Next year 2017, is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, also called in various circles as the Bolshevik Revolution or the October Revolution. This event of monumental proportion, had sweeping implications for entire humanity and the world was never the same again.
Unfortunately, during the cold war period, populist media succeeded in creating image of Soviet Union as an evil empire clad in Iron Curtain, there by is isolating October Revolution as partisan heritage of section of Global society. It is true that the then Soviet ruling class did not help the cause either.
It was only post 1989, that mainstream Russian/Slavic scholars from the western academic world could freely travel and research the Russian History and once various state archives were thrown open and official files were made available for public scrutiny that an alternate fact based research gathered momentum. Today, more up to date and panoramic view of the history is available about events before and after the Russian Revolution.
Aeschylus, the famous Greek tragic dramatist has said, “In war, truth is the first casualty”. In case of Russian Revolution it was three wars combined in one. The First World War, the War with Tsarist forces and the Civil War. This has made development of historiographical narrative of the entire Russian Revolution too daunting a task.
This paper tries to analyse one relatively small but significant event of this saga; The Kronstadt Uprising which was unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the closing phase of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a municipal town located on Kotlin Island, 30 kilometres west of St. Petersburg near the head of the Gulf of Finland. The fort of Kronstadt was the seat of the Russian admiralty and the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. (formerly Petrograd
Kronstadt sailors had an uninterrupted history of revolutionary activity. They were at the forefront to storm the winter palace, and celebrated the February Revolution of 1917 by executing their officers. In May, they established an independent commune in defiance of the Provisional Government; in July they took part in the abortive rising against Kerensky; in October they helped to bring down his government. In January 1918, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly by heckling Mensheviks and preventing their leader Martov and practically forcing he and other Mensheviks leave the meeting. An early sign of democratic deficit of Bolsheviks. The late Anarchist historian Paul Avrich, writer of an earlier history (Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970) in his book describes life in Kronstadt as follows
For the most part, the citizens themselves administered the social and economic life of the city, through the medium of local committees of every sort (as hallmark of) libertarian atmosphere. Kronstadt’s residents displayed a real talent for spontaneous self-organization. Apart from their various committees, men and women working in the same shop or living in the same neighbourhood formed tiny agricultural communes, each with about fifty members, which undertook to cultivate whatever arable land could be found on the empty stretches of the island. During the Civil War, says these collective vegetable gardens helped save the city from starvation.
Cherishing their local autonomy, the Kronstadt population warmly endorsed the appeal for “All power to the soviets” put forward in 1917 by Lenin and his party. They interpreted the slogan in a literal sense, to mean that each locality would run its own affairs, with little or no interference from any central authority.
Avrich considers Kronstadters as volatile champions of direct democracy.
As it is well known now, the infant Bolshevik regime had emerged with a precarious victory. Major Civil war erupted at the heels of revolution. First the former Czarist generals organized White armies and with end of first world war the allied powers, sent expeditionary forces to join white guards against the new regime.
As contingency measures, the Bolshevik government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. This only added fuel to the fire as the successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution had already produced famines and food shortages. War damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.
It is pertinent to note here, that the white Guards were not only the Tsarist Generals and Nobility or the armies of some 30 countries from all over the world. The Bolsheviks were also fighting with their former comrades like Anarchists, Left Socialists Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who all had contributed towards realisation of October dream in their own ways but had differing plans for the future.
Under such dire circumstances, fighting every odd, it may be pertinent to ask the question; what were the pressing ideological consideration to have an all out war against every one there by dwindling resources and creating cracks even in the infantile Bolshevik citadel. After all the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 had 352 the Left SR delegates as compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. More over the disagreement with Left SRs were about suppression of rival parties, the death penalty to fellow comrades of all colours and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
As regards Anarchists, once again I quote Paul Avrich from Russian Review, Volume 27, Issue 3 (Jul., 1968), 296-306.
