On December 12, 2013 the World Affairs Council-Washington, DC hosted an event on Russia’s role in the international community entitled “US-Russia Rivalry: Old Rivalry, New Age?” moderated by Anya Schmemann and featuring Dr. Fiona Hill of Brookings and Dr. Donald Jensen. Four years later, the reset in U.S.-Russian relations has been reset many times over to a much icier territory with issues like Russia’s support for Syria and a crackdown on opposition creating an increasingly tense atmosphere. Ms. Schmemann began by posing the question of how the U.S. should view Russia, in light of the American media’s frequent portrayal of Russia as a rather recalcitrant rival. Dr. Jensen responded that Russia’s primary goal is to reassert itself as a great power. “Russia is neither a friend nor an enemy, but it is not a partner either. It is a country we can cooperate with on issues of common interest.” Russia often defines itself by taking the “non-American position,” he continued. Russia respects strength and this makes the task of diplomacy very complicated but not impossible. “While they respect the U.S., they have taken the measure of the man and feel they can maneuver the U.S. in positions to Russia’s advantage. The national security/great power preoccupation of the Kremlin parallels the realist approach of many U.S. foreigner affairs thinkers so in a sense there is a natural fit between the two countries’ agendas, but there is also a disconnect.”
The discussion then turned to Russian domestic affairs and how much influence, if any, the United States has on them. Dr. Hill believes that that influence is little if not entirely none. “What we have with Putin is that the Russian political system is highly personalized, somewhat of a “one boy” network—everyone at the top is in one way or another related to Putin. There is a very tight web of informal networks.” While Dr. Jensen agreed with this, a small point of contention was on whether there is a growing ideological divide between the U.S. and Russia. Dr. Hill believes that Putin is promoting a return to traditional family values. She noted that Putin’s recent poslanie was very much an indication of the conservative direction in which Russia is moving. “In his poslanie, Putin very much admitted he is a conservative politician who believes in a conservative agenda to move the country forward. That means an anti-Western, anti-individualist, communitarian point of view with a strong role for the Russian Orthodox Church.” Dr. Hill suggested that Putin has been contextualizing Russia as an unique civilization in his speeches—and that a return to traditional Russian Orthodox family values is what would move the country forward. “The Russian Orthodox Church has proven to still be an entity that can mobilize hundreds thousands of people on the streets. In a place that still has a great deal of discomfort with same sex relations, Putin is, in a sense, expressing what is already in place and reaching out to other European countries with similarly conservative stances.” Dr. Hill suggested that this new ideological stance, which Dr. Jensen does not believe is present, is a stand that is a reaction against the decadence of the West and that Sochi is a battleground of sorts for this ideological divide.
Dr. Hill identified three trends in place in Russia that are affecting domestic affairs at the moment. First, the Russian economy has slowed down. For over 10 years, the Russian economy has been growing at 7-8 percent, creating a lot of expectations for the continuation of this burgeoning; these expectations now have to be seriously tempered in view of the current 1-2% rate growth. Russia is across the board a commodities and natural resource-based economy, Dr. Hill suggested. This also makes Russia very vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations. The big problem is moving into “value added products.” “Putin keeps laying out that Russia wants to diversify its economy, but they cannot do that, in fact, it would be foolish to do so as this is not their comparative or competitive advantage. All that would happen would be to subsidize industries that would not have a long term success.” Russia’s trade relations tend to be dominated by energy and there is growing concern that the Gasprom-model is changing and grinding down, which is why the thrust is moving away from Europe and courting China. Dr. Hill pointed to the armaments industry as still one of Russia’s most vibrant manufacturing sectors. “7 million people still depend on the industry for jobs. This is why we see Putin really trying to push this forward and find more buyers for Russia’s arms. He addressed this in the poslanie—in a sense, making himself personally responsible for finding markets to sell these products.”
The second trend is the rise of Russian nationalism–anti-immigrant and anti-migrant sentiments are taking hold, much as they are in the rest of Europe. The anti-migrant feeling is also directed towards people moving into Moscow from other cities, more specifically toward the Muslim population from the Northern Caucus area. The third trend is the decline of Putin’s popularity. Dr. Hill stated that Putin’s approval ratings have plunged from the high marks of 80% to 60% to now as low as 40% in terms of actual voter turnout strength. Both panelists opined that Putin’s tightening of power is spurred by fear of rivals and insecurity. Dr. Hill asked the question of whether it is possible to have Putinism without Putin. She suggested that a political re-entrenchment is taking place to put the political instruments in place for the successful continuation of the system. The highly-personalized/charismatic leader model of the Russian political system necessitates that public approval does not ebb as this is what bestows the leader legitimacy, she added.