates have been chosen to gain and maintain the pure revelations of Truth that Traditionalism possesses. Traditionalists do not confine their belief system to any specific religious expression, rather they claim that kernels of original (therefore pure) Truth still exist and can be discovered within the major religions. Hence, Traditionalists often embrace selected elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism within the exclusive claims of Traditionalism.
Although traditional religious belief and practice cannot be equated exclusively with Orthodox Christianity, Russia does have a strong and pervasive embrace of Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity is certainly traditional.
Russian culture is a very traditional culture, and Russian geopolitical interests run along recurring traditional strands. It is understandable that Orthodox Christianity and other religious expressions are considered traditional, but it would be a mistake to confuse the correlation of religious tradition between Orthodox Christianity and other Russian traditions. Although Russian religious and geopolitical traditions may be related, correlation of religious traditional traits should not be considered the cause of the traditional geopolitical interests of Russia a priori.
In addition to the recognizing the definitional fog surrounding “traditional” and “Traditional” (as if the common spelling is not enough) affecting those attempting to predict Putin’s future actions, it is important to recognize that distinctly anti-Modern, therefore anti-Western, sentiments are distinguishing elements in some contemporary adaptations of Traditionalism. Some influential members of the Russian political right, especially those identified as the “Russian New Right,” assert a connection with the Traditional strand of religious belief and practice.
Alexander Dugin, for example, is a Russian political philosopher who has been very closely associated with the ideas and teachings of the controversial Italian self-proclaimed Traditionalist, Julius Evola. Documentation of Evola’s association with Fascism is extremely alarming to some students of Traditionalism. Mark Sedgwick’s provocative history and commentary, Against the Modern World, devotes considerable attention to Evola, hence to the reasoning of Dugin and the anti-Modern bend of Evola’s disciples.
To an adherent, Traditionalism is right belief, and right belief guides right actions. If right belief and right actions include a distinctly anti-Western characteristic, then Russian actions under Putin should be of serious concern based upon Putin’s reception of Dugin and others of the Russian New Right. Leaders and diplomats of the West would be well advised to study the works of Dugin and other seriously right-leaning writers and thinkers and their influence on Putin and his political actions.
The West should not be so naive as to believe that the Traditionalist factions evident in Russia today are not significant forces. Evola and his interpretation of Traditionalism influences Dugin and the Russian New Right; thus Putin is influenced in turn. Important manifestations of the contemporary Russian New Right thought include beliefs that the West is dangerously materialist, morally corrupt, and godless. The Western tendency toward more direct democracy is viewed as promoting these damnable traits. Does this characterization of the West sound familiar? There is a certain resonance between these views and accusations in many Islamic criticisms of the West. It is hubris of the worst sort to treat these accusations of Russia or the Islamic world in any flippant way; perhaps a too light consideration even borders on the suicidal.
Russian traditionalist perspectives (its “historic life-interests”) are certainly geopolitical. The Russian Empire long coveted the Balkans and the warm water ports of the Black Sea and other access points to the Mediterranean and other seas. Imperial Russia aspired to become the single great Eurasian power — an empire stretching from Western Europe to India and perhaps farther. Does contemporary Russia under Putin aspire to less? One needs only to look to the plans and purposes of the Eurasian Economic Union to realize that there is an elephant (more appropriately a bear) in the room and that the bear is attempting to rearm in the grand style of the USSR.
It is a cultural and historical fallacy to project Western inculcated responses onto Putin’s Russia. A Coca-Cola sign displayed at a market in Moscow does not necessarily mean Russia is eager to be “just like us;” perhaps it means nothing more than there one may purchase a Coke. Russia (under Putin) will act and react purposefully, not as a Western actor, but as the Eurasian imperial power it aspires to be. Putin may, or may not, be genuinely influenced by Traditionalist beliefs of the Russian right, but he will act traditionally (that is, within Churchill’s “historic life-interest” understanding) as a Russian imperialist.
Some experts on Russian political behavior credit Putin’s actions to his being a practitioner of realpolitik, others to Putin’s having pronounced megalomaniac tendencies, still others to Putin’s being a product of KGB culture. While expert opinion should be considered, no opinion affords the traction provided by viewing Putin as a Russian leader steeped in Russian geopolitical tradition who is open to the aspirations of Dugin and the Russian New Right. Putin does not, as some pundits proclaim, desire a 21st Century return of the USSR; his imperial desire is a return of the Czarist Empire constructed to his specificiations — a Czarist Empire wielding the might of the USSR in its glory days and fulfilling the “historic life-interests of Russia” in a very real and recognizable way.
Mr. Churchill was right. Where geopolitics are concerned, Russia will act in historically traditional ways. To predict how contemporary Russia will behave, forget reading of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution; instead read Alexander Dugin.
