October 27, 2007: The current government, led by
former KGB official Vladimir Putin, is very popular. Former KGB officers
predominate, and they are well educated and capable. The KGB was always the
place to be, in the old Soviet Union, if you were bright, ambitious and not
troubled with an overactive conscience. Putin's people have got the economy
going (at six percent, Russia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in
Europe), cracked down (but certainly not eliminated) on the lawlessness and
corruption, and played to the popular affection for "restoring Russia's
place in the world" (becoming a superpower again.)
Russia can't become a superpower again because it's
population is shrinking (low birth rate, like the rest of Russia), and all
those nuclear weapons are great for defending the country, but you need
non-nuclear forces to throw your weight around. Since the end of the Cold War
in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its combat power. It was
disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and neglect (the
military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford
to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is
going to cost a few hundred billion dollars and over a decade of effort. The
government has increased the annual defense budget to $38 billion, and promised
to spend $222 billion over the next eight years to rebuild the conventional
forces. It takes time to rebuild fleets and armies.
The quickest things to fix are aircraft, and long
range bombers, especially the Tu-95s, are being refurbished, upgraded, and kept
in the air over international waters a lot. This is mainly a PR exercise for
domestic consumption. What also plays to the crowd is "resisting
NATO." The Cold War enemy is seen as surrounding Russia. The American
anti-missile systems being built in Eastern Europe, to block Iranian missiles
from blackmailing Europe, are depicted as an attempt to stop Russian missiles.
This appears absurd in the West, but makes perfect sense to most Russians.
"They" are out to get us, is what most Russians think. Decades of
Soviet propaganda about foreign plots to destroy Russia, enhanced by the
widespread destruction of World War II, have left their mark.
What worries the West the most is that Russian
democracy has been modified to suit local tastes. That means a concentration of
power. This scares most other democracies, because it makes it easier for the
supreme leader to do something rash. Without a separation of powers (executive,
legislature and courts balancing each other), the top guy can easily start
trouble the country cannot afford. But most Russians prefer this concentration
of power. Old customs die hard.
Russians see themselves as victims, having been
swindled out of their former wealth, glory and real estate by foreign plotters
and exploiters. All this seems irrational to Westerners, but it means something
to many Russians, although often at a subconscious level. This leads to an
"anything goes" attitude towards foreigners. That explains Russian
refusal to crack down on Russian hackers who are plundering Western businesses
via the Internet. It also explains Russia's casual use of energy embargoes against
countries (usually weaker ones that cannot retaliate economically). Europe is a
major customer for Russian natural gas, and gets this message loud and clear.
Meanwhile, there's still a war
at home. Islamic terrorists continue to stir things up in the Caucasus. A few
days ago, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a bus in Dagestan, killing
herself and wounding five others. That indicates a poorly constructed bomb
vest, and the fact that the most capable Islamic radicals have been killed or
captured. But the spirit is still alive, especially in areas adjacent to
Chechnya. Russia is using a carrot and stick approach to this. Security forces
have been increased in the Caucasus, and much support has been given to Iran.
Selling weapons and nuclear energy technology to Iran is important, and
vigorously supporting Iran's right to be well armed and in possession of
nuclear technology, insures that Iran does not support Islamic terrorism inside
Russia. Iran is a major player in providing that support, although Iran is very
discreet about it. But not so discreet that the Russians haven't noticed.