John O’Loughlin, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, spoke to Boulder Rotary Club on Friday about Russia. Professor O’Loughlin has been researching, visiting and writing about the political geography of the post-Soviet Union for his entire career. He’s particularly interested in Russian geopolitics, Eurasian de facto-states, ethno-territorial nationalisms and post-conflict societies. He teaches undergraduate classes in Political Geography, Geographies of Global Change and the Geography of the former Soviet Union. He teaches graduate classes in Political Geography and Nationalism.
The title of Professor O’Loughlin’s presentation was, “Should We Fear Russia?” He started by challenging the premise and asking instead, “Should we fear Putin?” Or, as he put it, “Should ye fear Putin?”
Why “Putin” instead of “Russia”? Professor O’Loughlin pointed out that you cannot fear a country, it is the ruling regime or the leader. In this instance, the leader is President Vladimir Putin. Professor O’Loughlin examined the question from Vladimir Putin’s point of view and he offered nine propositions to challenge the usual narrative.
Vladimir Putin believes in a NIMBY philosophy. (NIMBY -Not In My Back Yard) Much of Putin’s policies and actions address not world affairs, or the United States’ affairs but what Russians call the “near abroad.” The near abroad is much of Eastern Europe and the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
In the West, Russia seems to have an air of mystery. Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” However, Professor O’Loughlin said that Russians are like anyone else in the world. They value economic security, they value family. They do also have a growing negative opinion about the United States. It’s changed dramatically over the last fifteen years.
Over a tightly paced twenty five minute program, Professor O’Loughlin gave nine propositions to illustrate why he believes Russia is not as strong as you might think and President Vladimir Putin knows they are not as strong as the West and he also knows that Russia is only equal to the West in one regard – in its nuclear arsenal.
: Russia is far weaker than the US and its allies (NATO & EU) and Putin knows it
Some figures support this proposition. Overall, Russia’s military spending is only about 1/20th
that of the NATO countries and Russia has focused it’s strongest military assets (aside from it’s nuclear arsenal) in its Western, NATO facing regions.
Russia is also now a fairly small economy. It is the 12th
largest in the world but is only about 1/10th
that of the economy of the United States. Personal income, ranked around 70th
of 200 countries of the world, Russia looks like a “middle income” country. It’s also an oil economy. Oil makes up about 30% of the gross domestic product of the Russian economy and about 60% of its exports. For Putin, his popularity rests significantly on the price of oil. If a barrel of oil increases in cost, Putin’s economy benefits as does his popularity.
Putin runs a corrupt and powerful “Sistema” in Russia but he must be careful
Vladimir Putin runs what is often referred to as a “bureaucratic authoritarian regime.” Professor O’Loughlin said that the regime is not as repressive as some authoritarian regimes and it relies on a small number of very rich individuals, the oligarchs, with whom he has a bargain. The oligarchs have access to state resources such as oil and their companies can contract with the government of Russia to make lots of money, they support Vladimir Putin and they agree to stay out of politics. If the oligarchs don’t stay out of politics they get kicked out of the country or they meet a “mysterious” end.
The bargain has worked for Vladimir Putin so far but it could be upset if the right set of circumstances (or proper plotting by the oligarchs) arose.
: Putin or Yeltsin- Russians remember the chaotic, immiserating 1990s
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the 1990’s, Russian citizens’ lives were difficult- poverty, lack of basic necessities, and the collapse of their society under Yeltsin- and they remember that time. Russian citizens turned to Putin to “shape things up” according to Professor O’Loughlin, “and he did.”
Putin ended the conflict in the North Caucasus, he ended the Chechen rebellion and he “restored order.”
Professor O’Loughlin pointed out that Russians rank “democracy” very low on their list of government priorities. (see graph) This ranking priority hasn’t changed since 1990, when Putin came to power. Stability is number one on their list and as remained there for decades. With “stability” as their main goal, Russians have not cared as much about things like civil liberties.
Putin’s popularity rating has always been above 50%- it’s now at about 66% buy has been as high as 81% immediately after the Ukraine crisis.
: Putin is a “realist” in the international relations sense and despises a US dominated world and wants a multilateral one instead of a “unipolar” world
Putin is a realist. One of Putin’s long running assertions is that America is attempting to institute a unipolar world and he’s against that outcome.
Putin has a weaker country than the United States so to combat the United States’ push toward unipolarism, Russia must find an ally. Increasingly, that ally is China according to Professor O’Loughlin.
