During the first days of the Iraq conflict, Russian official statements and the tone of the television broadcasts reminded many people of the anti-imperialist propaganda of Soviet times. These harsh words, however, were not uttered by the leaders of a super-power, but by the cautious leaders of a poor country constantly looking sideways at its influential European neighbours.
In fact, the resolve shown by the Russian leaders during the period when the world community was trying to prevent the war, and during the first days of fighting, was not evoked by a clear understanding of Russia’s national interests or by a considered strategy.
During the 1990s a system had been established under which Russia depended politically on the United States, and economically on Germany. The US dictated Russia’s political agenda, while the leading position among Russia’s foreign investors and partners was gradually taken over by German capital. Direct foreign investments in manufacturing industry came almost exclusively from Germany, and it was to Germany that substantial quantities of Russian raw materials were exported.
This system worked perfectly so long as Germany kept a low profile in international affairs, and at least verbally, showed solidarity with the US. But as soon as US-German disagreements began to surface, the Moscow leaders found themselves in a dilemma. Moscow’s behaviour recalled Pavlov’s famous experiment with a dog whose reflexes had been conditioned to respond to specific signals. So long as everything went ahead normally, the dog understood: now it would be fed, and now it would be punished. But when the wretched animal was exposed to two mutually exclusive signals at once, it fell into a panic, and began rushing about its cage. Something similar occurred last winter with the Russian authorities.
It was only when it had become clear that Germany and France would win a majority in the United Nations Security Council even without Russia, and that there would be no need to resort to a veto, that President Putin attached himself decisively to the victor. Or more precisely, to the side that he took to be the victor. For ten years the ideologues of the Russian regime had impressed on our public that it was necessary to support the US, since we would otherwise be counterposing ourselves to “all of civilised humanity”. February 14 showed that it was in fact Washington that was isolated.
The Russian foreign ministry drew the correct conclusion – not, however, on the basis of national interests or of firm principles, but of crude opportunism. This was seen and understood by everyone. The evasiveness of the Russian leaders, as they cast frequent glances at Washington but nevertheless continued fearfully repeating formulations crafted in Berlin, was humiliating to behold.
Russian society, meanwhile, was showing itself to be no better than its leaders. During the days in mid-February when hundreds of thousands of people were coming onto the streets of Western Europe, America and even Australia, the inhabitants of Russia preferred to sit at home. This would have been understandable, had people in Russia supported Bush or approved of the war. Surveys showed, however, that in Russia opponents of the war on Iraq were scarcely less numerous than in the major European states. Even the Chechnya campaign no longer enjoys broad support.
Anti-war moods in Russia are relatively strong, but society is quite unprepared to express them. The population understand clearly that nothing depends on them, and that the attempt to create civil society in this country has been abortive.
This kind of passivity creates ideal conditions for a “flexible” foreign policy. Despite an overwhelming mood of anti-Americanism, no-one protested when in the name of a “joint struggle against terrorism”, US forces took over Russian bases in Central Asia, or when the Russian military presence in Cuba, which had remained even under President Yeltsin, was finally wound up.
Nor did the support of society mean anything in February-March 2003, when the Kremlin, at the instigation of Berlin, began unexpectedly to make sharp criticisms of Washington. After US forces had taken Baghdad, it become clear to the Moscow leaders that the antiwar coalition had miscalculated, and that there was an urgent need to make peace with the US. In the space of a single hour the tone of the official declarations changed dramatically, and Russian television ceased broadcasting materials from Al-Jazeera, switching back to a diet of CNN.
Everything would have been simple, had the source of the conflict between Washington and Berlin really been the question of war in the Middle East. In reality, the conflict is a long-term one that has unfolded on many different fronts. Within the World Trade Organisation, the countries of the European Union are threatening to introduce sanctions against the US. The dollar and the Euro are fighting for supremacy on world financial markets. France and Germany are placing Atlantic solidarity in question, moving to establish their own defence pact. The European defence industries in turn are gearing up to compete with the American military-industrial complex.
In this conflict, the European Union has finished up divided; the process of counterposition and unification is taking the form of traditional inter-state blocs rather than occurring within the framework of new regional alliances. It is precisely this, however, that increases the importance of Russia. The less the European Union is united, the more valuable Moscow’s support becomes to France and Germany.
The diplomatic value of Russia’s “great power” status has been devalued along with the diminution in the role of the UN. Russia’s military-industrial potential might be of value at some future point, but for the present this aspect of collaboration holds little interest for Berlin and Paris. On the whole, the Russian defence industry works for China and India, which buy most of its products. Russia’s own army is unable to buy modern armaments in appreciable quantities.
Nevertheless, Russia plays an important role in Berlin’s European strategy. As the political weakness and economic precariousness of European integration become apparent, the need to consolidate a stable core for a united Europe becomes increasingly vital. The global economic depression that began with the new century has placed the dominant neoliberal models in doubt. The competition between capitals has grown more acute. A hundred years ago, this was called “interimperialist rivalry”.
In declaring their joint defence initiative, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg have in fact proclaimed something more than the intention to integrate their armed forces. What is involved here is a new European bloc, prepared to compete with the US. Russia is coming to act as a resource base and as the geopolitical rear lines for this coalition. Now that the US has seized hold of Iraq’s oil, placing the resources of the Middle East under its control and effectively forcing its way into OPEC, the importance of Russia’s energy to Western Europe has multiplied. The fact that the oil extracted from Siberia and the Far East is expensive is unimportant; it remains a global strategic resource.
The global stand-off described here explains the firmness of Russia’s position, a firmness in some ways incomprehensible to Russia’s own leaders. The Kremlin clearly intended to make peace with the US, but when Blair came to Moscow in April to repair postwar relations, Putin met him coldly, in effect rejecting the hand which Blair had extended. This was even more unexpected if we consider that only a few days before the visit, quite different moods had prevailed in the Kremlin.
Putin’s St Petersburg summit with Western leaders, timed to coincide with the three hundredth anniversary of our “northern capital”, had been conceived as a reconciliation summit. The city had been cleaned, scrubbed and refurbished. The holiday atmosphere, the massive police presence, and the inability of Russians to mount mass protests were supposed to guarantee an atmosphere of celebration in the city during the stay of the “distinguished guests”.
Already on May 18th a group of protestors was severely beaten up by the police, six people were taken to hospital in dire condition and the police promised to keep working in the same style to guarantee “good atmosphere” at the summit. But is this enough for real reconciliation?
Meetings between world leaders can no longer provide a setting for resolving questions that will decide the future of the planet. Neo-liberal capitalism has become enmeshed in its own contradictions, which will scarcely be removed in the course of a friendly talk between global bosses.