Norman Stone, in his recent history of Cold War, tells how British academic Phillip Windsor remarked upon seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall on the television that it was an end of an empire. When his companion asked whether he meant the Soviet one, he said no, political science. Having overlooked the signs of the imminent demise of the Soviet communism, and the recent spate of unrest in the Middle East (which, in a certain sense, is but a distant rumbling of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War), the mainstream punditry is about to miss the next big story – the confrontation of Russia with the West. There is a pronounced tendency to regard the current Russian regime as a temporary slow-down on the inexorable road to democracy, a regrettable, but necessary corrective of the Yeltsin’s era. The accepted assumption is that the best policy is to “engage” the Russian government, hoping that it would eventually be persuaded to change its ways and join the mainstream of Western democracies.
The assumption ignores a close relationship between foreign and domestic policy, and rests on a basic misunderstanding the nature of the Russian regime, its ideology and institutional structure.Currently, Russia is a mature authoritarian state that converted the incipient democracy of the 1990s into a giant charade, obfuscating the power of the current clique and providing it with an authoritarian, as opposed to a democratic, legitimacy at home and abroad. The alternative legitimacy is conditioned by the perception that modern Russia is a continuation of the Soviet Union and has little to do with the classical Russia. Thus a radical break with the Soviet past is undesirable (although any real or explicit socialist ideology has already been jettisoned as unworkable rubbish). Moreover, no special kinship with democratic counties of the West is perceived, although the appropriate illusions in the West have to be encouraged.Thus Kremlin pursues seemingly conflicting, but in reality consistent, set of foreign policies.Above all, the Kremlin endeavors to re-establish influence over the former Soviet republics. Without any doubt, Putin sees this as his historical mission. A clear pattern of deliberate moves has emerged, from decisively barring Ukraine to become a member of core Western institutions, through manipulating the Kyrgyz troubles, manufactured scandals with the mayor of Tallinn and other Baltic imbroglios, to the heavy intervention of Gazprom in Lithuania and other Eastern countries.The other strategic objective is to weaken the West, and keep them divided and unfocused on Russia in order to avoid interference with the real foreign policy agenda.A collateral aim is to procure acceptance of the Russian rulers in the West, where they keep assets and families, and to get a seat at the tables of Western decision-makers.There is also confusion in the West as to who really rules Russia. And, of course, domestic politics has always exerted a decisive influence on the Russian foreign policies.The emerging consensus is that Putin is still influential, but may be losing authority to Medvedev, who is slowly emerging from his puppet status. In reality, Medvedev is an significant junior member of the ruling group, the acknowledged leader of which is Vladimir Putin. That is at the same time more and less than the political cipher in Putin’s shadow as the prevailing Western view would have it.Medvedev may have a proper remit, a minor, but irreducible sphere of political competence, a role and a function that are his own. A mere figurehead would not have that. However, the idea of Medvedev’s transformation into a real leader implies a frustrated presidential ambition and some sort of a Medvedev-led coup, which is a laughable nonsense. Medvedev’s role may be modified within the logic of the system, but not revolutionary transformed. He will never be able to determine or dictate Russian policy, but he can help shape it, within limits.Mr. Medvedev is not suffering from a frustrated presidential ambition, but enjoys the next step in his career, which takes place within the ruling group, not within the overt constitutional structure. In such a system, an appointment to a constitutionally defined position is an indication that a carrier move has been made. However, such an appointment is not the career move itself.At one point in the seventies Leonid Brezhnev was appointed the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, taking the position from disgraced Nicolay Podgorny. This afforded Brezhnev the pleasure to respond to the moniker “Mr. President” when meeting with foreign dignitaries. It also did away with the indignity of carrying around the “full powers” – the public international law equivalent of the power of attorney – when signing treaties on behalf of the USSR.However, Brezhnev’s real authority proceeded not from this constitutionally described position. Ultimately, it did not derive even from his being the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. His real power, with concomitant limitations, was conferred by the oligarchic group of Politburo members who thought him a safe choice to wear the mantle of gensek. The power of that oligarchic group itself was based on the ideological legitimating that molded the communist party and the Soviet state into a single ideocratic structure bent on constructing an integral socialism.The modern Russia