What role is Russia playing in the difficulties the United States, Europe, and other countries are experiencing?
Does the Kremlin reject the existing world order and aspire to a new division of the world?
Did Moscow’s political kitchen deliberately help to concoct the loathsome dish of domestic and international terrorism, the tsunami of refugees, and political destabilization in many countries?
There can be no simple and straightforward answers, but serious consideration of recent Russian history leads to distressing conclusions.
When the totalitarian USSR collapsed there was cause for hope. The germs of a multi-party, parliamentary system and free enterprise appeared, political and religious freedoms were guaranteed, censorship vanished, and the mass media were liberated. Soviet citizens were free to travel, and punitive psychiatry ended.
And then–recoil. In 1993 President Yeltsin dealt a crushing blow to the parliamentary system, killing several hundred people in the process. Russia practiced genocide against its own people in Chechnya. Political assassinations and the murder of journalists commenced.
Vladimir Putin at the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Department (GRU) in Moscow, 08 November 2006. DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty
The economic situation was no better. Even prior to the attempted coup by communist hardliners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the KGB began transferring huge amounts of “party funds” to “trusted persons.,” thereby founding the fortunes of the first of Russia’s nouveaux riches. The most infamous cases followed in the mid-1990s.
The coup is said to have failed miserably. Not so. By then the USSR was falling apart. Key positions in the executive and legislative branches had already been seized by officials and agents of the special services, often working “under cover.” The same thing happened in the world of business.
Gorbachev in power ended the Cold War. Yet after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia began a gradual return to Cold War policies. Under the pretext of defending Russian compatriots abroad, the Kremlin interfered in the domestic politics of neighboring Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldova. It was suspected of involvement in the attempted assassination of Georgia’s president Eduard Shevardnadze.
Meanwhile, Russia pursued an anti-Western policy of supporting the murderous Slobodan Milosevic in former Yugoslavia. Among the later results of these trends, under Putin, were a dismembered Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and prolonged Russian aggression in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Why were a number of terrorist acts in the West, such as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, performed by visitors or emigrants from the former Soviet Union?
Did the emigrants, the brothers Tsarnaev, of Chechen nationality, responsible for the Boston attack, act on their own initiative? It seems most unlikely.
Russia must accept a share of responsibility for the Syrian civil war, the flood of refugees into Europe, the rightward drift of several European countries, the rising influence of ultra-right politicians, attempts to weaken the EU, and the U.K.’s Brexit decision.
What is going on between Russia and Donald Trump?
Is the president of the United States linked more closely to the Kremlin than any Western political figure should be?
That these questions command serious and prolonged attention in the United States puts Russia in a very poor light.
Why didn’t democracy take root in Russia? Why under Putin has the overwhelming majority of the population joyously welcomed the rebirth of authoritarianism, in a different flavor, of extreme corruption and misappropriation of state funds and natural resources?
The ultimate answer is that it is extremely dangerous when the secret police, with their nationalistic mentality, seize power in an enormous nuclear state, and when a former hunter of dissidents becomes president. Dangerous not only for Russia, but for the whole world.
When it became clear that Russia interfered in the internal affairs of the United States, in the presidential election, increasing numbers of Americans were persuaded of this truth.
Unfortunately, Russia has entered a path that leads nowhere. Power is unlimited; legislation is repressive; there has long been no real opposition. There is no coherent opposition program. The slogans “Russia without Putin,” and “Russia will be free,” are just words.
Putin cynically and regularly proclaims a struggle against the corruption that he himself sponsors.
What would Russia be without Putin? Putin himself is nothing. He is merely a facade concealing the special services and the oligarchs. They can easily replace him with another representative of the secret services.
Was Russia free under Dmitri Medvedev, president in 2008-2012? Of course not. He was a puppet of these very same forces.
Sometimes I am reproached for attributing to the Kremlin too much influence in the world. My response is that the Putin regime is so convinced of its own impunity that it indulges in actions that even communist leaders during the Cold War refrained from attempting.
Russia is at a dead end. It is vital that it not drag the rest of the world down the path it has taken.
It is our responsibility to make sure that does not happen.
Andrei A.Kovalev served as a diplomat and official in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) and then in similar capacities under presidents Yeltsin and Putin (1991-2007). He is author ofRussia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin (Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2017).