Russia Turmoil: Winter of Discontent and American Interests

There is much serious turmoil in Russia which is likely to create a difficult 2012 for America and the rest of the globe. The pattern of repression, response, and unrest within the population now seems to be getting more intense and signs of deep unhappiness are clear. Opinion polls seem also to show a high level of criticism of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. Economic and social statistics are indicating a downward spiral in quality of life for the average citizen in Russia. Street protests in Moscow and elsewhere, which according to some estimates were as large as 150,000, indicate an increased public willingness to question the authority of the day and a recent corrupt election for Duma seats.

There is nothing to give any rational thinker in America or Europe joy. This trend could indicate an ugly period of added instability, growing use of narrow nationalism, and directed antagonism towards the West and its values. This has been exacerbated by the likely next president Vladimir Putin, trying for narrow political ends to re-direct citizen anger towards an outside “boogeyman,” mostly the U.S. but also Europe. Threats are being made of withdrawal from the New START treaty, which would hurt both sides. The treaty was agreed to by now President Medvedev and implicitly by Prime Minister Putin and ratified by a Duma dominated by the Kremlin lead United Russia party.

The hard reality is that Russia has more to lose by increasing conflict and animosity towards the West. The loss of confidence by investors, businesses from the West, and closing down of multiple levels of interchange in many fields, can only increase the sense of isolation by the people and the leaders.

The backbone of the Russian economy remains its energy base – largely gas and oil – whose prices have recently been volatile. Such revenues provide most of the revenue for the government and its programs. But more fundamentally, the Russians have become more and more aware of the lack of freedom, no real participation in their society, and its authoritarian direction as they watch the changes of the Arab Spring and the freedom enjoyed by former members of the old Warsaw Pact countries.

There are two optics that one can foresee for these events, one is the possibility of a true “Russian Winter of Discontent” accompanied by upheavals with dire outcomes for both the Kremlin and the Russian people. The other alternative is a “Russian Slow Spring,” in which the stage is set for a long term thaw in the authoritarian and top down hand of Putin and his security service coterie. In the first case, the demonstrations would continue and a fraudulent election for president would be held on March 4th. The result would be a widely seen illegitimate regime and further alienation of the general population. It would also make more difficult a strategy of “reset” and constructive engagement with Putin and his band of narrow Kremlin sycophants.

The other scenario is that Putin and Medvedev might try to co-opt the popular discontent and make some reforms and move, probably slowly, towards a more consensus-based and quasi-democratic structure. This has its risks but it also has some advantages if the top leaders wish to promote balanced economic growth, broad domestic support, and institute civic society that goes beyond the dysfunctional corrupt society that exists today.

America should continue its fundamental sound policy of active engagement with Russia no matter what direction Russia takes. It is for the Russians to shape their society, but US and its allies can have some useful influence. We can, however, be certain that 2012 will be a year of social unrest, uncertainty, and even perhaps dramatic upheavals. Thus we need to pay attention and react wisely.

What is tragic for Western policy is that the Republican presidential candidates largely seem more bent on a crazy ideological desire to recreate a dangerous “Cold War” than to look for creative ways to move Russia towards responsible membership in the world community. Obama’s “reset” stance is the best option we have and it has resulted in net gains including a New START treaty, entry for our supplies into Afghanistan, and permitting the UN endorsed Libyan NATO actions leading to a new playing field in that country.

America needs now a thoughtful, bipartisan, constructive, and multilateral approach to Russia in this key year and not a narrow hostile and mindless scheme.

Prospects are still dark given the wretched rhetoric we have seen from the candidates so far.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

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