Coronavirus: Why Russians Are Lucky to Be Led by Putin
On Tuesday, March 24th, the following happened:
Reuters bannered “U.S. has potential of becoming coronavirus epicenter, says WHO” and reported that,
The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it was seeing a “very large acceleration” in coronavirus infections in the United States which had the potential of becoming the new epicenter.
Over the past 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40 percent were from the United States.
Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.
Right now, on Wednesday the 25th, the U.S. again has the world’s largest number of new cases reported, 11,074. That’s a 25% increase added to the 43,734 cases total on March 24th. And, within just three more days, America will have the world’s largest total number of cases, if Italy won’t. And after yet another day, the U.S. will almost certainly have the world’s largest total number of cases, because Italy has been adding only around half as many new cases per day as the U.S., though Italy’s total right now is higher than America’s, and is actually the second largest total after only China’s. China will have the world’s third-largest total number of cases by this weekend, the 28th or 29th, and America will be #1 then, not only on the number of new cases, but on the total number of cases, of this infection. That quickly, then, China will become no longer the #1 coronavirus-19 nation, but, instead, #3, behind the #1 U.S., and the #2 Italy.
America has been in political chaos because each of its two houses of Congress, and both Parties, and the President, have been blocked from agreeing on what to do — all of them were ignoring that this is an existential emergency and thus dealt with it as if it were instead just another way for each to increase its chances of re-election at the expense of the others. Both political Parties, Republicans and Democrats, and Congress and the President, agreed on a “$500 billion fund for corporations” to reduce the negative impact on billionaires’ wealth, but Democrats demanded that limits be placed on executives’ pay, and “included reducing student debt and boosting food stability programs. Some of the ideas would be major sticking points with Republicans: The bill, for example, would invest money ‘to eliminate high-polluting aircraft’ and ‘research into sustainable aviation fuels.’” Democrats also wanted, but Republicans refused, some costly measures to continue workers’ incomes during their plague-induced period of unemployment. Agreement had been reached only on the billionaire-bailouts — protections especially of stock-values. This is the way America’s ‘democracy’ works. Rule by the billionaires is considered to be ‘democracy’. Luxuries are treated as being more important than necessities are. (Billionaires are thought to be superior people, who must be served before anyone else.) Dollars rule, people don’t. And this chaos is the result of that.
On March 23rd, the prominent progressive economist James K. Galbraith headlined “What the Government Needs to Do Next” and described in detail what a governmental policy-response would be that would subsidize the public to deal with this crisis, but not subsidize the billionaires (who already have way too much and can well afford to become merely millionaires while not actually suffering at all), and that would be of maximum benefit to the total economy by protecting the assets of the most-vulnerable (who could then continue to shop and work), but his common-sense proposal wasn’t even being considered by the legislators, nor by the President.
Only a few countries had a faster rate of increase in cases than the U.S. did on March 24th, but all of them had far fewer cases: Portugal, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda had the world’s highest percentage-increase from the day before, almost a doubling, but that was 17 new cases, up from a total of 19 on the day before. So, America’s 30% increase was clearly the world’s worst performance, on that single day.
Russia’s performance is perhaps the world’s best.
On March 22nd, CNN headlined “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (that’s a country of 628,000 people) and reported that
Russia’s early response measures — such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones — may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to criticism over the number of recorded cases.
A strong record on testing
“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”
Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.
“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”
Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March.
On March 20th, the permanently anti-Russian U.S. organization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (whose “Orwellian” name was perhaps one of the inspirations for George Orwell’s permanent-warfare novel, 1984) headlined “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated”, and tried to put as bad a face on Russia’s coronavirus performance as they could, such as by alleging that (alleged) dictatorships were performing no worse than ‘democracies’ at controlling the coronavirus threat:
The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. International institutions like the World Health Organization have become mere statisticians, and even the EU has taken a back seat to the governments of member states.
The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies.
However, back on 27 July 2015, that organization had bannered “How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?” and reviewed more than 15 years of Putin’s approval ratings from the Russian public, and reluctantly concluded that it was and had always been “Authentic,” and almost always high.
Internationally, too, Putin’s leadership of Russia is more highly regarded than is the current U.S. President’s leadership of America.
Back in 2017, the British firm of WIN/Gallup International issued “Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey Opinion Poll in 55 Countries Across the Globe”, which sampled 1,000 persons in each country in order to determine in each one the percentage of the public who rated “Favorable” and who rated “Unfavorable” each of the following 12 national heads-of-state (listed here in descending order of their net favorability, or “favorable” minus “unfavorable”): Merkel, Macron, Modi, May, Xi, Putin, Saud, Netanyahu, Rouhani, Erdogan, and Trump. (Merkel globally scored highest, Trump lowest.)