When the first shots of the Russian Civil War were fired, the anarchists, in common with the other left-wing opposition parties, were faced with a serious dilemma. Which side were they to support? As staunch libertarians, they held no brief for the dictatorial policies of Lenin’s government, but the prospect of a White victory seemed even worse. Active opposition to the Soviet regime might tip the balance in favour of the counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, support for the Bolsheviks might serve to entrench them too deeply to be ousted from power once the danger of reaction had passed. After much soul-searching and debate, the anarchists adopted a variety of positions. A majority, however, cast their lot with the beleaguered Soviet regime. By August 1919, at the climax of the Civil War, Lenin was so impressed with the zeal and courage of the “Soviet anarchists”, as their anti-Bolshevik comrades contemptuously dubbed them, that Lenin counted them among “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power
Here, it is only natural for anyone to wonder What was the mindset of Bolshevik leadership that lump Mensheviks , left SR’s and Anarchist with the white guards and Black 100’s and other reactionaries? Would it have not been a clever strategy to pool in resources with other left parties and isolate the real counter revolutionaries with an all out attack. Such step would have conserved already overstretched resources, reduced loss of human life and restricted the magnitude of mass discontent among its own populace. Politician Lenin prevailed over the statesman in him.
As expected this all out civil war brought to the Russian society enormous hardships. In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives–apart from the military casualties of the civil war. In some, the population had been reduced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial output to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value. Nearly half the industrial work force deserted the towns for the villages. The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia.
The cornerstone of Lenin’s policy of War Communism was the forcible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. “We actually took from the peasant,” admitted Lenin, “all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers.” Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peasantry resorted to both passive and active resistance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the governments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.
For urban workers the situation was even more desperate. Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was distributed according to a preferential system which favoured heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Less important ones received only 200 grams of black bread a day.
The civil war also resulted in acute shortage of skilled labour. Those who ran factories during Tsarist period refused to cooperate with the new Government unless paid higher wages and better facilities. This led to the gradual abandonment of workers’ control in favour of management by “bourgeois specialists.” A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. For the rank-and-file workmen, the restoration of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism …. Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921…murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the potential loss of rations.
At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.
Once civil war subsided and a White restoration was no longer a threat, peasant and worker resistance became violent. There were mass strikes in Petrograd.
Back in Kronstadt, when news of the Petrograd strikes reached the sailors, they immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate. The delegates reported back on February 28 to a sailors’ meeting. Mammoth crowd of 16,000 sailors, soldiers and workers heard the report and then passed a resolution, which was to become the rallying point of the rebellion: The resolution sought; new elections to Soviets by secret ballot, freedom of press and political agitation for all left leaning groups, equalization of food rations between workers and party leaders and the lifting of ban on free exchange for agricultural goods.
At this stage the sailors didn’t see themselves as being in open revolt. In fact, they sent a committee of thirty men to confer with the Petrograd Soviet for an amicable end to the strike who were promptly arrested by secret police upon their arrival in Petrograd. The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land.
On March 5, Trotsky issued an ultimatum in which he promised to “shoot like partridges”(birds found in Europe). On March 7, an aerial bombardment was launched against the island, which continued over several days. After the first attack on 9th March failed, on the night of March 16, the last assault began. 50,000 Communist troops were pitted against 15,000 well-¬entrenched defenders. By morning the battle raged within the city itself. Women as well as men fought ferociously to save Kronstadt, but by evening Bolshevik troops conquered Kronstadt. Had they held out much longer, a plan sanctioned by Trotsky to launch a gas attack would have been carried out.
Kronstadt fell. In all, the Bolsheviks lost about 10,000 men, the rebels about 1500; about 8000 rebels fled across the ice to Finland; another 2500 were captured and either killed or sent to labor camps.
”It was not a battle,” said the Bolshevik commander later, “it was an inferno… The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage.”
Contrary to Bolshevik estimate;
The rebels were not necessarily anarchists. They were seeking alternatives within Bolshevik polity
It was in no way, White Guard sponsored conspiracy.
Kronstaders never engaged in any dialogue with outsiders or the dissident groups
Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Victor Serge the Russian Anarchist who reluctantly sided with Bolsheviks even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. The NEP implemented only an year later, replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.
At the Tenth Party Congress Lenin commented, “They didn’t want the White Guards, but they didn’t want us, either,” The historiography of Kronstadt offers several varying versions but the one I find most convincing is the following;
Bolsheviks had no experience with administration and no guide book to build socialist state. Under such circumstances when there was no precedence or no written laws, every decision was being taken on the basis of heated ideological debates on party forums in ad hoc manner. These debates were highly polemical and often resulted in reducing problems to polarised absolutes.