Therefore, China and Russia are making more economic ties, doing more joint military exercises and more cooperation in Central Asia. That is not to say that Russians trust China across the board. Russians fear China will try to establish themselves in Siberia, for example.
Most of Putin’s ire is directed at the U.S. military bases in Eastern Europe but he is also interested in creating headaches for the United States in places like Venezuela and Cuba. Putin has also made more significant commitments to the Assad regime and in Iran which are taken more seriously both internally and on the world stage.
Putin asserts that Russia should be taken seriously as a world power. In the 1990’s, it was not taken seriously and Russia suffered for it. Putin takes great pains to make sure Russians know he is working to make Russia a serious power.
: Putin cares most about the countries closest to Russia- especially Ukraine and Georgia (& Kazakhstan)
Vladimir Putin keeps a close eye on countries closest to Russia, espe
cially Ukraine, Georgia and to some extent, Kazakhstan.
In each, there are large Russian populations and large numbers of Russian speakers. In the Ukraine, more than half the population speaks Russian as their first language.
The concern of “encirclement” or threats at the borders has long been part of Russia’s foreign policy. Winston Churchill described it as did George Kennan writing in 1946. (see slide)
: Putin remembers broken Western promises about NATO expansion
Immediately before the Soviet Union fell, Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in Dresden in East Germany. He was on the ground for all of the radical change that happened when the Soviet Union ended.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader at the time, had agreed that East and West Germany could unify and that the members of the Warsaw Pact could make their own decisions going forward. At the time, Gorbachev was assured by NATO leaders from France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States that NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) would not expand “one inch eastward.” As you can see from the map, those assurances were not honored.
Going back to Putin’s deep seeded concern with border security and Russian legitimacy, the broken promises of the NATO leaders feeds the belief that the U.S. and European countries are trying to hem in Russian power.
: Putin, like the West, deploys “hybrid” weapons to promote Russia’s interest
This idea, of “hybrid” weapons has come up most recently in the charge of Russian interference in the U.S. Presidential election two years ago. Primarily through the use of monetary influence, social media manipulation and digital hacking methods.
Professor O’Loughlin said that Putin and Russia learned how to do this method of interference from the West. In the 1990’s, pro-democracy, pro-western groups like the National Democratic Institute came in a flood to Russia to try and build democratic society in Russia.
Putin saw this effort by the United States and other pro-democratic groups as trying to actively undermine his credibility, and his control. Putin pushed back against this effort strenuously, enacting laws against “foreign agents” among other policies. This effort included not allowing polling firms.
Putin also struck outwards- if the West was going to actively attempt to interfere in Russia by promoting their own goals, Putin would interfere in their affairs.
These actions also affect how Russians perceive the United States. This year, the United States is number one on the list of countries Russians perceive as their enemy.
: Local powers and interests can act to complicate Russia-West arrangements
This is another “neighborhood” issue. Again, two key bordering countries, Georgia and Ukraine have asked to join both NATO and the European Union. (“EU”)
Some EU countries’ leaders do not want either Georgia or Ukraine to join either NATO or the EU because, as Professor O’Loughlin puts it, “they’ll bring their headaches with them.”
Both Ukraine and Georgia have major separatist movements within their countries and Ukraine has active war areas around the separatist strongholds. Russia has sent troops into both countries to support Russian interests. This leaves both Georgia and Ukraine unstable and their governments reaching out to NATO and the EU to find some stability perhaps. However, the EU and NATO want countries to be stable before they join.
: Current stability is not certain to continue- “break a regime: chaos ensues”
Professor O’Loughlin asks, “who do you want to be in charge of Russia’s nuclear arsenal?” Putin, despite all of his issues, is a force for stability. His term as President will end in five years. It is the second of two terms as President. What happens after?
There are several ways his transition from power could happen; he could gracefully retire leaving his successor to lead; he could rule from behind the scenes, he could find a way to get a third ten year term. However the transition happens, the rest of the world will want a stable Russian government.
Professor O’Loughlin hopes that NATO and Russia will find a way to co-exist. Any escalation of the games of chicken that they play on the borders could lead to greater instability. Ultimately, it is to everyone’s benefit to find the middle way that allows Russia to remain stable.
If you want to find out more about Professor John O’Loughlin, you can see his University of Colorado faculty page by clicking HERE
If you missed Friday’s meeting, you can still watch Professor O’Loughlin’s presentation by clicking HERE
And you can watch the rest of Friday’s meeting, including Marty Coffin Evan’s tribute to Boulder Rotarians we lost this year, by clicking HERE
You can catch up with previous meetings and speakers by clicking on the TV icon below.