Amongst Russians, the score for Putin was 79% Favorable, 11% Unfavorable, for a net score of +68%.
Though Germany’s Merkel had the highest score worldwide, her score in Germany was only 54% Favorable and 44% Unfavorable, for a net of +10.
Macron’s net score in France was -1%.
May’s net in UK was -18%
Rouhani’s in Iran was +37%
Erdogan’s in Turkey was +22%
Modi’s in India was +72% (that’s 84%-12%)
Trump’s in U.S. was -23% (35%-58%) — the worst of all.
The following leaders weren’t surveyed in their own countries: Xi, Netanyahu, and Saud.
So: Putin’s net +68% score amongst his own country’s population was second ony to Modi’s — and, whereas Modi had been in office for only 3 years and had not yet begun his controversial actively anti-Muslim campaign, Putin had led Russia for 17 years, and was a very firmly established high performer in these figures. Here are some of the reasons for this.
Russian-Japanese dialogue in the context of amendments to the Constitution
As Russia discusses amendments to the Constitution, an issue of particular concern has been the amendment that prohibits the alienation of Russian territories. The amendment will likely be put to vote on April 22. It is not surprising that it has evoked interest abroad, especially in Japan, where they still expect to regain control of the so-called “northern territories”. Unlike a great number of categorical alarmist comments in the Japanese press on this issue, Sankei Shimbun writes: “The amendment includes the wording “except for cases of demarcation or re-demarcation of borders with neighboring states”. Thus, negotiations on the Japanese “northern territories” can be considered not in conflict with the new Constitution. “
Are there grounds for such an interpretation of the amendment in question? “Any moves aimed at alienating territories, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted,” – the presidential amendment says, specifying that it is not indeed about delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation of the state border.
Japan, claiming the southern islands of the Kuril Ridge, cites the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of October 19, 1956 “On ending the state of war between the two states and restoring diplomatic and consular relations”, according to which the USSR pledged to transfer the Shikotan and Habomai Islands. The Declaration, ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, has not been abolished. Another presidential amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that Russia is the legal successor of the USSR in its territory and as a member of international organizations and international treaties.
However, the Tokyo Declaration indicated that the de facto transfer of these islands to Japan would be executed after the signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. In addition, the Soviet Union was also far from happy about the presence of American military bases on Japanese territory.
At present, what obstructs progress on the islands and the peace treaty is Japan’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s strategic concerns about the status of the four islands of the South Kuril Ridge. In particular, Russia would like to receive guarantees about the neutral status of these territories and the non-deployment of US military bases on them.
The main thing is that while considering the issue of concluding a Peace Treaty with Japan, Russia insists that Japan recognize the results of World War II – something it has refused to do for many years. This approach is regrettably deeply rooted in the minds of the Japanese establishment and expert community. The abovementioned newspaper, for example, cites the opinion of Professor Sindzo Hakamada of Niigata University that “if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in the celebration of Victory Day this year, it will mean acknowledgment of a blatant distortion of history by Russia and its uncompromising policy towards Japan.
From the Russian point of view, such statements are characteristic of the position of Japan. History, by the way, remembers cases when Tokyo changed this position depending on the political situation. A. Koshkin writes that in the spring of 1945, amid fears that the Soviet Union could participate in the war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, the Japanese leadership began to develop plans to “interest” the Soviet government by the concessions which Tokyo could make in exchange for Moscow’s neutrality and consent to mediate in armistice negotiations, including the abandoning of claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.
Some Japanese experts, for example, M. Sato, believe that even after the amendments are made, there are two ways to resolve this problem so that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan does not contradict the Russian Constitution. “The first way: to confirm that the transfer of Japanese islands to the USSR was recorded in the Yalta agreement of February 1945 and that in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Kuril Islands, which Japan turned down, do not include Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer of Habomai and Shikotan is not an act of alienation of territories, but the result of demarcation of borders, so this will not run counter to the Constitution of Russia. The second way: since the Soviet-Japanese declaration is an international agreement signed long before the approval of the Russian Constitution, the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Russia should not apply to it.
In any case, the presidential amendment that delimitation, demarcation and re-marking of the state border do not fall under the alienation of territories is fairly substantial. There have been similar situations in the past, for example, how would the Russian leadership act when considering the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border in 2005 or the Russian-Norwegian border in 2010?
However, in the case of Japan, the formality – when and if the presidential amendment is adopted – is less important than content. The Russian-Japanese dialogue on a Peace Treaty is still possible and may end to the benefit of both parties if they manage to accept the terms of the Tokyo Declaration taking into account the new realities. In my opinion, this is what the presidential amendment to the Russian Constitution is all about.
From our partner International Affairs
Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise
Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.
St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.
Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.
Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.
Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it.
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