Even famous Anarchist Alexander Berman agreed that, there was no other party in Russia capable of defending revolution. Bolsheviks exploited this fear of “return of white guard should there be a deviation from Bolshevik course” to the hilt. Thus fear of deviation became the central tenet of Bolshevik political ideology. Fear of potential left or right deviation prompted Lenin in the 10th party congress to ban factionalism in the party. Increasingly the propaganda acquired universal validity that there is no middle position. You are either with proletariat or with bourgeoisie. There is no third option. The entire population was made to believe in this THEY or US dichotomy. Soon the hallmark of revolutionary mind set got cast into the mentality of absolutes. Unfortunately this had disastrous consequence not only in terms of inner party democracy but the very rise of Stalin. It made the entire ideology simplistic mechanistic decision tree paradigm, which got progressively fossilized and eventually dead. In that sense, Kronstadt was an early warning, which even great ideologue like Lenin missed out. Who knows, he may have thought of correcting this tendency later, for which he never got time. Because by then Stalin a relatively green horn in Ideological matters, had established his tentacles in the party organisation across the country. The tactical political absolutism was convenient to him to build a cadre loyal to him. Because the slogan you are either with Bolshevik or you are a counter revolutionary, was malleable enough to twist into, you are either with Stalin the chosen disciple of Lenin or you are counter revolutionary eminently worthy of elimination of being consigned to gulag.
Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response
As expected, Alexei Navalny’s case is seriously tearing apart relationship between European Union and Russian Federation. The alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on August 20 in Tomsk (Siberia), has similarities to the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and that of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury, England. Russia’s political history is dotted with that well-colored inerasable image.
Navalny is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. As a citizen, he has the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to associate with social and political groups. But his activities has angered the officialdom and becomes most hated politician. He has been detained several times by Russian authorities.
Now Navalny, who was “allegedly poisoned” in August, stands a determining factor shaping the relationship between Western world and European Union and Russia. Sanctions are the punitive measures against Russia. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital in Omsk, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.
Specialist labs in France and Sweden have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government Spokesman Steffen Seibert said mid-Sept, and confirmed that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had also received samples and was taking steps to have those tested at its reference laboratories.
According to Seibert, the European Union’s summit, set to take place on September 24-25. The world would be looking for what measures be collectively adopted with regard to Navalny and against Russia.
On Sept 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the local media that there were another series of anti-Russian sanctions being initiated by the West amid the situation involving Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, all these designed to deliver a blow to relations between Russia and the European Union.
“The main goal today, at least it appears to be this way, is to deliver a blow to the relations between our countries and the European Union, and countries that are part of the union. Everything is going in this framework,” Zakharova said in the 60 Minutes show on the Rossiya 1 (VGTRK) television channel.
On Sept 15, during its session the European Union planned to create a global regime sanctioning human rights violations around the world and the intention to name it after Alexey Navalny. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that will erode the basic principles of international law and undermines the prerogatives of the UN Security Council through endless illegitimate unilateral sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington.
As for whether it would be advisable to name this sanctions regime after Alexei Navalny, it viewed “this exclusively as an undisguised attempt to give a manifestly anti-Russia tonality to the new EU restrictions. At the same time, Berlin persists in brushing off proposals to work together in order to get to the bottom of what happened, using clearly far-fetched pretexts. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and our partners will renounce the arbitrary practice of assigning blame and in the future will draw conclusions based on real and confirmed facts.”
That however Moscow readies to hit back on EU sanctions. Local daily newspaper Izvestia also wrote that Russia vows to retaliate against potential European Union sanctions. Even though the European Union is trying to elbow Russia out of the gas market, it is unlikely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will be abandoned over the incident with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, quoting sources in the Russian Federation Council (Upper House of Parliament).
The resolution approved by the European Parliament (EP) stresses the need for an international investigation into the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok-type toxic agent. European MPs called for suspending Nord Stream 2 and slapping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is urging Berlin to cooperate in the investigation of what happened to Navalny. If the EU levies sanctions on Russia, Moscow can provide a tit-for-tat response, Russian MPs told the paper.
“I don’t think this option will come to life, because it is difficult to connect the situation with Navalny to the construction of Nord Stream 2. This is just an excuse to push Russia out of the gas market. We need to react calmly and not be dragged into those discussions,” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov told Izvestia, commenting on the resolution.