is ruled by a caucus of former KGB officers who aligned themselves with the surviving bits and pieces of the Yeltsin’s apparatus.The ideological, or rather Gnostic, essence of the regime is provided by seldom articulated but ever present assumption that those officers, led by Putin, are best suited to prevent another chaotic period, restore influence of Kremlin in the former Soviet republics and strategically neutralize a combination of Western powers that confronted the Soviet Union during the cold war.Among this coterie of former colleagues one person emerged with a decisive institutional and informal influence on the foreign policy of Russia. It is Igor Sechin.Since Sechin is hardly a household name in the West, let us recall that he was widely perceived as an Éminence grise behind the excesses of the Putin’s presidency, masterminding the YUKOS affair, attacks on other Russian and Western businesses in Russia, as well as destruction of the independence of the Russian judicial system.Although Medvedev’s attempt to purge him from the board of Rosneft was ultimately successful, do not be fooled. Just because he has obeyed and resigned, it does not mean he has relinquished any real control over the company.While there are two “first” deputy Prime Ministers who have a formal seniority over Sechin (Shuvalov and Zubkov), theirs is a special position. Zubkov, a former Prime Minister himself, is rewarded with a sinecure for his role as a place warmer for Putin. Shuvalov is Putin’s personal assistant, watching out for boss’s interests in the everyday workings of the government. Neither qualifies as a political figure.Sechin exercises an effective power through a red of commissions. And Russia is governed by commissions. They form an interface between political leadership of the country and government bureaucracy. They are the tool that allows to cut through the red tape and turf fights and assure that what the politicians decide is implemented. This instrument is available to Sechin, but not to Medvedev.The prime example is the Oil and Gas Commission (the real bureaucratic name is distinct and unwieldy, but the essence is oils and gas). Its head is Mr. Sechin. Prior to Sechin, the post of the chairman of the commission was occupied by prime ministers – first Fradkov and then Zubkov. So Sechin, for from being “downgraded” as some Western commentaries would have it, is currently enjoying the position previously occupied only by the heads of the government. The members of the commission include not only ministers, but, in an example of Nazi-type Gleichschaltung, heads of the principal private and state oil companies (Lukoil, Gazprom, Surgutneftegaz, Rosneft), energy-related banks and governors of the oil-and-gas producing regions.After the recent deal of partial merger of Rosneft with BP, that is the institution which BP is likely to take its instructions from.The Russian foreign policy is, on the one hand, driven by energy concerns and, on the other, uses energy diplomacy to pursue its general interests. At the juncture of both vectors is Mr. Sechin.Recently, Putin and his group have scored important foreign policy coups.Here are some of them:- Making the West live with the consequences of war in Georgia and de-facto dismemberment of the country- Decisively influencing elections in Ukraine, and subsequently ensuring that Ukraine stays out of NATO and EU by prolonging the lease on the naval base of the Russian fleet.- Facilitating upraising in Kyrgyzstan through astute use of massive anti-Bakiev propaganda on the Russian-language channels widely seen in Kyrgyzstan and drastic raise in the price of fuels exported to the republic which placed a major part of the population on the edge of survival. Subsequently the evolution of Kyrgyz politics was micromanaged from Kremlin.- Concluding delimitation of the maritime boundary treaty with Norway – the goal that eluded the two countries since 1969. The treaty paved the way not only to development of large swathes of hydrocarbons-rich continental shelf, with the help of Western technologies, but also to potential international acceptance of creeping sovereignty of Russia over “its” Arctic sector – the policy adopted by the Soviet Union in early seventies and pursued ever since.- The deal between Rosneft and BP. It creates a powerful Western constituency with a vested interest of condoning gross indecencies of the YUKOS case, including the theft of its assets and imprisonment of dozens of innocent people. It establishes personally Putin and Sechin as guarantors that current Russian oligarchy would be accepted in the West, previous deeds notwithstanding (thus perpetuating their personal rule in Russia). It also allows the KGB officers who rule the country to continue shifting at will fungible gains from the sale of oil and gas between state coffers, personal pockets and funding of subversive operations against the West.- Concluding the START-3 treaty on the terms favorable to Kremlin.- Attracting high-publicity sporting events of winter Olympics and world football cup.However, these spate of foreign policy activism is but a preparation for the period that is likely to start in 2012, when Putin reappoints himself to two new presidential terms, six years each, and when powers of Sechin are likely to be expanded even further. We have yet to read anything from the Western commentariat addressing the issue.By Robert Amsterdam and Vladimir Gladyshev