One of the more perplexing aspects of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine was the way in which the Wagner group, a bunch of international mercenaries, who were bankrolled by Putin, turned on the Russian military and for some short period of time, made a beeline for Moscow.
It made me wonder why Putin felt the need to involve the Wagner Group in the first place? And in particular, why couldn’t he rely on his own Russian military to get the job done? Putin has had just under thirty years to use the immense wealth at his command, to build a military that could quickly subdue and take a country like the Ukraine over. And yet, ostensibly, the military seemed ill-suited for the job.
Adam Curtis’ recent documentary on Russia, a montage of footage, which traces the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the mid-80s, to the arrival of Putin in the mid 90s, provides some degree of insight as to what Russia emerged from, and where it might be heading today.
The documentary showed how the Communist system was collapsing, partly through inefficiencies, and partly through corruption. But it also shows how with the collapse of the Communist system, no-one in the Soviet Union, and then Russia, had the capabilities, insights and power to do anything about it.
Boris Yeltsin, who was able to manoeuvre himself into a position of power, in the fallout of Communism, was determined to introduce free market capitalism into Russia. But he did so in a system, which was falling to pieces, where many many people were throw into abject poverty.
In such circumstances a handful of insightful and crafty types, used various degrees of cunning, entrepreneurialism and slight of hand, to take ownership of all Russia’s natural resources, and to ferret away the wealth of the country abroad. Whilst everyone else lived in desperation, and on a shoestring. It was as if Russia had been thrown back to the days of the Tsars.
In Curtis documentary, it appears that Yeltsin was aware that this was happening. But what is not clear is the extent to which he tolerated it or not. The documentary gives the impression that Yeltsin believed in radical reform but was exasperated at the way in which the oligarchs were fleecing Russia.
But in 1994, if Yeltsin had his doubts, the Russian Parliament had made up their mind. They were determined to stop Yeltsin from forging ahead with his policies. In return Yeltsin dissolved Parliament, with the help of the Russian military, whose tanks were ordered to fire on the parliamentary building. Yeltsin subsequently rewrote the constitution and gave the President, much more power. In this way, arguably, Yeltsin moved Russia away from democracy and more towards a presidential autocracy, paving the way for Putin, his successor, for the next thirty years.
Curtis claims that Putin was appointed by the oligarchs, who wanted someone to create stability, and to allow them to ferret away the grand proportion of the country’s national wealth.
Curtis’ documentary stops with the arrival of Putin. Putin in the years to come has proven to be an effective autocratic leader, remaining in power for three decades. It has also been said that he controls the oligarchs with an iron fist, and makes it clear to them that they need to play ball with him, and that there is nowhere in the world where they can hide.
But what has Putin’s personal motivation been? Its been said that Putin has wanted to rebuild Russia’s greatness and to leave a legacy on a part with Peter the Great or Stalin.
Putin, however, is hindered by the fact that in the 21st Century you need a strong middle class, a well educated and innovated populace, and strong independent institutions and enterprises to thrive and grow. China has the Communist Party and has embraced capitalism, to achieve this. The western world has democratic institutions and capitalism.
Putin’s strong man (ruling over the oligarchs) model is not and cannot deliver the power and economic growth to make Russia great. The system internally is focused on exploiting Russia’s poverty, ferreting away as much money as possible out of the country, and maintaining political power over the impoverished and uneducated masses. But Putin wouldn’t want strong institutions and a strong middle class, because they would push for more influence and democracy.
This means that Putin’s ambitions for making Russia great, on a global scale, have been limited to pre-21st Century ambitions and ideologies. Its about invading other countries essentially. Only, even in this ambition, it appears that Russia’s ability to keep up with the rest of the world, militarily, has been hindered by the lack of infrastructure, organisation and investment. This is a curious thing. Given Putin’s ambitions, the poor state of the Russian military, combined with his dependence on the Wagner group, suggest that Putin has not had the control or management abilities to organise the Russian military into the fighting force that he might wish they were.
Curtis documentary gave the impression of how sad, unorganised and clueless Russian people are generally. Its are reminder that when people, historically, are reduced to levels of poverty, oppression and subordination – they remain pawns are the mercy of the elites and the educated. That’s why, currently, many people in Russia, seem, on the face of it, to have nothing more than religion, nationalism and a fear of authority.
Only the educated Russians are able to see through the bullshit and they are all leaving (if they are not part of the oligarch operations).
Russia, then, since the collapse of Communism, has remained a ticking time bomb. It has a massive amount of land, loads of people, nuclear weapons, natural resources – but its people are very very ANGRY and very very DESPERATE – but collectively, they have no clue, vision and cultural resource about how to make all of this work for them in the 21st Century world. As I write this the news it that the Russians, frustrated at the lack of progress they have made in taking Ukraine, have put explosives on a nuclear power station. Is this the end game, or can someone, somehow, diffuse Russia?