Similarly, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Chepa explained to Izvestia that in the event of any real anti-Russian sanctions, Russia could provide a tit-for-tat response. For example, if the European Union approves personal restrictions and a sanctions list, Moscow will do the same.
“Of course, we will respond. However, this will impact both our economy and the economy of Germany and the European Union. No one wins here. However, there may be a tit-for-tat blacklist that would include, for example, the MPs that called for anti-Russian sanctions or for the suspension of Nord Stream 2,” the MP said, stressing that Moscow will only retaliate if the European Union introduces real sanctions against Russia.
Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that European Union to loosen legal mechanism for new sanctions against Russia. It said that the European Commission is working on broadening its legal instruments that would enable the introduction of personal sanctions against human rights violators in different countries, counting Russia among them. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced plans to adopt Europe’s version of the Magnitsky Act and suggested adjusting the mechanism for approving sanctions in such a way that does not require the support of all European Union member states.
According to Kommersant, this amendment, if adopted, will no longer allow Moscow to count on friendly European countries that have called on European Union allies not to impose tough sanctions on Russia. According to von der Leyen, the proposals for a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ will be ready soon. She explained the European Union should be able to respond clearly and quickly to what is happening anywhere, whether in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk.
The German Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that the European Union will be able to agree on an extensive package of sanctions against Russia soon. Rather, an agreement on a blacklist similar to the ‘Magnitsky list’ could be expected. According to experts, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany and the European Union would rather allow the project be implemented in full, and then introduce some measures to restrict or prohibit transportation of gas through the pipeline.
“With the crises around Navalny and Lukashenko unfolding, the freezing of Nord Stream 2 seems to be in the cards. Nevertheless, we are not talking about a complete breakdown of relations. Even during the Cold War, economic ties between the USSR and the West were not completely severed,” Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),Nadezhda Arbatova, told Kommersant newspaper. “Today’s confrontation between Russia and the West is a struggle of ideology and real politics. Minimal interaction will be maintained, but this will not change the quality of relations between Russia and the EU,” she predicted.
European Union and Russia have strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 but that was later challenged following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Russia has five member states: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland share its border. The relations are determined by European Union member on bilateral basis, but all the members adopt common or collective policies toward the Russian Federation.
Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver
With economies experiencing contractions across the globe and with governments in the third world most vulnerable, discussions of debt relief have been revived. Yet, forgiving old debts is nothing new to the Kremlin. For the Russian government, it has been just one part of a wider diplomatic toolkit to rekindle ties that have faltered since the end of the Cold War.
Once the primary backer of numerous states over large swathes of the globe, Moscow largely retreated from the non-Soviet space during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and it continued to not be a primary concern during Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as head of state. However, Russia’s resurgence on the international arena over the past few years has not only made the country more willing to re-engage with the region but also more capable.
International media has primarily viewed this through the lens of military strength. Whether it is sending trainers and advisors to the Central African Republic, allegedly supporting rebels in Libya, or deploying Wagner Group forces to fight an Islamic State-offshoot in Mozambique, the focus has primarily been conflict-oriented. However, less explored is the quieter and more economic measures that the Russian government has taken in order to win hearts and minds outside of the West.
As part of a debt-for-development programme, Russia has forgiven approximately $20 billion worth of debt to various African governments that was accrued during the Soviet period. Beneficiaries include the Commonwealth nation of Tanzania and Francophonie member Madagascar, along with others. In forgiving these loans, the Kremlin has acknowledged a reality that many countries continue to deny: such debts are unpayable. At the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, Putin stated explicitly that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”
These measures have yielded concrete benefits for the previously indebted countries. For example, the decision to forgive Mozambique’s $40 million debt was done in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Programme, with the money that was intended for debt repayment instead being used to provide free school meals for 150,000 children over the course of five years.
While Russia will potentially be losing some money in the short term, debt forgiveness is likely to open new doors moving forward. Many of the countries that have seen their debts written off have significant economic and geopolitical potential. With improved political relations as a consequence, it is hoped that Russian companies will get preferential treatment should contracts be offered to international firms. This could help explain the Kremlin’s decision to forgive 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt despite the latter’s weak position. Russia has been eager to develop a trans-Korean gas pipeline that would transport fuel to South Korea. While the likelihood of this being realised remains slim, in the context of Pyongyang’s inability to repay the debt in any case, it is a reasonable gamble to make on the part of the Russian government.
