Westerners are puzzled at the way Russian politicians are growing increasingly hostile to foreigners in general and the West in particular. Then there is the feud going on within the Defense Ministry over whether to import more Western weapons or rely instead on what Russian defense firms produce.
Scrounging up details from Russian media, discussions on the Internet, and statements by the many members of the Duma (parliament) with access to the inner circle reveals a rather bizarre (to Westerners and some Russians) state of affairs. Put simply, most of those currently running Russia really believe that the United States has formed an anti-Russian coalition that is surrounding Russia in preparation for an invasion. The motive behind this plot is the Western need for Russia’s many natural resources. The U.S. has been using pro-democracy and reform minded NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) within Russia to cause turmoil and weaken the government and military.
It’s true that the current Russian government, which is turning Russia back into a police state, has a lot to fear from Russians calling for reform and more democracy. The government is controlled by men who seized control of Soviet era industries in the 1990s, made them efficient and made themselves enormously wealthy. They were assisted by many former KGB men (especially current president Vladimir Putin) and the more able Soviet bureaucrats.
Along the way Russia became very corrupt and the rule of law was replaced by a system where those who could buy their way out of any trouble did so, and the majority had no access to justice or a clean and efficient government. Putin was smart enough to spread the oil money around and has kept most Russians satisfied (or at least not violently dissatisfied) at the way post-Soviet Russia turned out. Some believe that Putin invented the “Russia is about to be invaded” concept to gain more popular support and does not believe it himself. The KGB tended to recruit the smartest and most capable Russians, and that explains a lot of things about Russia today.
Creating the idea that Russia is surrounded by enemies, led by the old Cold War arch foe America, is something older Russians were exposed to most of their lives. It persuades Russians to keep electing Vladimir Putin and his cronies. But a growing number of Russians are noting that there’s no sign of this conspiracy in the West, only bewilderment over what the Russians are saying. Over time, the Putin paranoia program becomes less believable to more Russians. There is growing fear that, rather than face a majority of Russians who don’t believe in the conspiracy, the current rulers will try to turn Russia into a strict police state, without the trappings of Soviet–style communism or any other ism besides the greed of the small ruling class.
Meanwhile, many military leaders are having their own problems with the paranoia crowd. For over a decade military leaders have been complaining about the inability of Russian defense firms to produce effective and reliable weapons. It was hard to disagree with this, given the poor performance of new Russian weapons and the continued success of comparable Western systems. Russian military leaders also wanted to improve the quality of their troops, and this meant adopting Western practices, like the use of professional NCOs and an all-volunteer force. But many believers in “the Americans are about to invade” worldview also insisted that Russia could only defend itself with Russian designed and made weapons and military traditions. This resulted in growing resistance to the buying Western weapons or making the Russian military look and operates like a Western one. This policy is also meant to buy Western manufacturing technology as well and is, without coming right out and saying it, forcing Russian firms to reform and become more efficient and reliable.
Yet the way Russian leaders are dealing with the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse makes no sense. That bewilderment is nothing new. Back in 1939 Winston Churchill described Russia as, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Despite all Russia has been through during the intervening 74 years, Churchill’s analysis still seems quite valid. In the meantime the Russians are clear minded on one point, their only effective defense against invasion remains their nuclear weapons and they had paid more attention to maintaining those weapons than any other.