Dorian Gray, as Oscar Wilde depicted him, was a brilliantly handsome young man, whose every sin aged his portrait, not the man himself. In the end, Dorian died, having stabbed his monster of a portrait. Wilde’s philosophical novel is a description of false beauty, sinful life, the desire to live forever, and, lastly, paranoia that culminates in a physical suicide and symbolic rebirth.
It is certain that Russia will continue to exist even after Putin, as will Russia’s historical contradiction with the Western world. Putin will surely go down to history—the sooner, the better. From the viewpoint of Estonia, the most important question today is whether Russia will continue on its chosen course and prepare for an imminent attack on Ukraine—and maybe even the Baltic States—as well as for a military conflict with NATO. On the other hand, it is vital to ascertain how efficient the economic sanctions imposed on Russia are, as well as other measures planned by the West, including reinforcing the defence of allies that are the easiest for Russia to attack. And, finally, how long can Putin stay in power in this potentially explosive situation and what may the consequences of Putin’s potential elimination be?
The next 12 months are of critical significance, especially the coming winter, since it seems that the economic sanctions (first and foremost in the oil, natural gas and financial sectors) and other factors (a drop in oil prices, the decreasing value of the ruble, growing deflation, etc.) have already had a material influence on the Russian economy. The European Union and the US have not yet applied their harshest punitive measures by far, but the Russian economy is already struggling (and may even face a downturn), gas and oil production and exports have dropped dramatically, and large banks and energy companies are asking the Kremlin for subsidies of up to tens of millions of euros (allegedly for investments, but actually for paying short-term loans).
On the other hand, NATO is actually going to reinforce the defences of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, which is why attacking these states is turning out to be a riskier endeavour for Russia in the military as well as the political sense. Likewise, the recent parliamentary election in Ukraine brought no good news for Putin, as was to be expected, since the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is dominated by Western-oriented political forces.
It seems that Putin cannot withstand these political, economic and military processes—even if he poses as a friend of China and simulates initiating a nuclear war against NATO—while this inevitably makes him and Russia the losers. Putin will soon learn or comprehend that he may have no better opportunities in the future, even if he is able to stay in power after the next year. The greatest victim of Putin’s politics is, after all, Russia itself. However, until the Kremlin’s adventures have completely failed, some other states may start to suffer, and this is making us anxious.
So what more should we expect in relations between Russia and the West in the year to come and in the long term? Firstly, some thoughts along the lines of “if everything is lost, we’ll put everything we have left into the fight”, which cannot be ruled out in Putin’s case. Proceeding from the previous discussion, Russia could, for example, surprise the world with a military operation in eastern and southern Ukraine to create a land connection with Crimea, thereby establishing the so-called New Russia, and delivering a coup de grâce to Ukraine. It would not really matter whether the operation was again carried out by the little green men or by tanks flying the Russian flag, since Russian relations with the US and the EU, which do not intend to intervene militarily, are already extremely tense. Putin might also be tempted to organise something dirty in the Baltic States—something that would not constitute a breach of NATO’s Article 5, but would destabilise and discredit these countries together with NATO and the EU so that attention would be focused elsewhere than Ukraine. In all this, Putin must consider that he will encounter serious difficulties since the Western world, led by the US, will most probably stand behind the Baltic States, while Russia may not have sufficient resources to succeed in the military control of two or more regional theatres of war. In addition, this type of activity on Russia’s part would give rise to considerably harsher economic and political sanctions, while Russia would face an existential threat for the first time since 1941–2.
The most paranoid scenarios that appear highly probable given the actual situation today might not come to pass in a few months, and Russian–Western relations may remain on the level of the same drawn-out confrontation for some time. Ukraine will move neither forwards nor backwards—Kiev is incapable of approaching Europe but neither will it come within the reach of Moscow. Gas supplies will suffice for the winter, and new ones will have to be collected next summer. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” in Donetsk and Luhansk are enjoying the deliveries by the regular “humanitarian aid” convoys from Russia and are “quietly” addressing their own matters. Russia is continuing its nuclear war games, and military provocations (air border violations, etc.) are becoming daily occurrences that, as a rule, do not even cross the news threshold anymore. A uniformly anxious atmosphere is developing in the Baltic States and Poland, but people will learn to live with it. The EU and the US will not lift the sanctions directed against Russia, nor will these be alleviated, since there is no material reason to do so. Russia will start increasingly to resemble the Hunger Games trilogy. A game of cat-and-mouse in the style of the Cold War is being played. In this kind of geopolitical situation, we must keep the not-so-distant future in mind.
Finally, the ideological conflict between Russia and the West has assumed enormous proportions in the hands of Vladimir Putin. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, recently claimed in an interview with Rossiiskaja Gazeta that the US has “kindly spent” billions of dollars over 20 years in Ukraine to “raise a generation of Ukrainians hating Russia” and the “result” is now evident. This is, naturally, only a drop in the ocean of spreading propagandist lies and fuelling hatred, highlighted by beacons such as Putin’s speech of 18 March on the occasion of the Crimean Anschluss or his remarks at the recent Valdai forum at Sochi, which were more anti-American than even the most revolutionary of Fidel Castro’s speeches.
Unfortunately, it seems that Putin achieved in a few weeks something that the most corrupt Ukrainian political leaders could not succeed in doing over more than 20 years—he unified the Ukrainians more strongly, reinforced their national sentiments and created a strong dislike towards Russian imperialism. Then again, the young of the Putin era have been raised to hate the Western world and its values—first and foremost personal and political freedoms, which are said to be “alien” and, naturally, “harmful”. Fourteen million Russian schoolchildren nowadays only receive history textbooks compiled by the Kremlin’s “historical truth commission” and printed exclusively in the publishing house of Putin’s erstwhile judo buddy, Arkady Rotenberg. We must prepare ourselves for an increasingly intensive ideological battle with Russia, whether we want it or not. This will largely involve our compatriots who enjoy “little packets of communism” via Russian television channels, in the form of both high-quality entertainment shows and the trashy news with which these are interspersed. The best we can do is to fly our standard of journalistic freedom, and hope that democratic values and judgements will win in the end, as well as reach the many lambs hitherto lost to Western democracy.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that there are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. He added that, in the end, the sword is always defeated by the mind. Russia is brandishing its sword, but it would be wise to recall Napoleon’s wisdom.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.