Confrontation with the West will be costly for Russia

The Kremlin has tired of the West’s incessant criticism of its actions. Moscow has decided to formulate a new self-defense strategy, intended to be integrated and comprehensive. It comes down to a simple idea: “You have no business criticizing us, because you’re just as bad.”

The adepts and promoters of Russia’s “sovereign democracy” will find themselves in a difficult situation now. They’ve spent so much time and effort on proving to the whole world that Russia has its own peculiar order and special path – but now they’ll have to change their precepts radically. The reason is clear. In an interview with journalists from G8 countries, President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly emphasized something else entirely: similarities between Russia and Western democracies. Now his subordinates will have to adapt to this, like it or not.

Are human rights violated in Russia? Well, the human rights situation in the West isn’t anywhere near what is described in democracy textbooks – as documented by an authoritative international rights protection organization (an organization regarded by Russian officials as practically a saboteur – until now).

Do Russian police use truncheons to disperse demonstrators? Well, police in Western countries also take tough measures against anyone who disrupts public order.

Do Western countries have parliaments? Well, we have a parliament too. And state-owned television channels exist in Western countries as well as Russia.

This list of similarities and analogies can be continued – but it is not intended to perplex Russia’s propagandists and official ideologues. They don’t count. President Putin’s interview was primarily aimed at a Western audience.

In general, many of the points made in this interview had been said before. However, it revealed an altered impression of Russia’s place: not off to the side in “sovereign democracy,” but right in the middle of regular democracy, with Russia apparently being part of it: well, nobody’s perfect, of course – so there’s no point in blaming the mirror, and all countries have blots on their records. Secondly, the style and form of presentation have altered: becoming tougher, sometimes “on the edge.”

The question is why Putin chose to demonstrate such toughness and obvious readiness to accept further escalation – in the lead-up to the G8 summit.

To all appearances, the Kremlin has tired of the incessant and increasing criticism of its actions by the Western media, non-governmental organizations, and lawmakers – with heads of state and prime ministers frequently joining in. The reasons for this are evident: the evolution of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy course toward a hardline approach is becoming so perceptible that it has started to cause problems with oil and gas deliveries to the West. And now there are threats of appropriate responses to the deployment of US missile defense elements in Europe. In fact, these threats took on some specific outlines in the interview with G8 journalists: Putin said that Russian missiles might be redirected at targets in European countries.

Under the circumstances, Moscow has decided to formulate a new self-defense strategy, intended to be integrated and comprehensive. It comes down to a simple idea: “You have no business criticizing us, because you’re just as bad.” In other words, criticism of the Kremlin’s actions is pointless and Russia is prepared for a confrontation. As everyone knows, the best defense is a good offense.

But in the West – among ruling elites and the general public alike – no one will accept claims that Russia and its social order are practically identical to Western democracies with all their problems.

And since Western politicians and citizens won’t accept Russia’s arguments, they really will start seeing our country as a politically and culturally alien power – and one that is starting to pose a threat to their interests. From there, it’s only a small step to a new arms race – and as we have recently witnessed, it will become more and more difficult to promote the interests of Russian corporations outside Russia. Look at how Oleg Deripaska was barred from bidding for Chrysler, a symbol of the American economy.

Under these conditions, would a confrontation be beneficial for Russia? Obviously not. Russia’s economic resources are not comparable to those of the West. In the event of a confrontation, our country would certainly have to choose between guns and butter – while the West, much to the displeasure of many Russian “patriots,” can afford both. A confrontation would not be good for the budgets of Russian corporations, some of them already burdened with debts to Western creditors; neither would it increase dividends for their shareholders. That’s the best-cases scenario; in the worst-case scenario, the Western creditors would call in their debts – and a substantial part of those debts (at least, for semi-state-owned corporations like Gazprom and Rosneft) would be paid by the state, at the expense of the people.

President Putin’s tough rhetoric seems to have been aimed at the domestic political market as well as his foreign audience. Elections are approaching, and the authorities have been working hard in recent years to portray themselves as firm and suited to a great power. In this situation, a tough response to criticism from abroad is an effective campaign move – it reassures voters. The message is: we have chosen the path of reviving Russia as a great power, and we won’t turn aside from it, come what may.

The problem, however, is that when verbal sparring moves to the practical level of confrontation, and Russia actually has to choose between guns and butter, many of the citizens who are now experiencing a sincere impulse to resist Western imperialism will be unpleasantly surprised by the results of their impulse. Presumably, this is particularly true of young people. As for where all this might lead – well, one doesn’t like to make gloomy forecasts. Those who are feeling euphoric about the prospect of a confrontation with the West would do well to remember what happened to the Soviet Union when it failed to cope with the arms race. Many of them witnessed that chapter of history.