This is somewhat similar to China’s efforts over the past few years, albeit in an inverse form. With Beijing less cash-strapped than Moscow, it is able to invest directly whereas Russia is using debt forgiveness to redirect cash payments away from servicing old debts and instead towards domestic reinvestments. Free projects, such as the Chinese-funded and constructed headquarters of the African Union, have been followed by ever-growing economic and political relations.
Russia’s debt policy has been used to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. While not all Soviet-era allies have retained close ties to Moscow, many have done so continuously since the Cold War. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian debt forgiveness has been Cuba. In July 2014, ahead of a visit to the island nation by Putin, the Russian government wrote off 90% of Cuban debt. Though Russia was not only the country that showed willingness to restructure Cuba’s debt obligations at the time, it was by far the most generous. China restructured approximately $6 billion while Japan and Mexico forgave $1.4 billion and $478 million, respectively; Russia forgave $32 billion.
The decision did reaffirm the close relations between Moscow and Havana. Cuba has repeatedly voted in support of the Russian Federation at the United Nations on sensitive topics, such as Crimea, and Russian firms have received multiple drilling and mining contracts from the Caribbean country.
However, this strategy has its limitations. The overwhelming majority of these debts date back to the Soviet era and are therefore limited in scope. Some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia (which saw most of their debts forgiven in the 1990’s), were primarily recipients of military support during civil wars so their debts were not as vast as other heavily indebted countries with other creditors. Since then, despite respite from Moscow, such countries have continued to become increasingly burdened by growing debts. While Ethiopia is often heralded as an example of rapid economic growth, its debt, both in total but also has a percentage of GDP, has grown considerably during the post-Soviet era.
While debt relief is undeniably beneficial to the third world, the fact that Russian-owned debts constitute a mere fraction of all foreign-owned debts in most cases means that the act of writing debts off cannot achieve much in of themselves. Consequently, in several countries, the gesture is mostly a PR move. In the case of Afghanistan, where Russia was the largest creditor due to loans handed out during the 1980’s, Kabul had for decades refused to recognise the debt. The decision to forgive the debt was therefore more of a signal of a desire to improve relations than any hope to achieve instantaneously tangible rewards.
The largest stumbling block for the Kremlin’s efforts remain structural issues afflicting the indebted nations, the nature of which vary considerably from country to country. For example, while Russia has forgiven a majority of Iraq’s debt to the country, which in turn helped revive talks over potential oil contracts, the continued instability in the Middle Eastern nation makes it difficult to reap many benefits. Though it is true that Baghdad has continued to purchase Russian T-90 tanks and attack helicopters, this is more of a sign that Russia has partially managed to pivot Iraq away from the United States’ sphere of influence as opposed to gaining economically.
With the onset of coronavirus, however, Russia might not be the leading debt forgiver for very long. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where economies are expected to continue shrinking while deficits are set to grow, other creditors could potentially step in and likewise forgive debts. In April of this year, G20 leaders agreed to extend debt relief in the form of a moratorium on debt repayment yet this can only serve as a short term solution. With many governments already increasing their borrowing, creditor nations are well positioned to leverage their position in order to improve geopolitical relationships as well as set the stage for favourable contracts for their firms. If more countries follow Moscow’s path, then the significance of what the Kremlin has done will only recede and lose much of its relevance.
Debt forgiveness can win friends but can only go so far. For Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers to stick, they will need to continue complementing it with other efforts, such as improving trade and boosting security partnerships, in order to truly make the most of its financial generosity.
The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions
For Russia, the crisis in Belarus caused by the August presidential election result is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run.
Whatever the arguments propounded by world analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into serious geopolitical game.
For Moscow, the Belarus problem has been about geopolitics from the very beginning, though it was only on August 27 of this year that Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”
The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas similar to those created in Ukraine before 2014. The Russians further grasp that in Ukraine, the situation was out of control even before the Maidan Revolution. Moscow’s influence was not sufficient to stop Ukraine’s gradual shift toward closer ties with the collective West.
For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary” fervor that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. What is troubling is whether or not the Russians see this process as an expression of the popular will that is largely independent of the West. Several indicators point to an ingrained belief within the Russian political elite that in fact the West has orchestrated the popular upheaval in Belarus.
