Russia can only use the United States as an excuse for so long

Sergei Guriev, Russia’s most prominent free market economist, left Moscow in 2013 for Paris, in fear of his liberty. He had publicly supported dissidents, criticized the administration’s policies, was an active and committed liberal, in politics as in economics. He produced, earlier this year, a 21st century equivalent of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: a blueprint of how the modern autocrat rules, and remains.

Unlike the Florentine, though, Guriev isn’t recommending a course of action, he’s describing it; and he doesn’t believe it will be good for the state, but ruinous. If, in this and other writings and interviews, he’s right about the nature of Russia’s governance, his country is in for a bad crash. And when Russia in its present condition crashes, the world will shake.

The modern autocrat will often have regular elections (which he always wins), a parliament with an opposition (that isn’t a threat), and most of the institutions of a democratic society, such as a vaguely independent judicial system, “free” media and freedom of travel for citizens. Recent examples include the former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, the present prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the Chinese Communist Party and, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some of the press will be critical; some demonstrations will be allowed; foreigners will come and go fairly freely. The autocrat will imprison some dissidents, crush some protests, censor some productions, websites, books. But it’s quite possible to live well enough since, as Guriev writes, “repression is not necessary.”

If – and this is a big if – “mass beliefs can be manipulated sufficiently by means of censorship, co-optation, and propaganda.” And the greatest of these is propaganda – because it fulfills a popular need, and isn’t felt by most as an imposition, but as a welcome underpinning in belief in the goodness of the state, the ruler – and of themselves. Russians, writes Arkady Ostrovsky in his recent “The Invention of Russia,” came to believe in themselves as a more moral people than Westerners – a long-held religious view, modernized, secularized and emphasized throughout the 15 years of Putin’s domination of Russian politics. Above all, they feel superior to Americans – the “propaganda feeds not on ignorance but on resentment…having an imagined but mighty enemy, America, makes people feel noble and good.”

Propaganda, TV shows and films constantly feeding a sense of national and self-worth, can, in the modern autocracy, substitute for prison camps and torture dungeons. But they cannot do so forever. In an interview this summer with Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, Guriev agrees with Ostrovsky that “having an enemy as big as the U.S. is an explanation for falling living standards.”

The fall has produced wage cuts, unemployment and higher prices, but it has been cushioned by a large reserve fund. That’s being drawn down steadily: Guriev reckons it will be exhausted in under two years – and after that, a deluge.

The Russian president has received many Western plaudits — from the Republican candidate for presidential nomination Donald Trump, from Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front; while Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, said that he had “restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” He’s credited with being a master tactician, alert to every Western weakness, whose realism has allowed him to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over chaos. Reluctantly, the United States has had to climb down from demanding Assad’s ouster so that the Western allies can, with Russia, concentrate on defeating Islamic State, the greater threat because of its enthusiastic sponsoring of terrorism.

But tactics get you so far. He can certainly tweak the American nose, painfully. But what’s the strategy?

It will have to be good – for under his leadership, Russia has found itself encircled with enemies, and uncertain friends. In the west, Ukraine – dismembered and bankrupt — is now, more than ever determined to carve out a future as a European state. Beyond Ukraine, a militantly right-wing president, Andrzej Duda of Poland, insists that the truth has not been told about the death of predecessor Lech Kaczynski. Kaczynski was killed when his Polish Air Force jet crashed in Russia on the way to Smolensk on April 10, 2010, and many in Poland blame a Russian conspiracy.

In the north, the Baltic states have troops from other NATO members stationed along their boarders as a warning to their giant neighbor. In the south, Turkey, once a friend, is now a despised lackey of the United States after its shooting down of a Russian fighter. In his end-of-year press conference, Putin said the country was “licking the U.S. in a certain place.” To the east, China is – according to Fu Ying, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Peoples’ Congress, “not an ally,” and it will not “form an anti-American bloc” with Russia — though relations are business-like, with trade much increased.

Of the other post-Soviet states, Moldova and Georgia are seeking Western alliances; China is wooing the Central Asians with much success, and even loyal Belarus is hedging its bets.

It could be different – and in an optimistic view, it might be. The accord reached between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month might yet be built on a withdrawal of Russian military from Eastern Ukraine, a de-escalation of anti-Western propaganda, a search for common projects, a commitment from the European Union that Ukraine could have trade agreements with Russia as well as with the Union. All these could fundamentally alter the relationship between Russia, the EU and the United States.

But it’s unlikely. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgy Arbatov, the Communist regime’s main expert on the United States, said to the West that “we are going to do a terrible thing to you… to deprive you of an enemy.” The Putin regime has worked hard at reversing that terrible blow: and has helped create enmity once more, since it needs enemies for its legitimacy. It won’t want to let them go easily.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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