Russian history might be of help here. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought the spread of European revolutionary thought along and inside its borders. It built alliances to confront it and fought wars to forestall its progress. But in the end, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent policies of the Communist Party were largely based on European thought, though many western ideas were changed or entirely refashioned.
Similar developments took place during the late Soviet period. By the 1980s, popular disapproval of the Soviet system had grown exponentially. A revolutionary fervor for independence ran amok in the Baltic states, Ukraine, and elsewhere. True reforms would have served as a cure, but half-hearted economic and social measures only deepened the crisis. Military power was used in a number of capitals of Soviet republics, but again only half-heartedly. Thus was the entire Soviet edifice brought down.
Modern Russian leadership should see that there is essentially no cure for popular grievances and mass movements along its borders. Russian history gives multiple examples of how military intervention against revolutionary fervor can bring immediate results but leave long-term prospects bleak. The defeat of revolutionary passions can only take place by minimizing those economic, social, and state-system problems that usually generate popular upheaval. This is the dilemma now facing modern Russia. The revolutions that occurred over the past 20 years, and the situation today in Belarus, all fit into this pattern.
For the moment, Lukashenko has won this round of strife with the protesters, and his rule is highly likely to continue. But what is equally certain is that the protests gave birth to a massive popular movement in a country that was once famous for the quiescence of its population.
Russia fears that eventually, this revolutionary tide will close in on Russian society. Lukashenko has stressed this idea, saying in an interview that mass disturbances will one day reach Moscow. Many rightly believed this was a ploy by Lukashenko to scare the Russians into supporting him—after all, Belarus is far smaller than Russia and much less important than Ukraine. Still, Lukashenko was right insofar as he pinpointed possible long-term problems Russia could face as it moves closer to 2036.
Much depends on the West as well. It faces a dilemma in which it ought to pursue a policy of vocal condemnation and perhaps even impose heavy sanctions—but from a balance of power perspective, moves like those would distance Minsk and push it closer to the Russian orbit. This dilemma of morality versus geopolitical calculus will haunt the West in the years to come.
Belarus exports 10.5 million tons of oil products per year, including about six million tons through the ports of the Baltic states to world markets and another 3–3.5 million tons to Ukraine. Redirecting flows from the Baltic ports to Russian ones has been discussed, but this option is less attractive to Minsk because of the longer distances involved. This comes at a time when the Baltic states imposed sanctions on high-ranking Belarussian officials and the EU is pondering serious measures.
With each such move from the West, Russia gets another opportunity. Russia has professed interest in encouraging Belarus to redirect its oil exports to Russian ports and has agreed to refinance a $1 billion debt to Russia.
A broader picture might help put the events in Belarus in context. In the South Caucasus, the Russians appear to have reached the limit of their influence. They more or less firmly control the overall geopolitical picture, but have nevertheless failed to derail Western resolve to compete in this region. In Central Asia, Russia has more secure positions, but the region in general is less important to the Kremlin than the western borderlands.
It is thus the western front—Belarus and Ukraine—that is a major theater for Moscow. Since 2015, many have believed that Syria is Russia’s top geopolitical theater, but this assumption is based simply on the intensity of the immediate processes that are transpiring in the Middle East. With or without Syria, Moscow’s global standing will not be fundamentally damaged. Belarus is a different matter entirely. Changes there, and by extension a potentially anti-Russian state, would constitute a direct threat to Moscow.
For Russia, Belarus is the last safe buffer zone on its western border. Ukraine is lost, as is Moldova, and the Baltic states have long been under NATO protection. Only Belarus serves as a bridge for Russia to move militarily into the heart of Europe. To lose it would be tantamount to a complete “encirclement” of Russia by the West, as argued by Russian politicians.
This geopolitical reality also means that Belarus is the country that will remain most susceptible to Russian geopolitical influence. No wonder Russia is pushing to station its air base on Belarussian soil, reinvigorate the Union state, and intensify Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. As was the case with Ukraine, the upheaval in Belarus is about regional geopolitics.
Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org
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The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.2003 In his book, ‘The Case For Israel’, Professor...
Climatic refugees: Natural calamities and migration flows
The London-based Institute of Economics and Peace has presented a Report with a profound insight into environmental dangers that threaten...
Will COVID 19 further exacerbate xenophobia and populism?
The onset of COVID 19 saw a significant rise in racism and xenophobia. From racist incidents against Africans in Guangzhou...
Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia
The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support...
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