The Third Russian Revolution

Putin at awards presentation

Make no mistake: On the current trajectory, Russia won’t be immune to many of the forces that provoked the so-called colored revolutions in adjacent states and even the misnomered Arab Awakening.

A third Russian revolution is unfolding. The only questions are when will that revolution reach a critical mass and, most importantly, will the forces of autocracy or pluralism carry the day?

Russia, of course, experienced two revolutions in the 20th century. The Kaiser’s Germany provoked the first by sending Lenin from Switzerland to Russia in the famous sealed train in 1917. That led to the undoing of the tsar and the Kerensky government as well as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that ended the war with Germany and allowed the Bolsheviks to sweep away the opposition.

The second revolution came about in some seven decades later. The causes were a corrupt and fundamentally dishonest political system kept in place by a disciplined central leadership and dictatorship of the party. But that required able or at least competent leadership.

Instead, the ruling Politburo became a genitocracy headed by sick, old men. Leonid Brezhnev took years to die and was replaced by two even less well general secretaries. In the mid-1970s, CIA Director William Colby repeatedly predicted Brezhnev’s pending demise. It wasn’t until 1982 that Colby’s forecast came true.

In the succession process, a few younger members were elevated to the Politburo. Because of the succession of antiquated leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev found himself moving from post to post from his appointment to the Politburo in 1979. In each post, he realized that the Soviet Union was an empty shell and each department was grossly mismanaged and underperforming.

Six years later, when he became general secretary, Gorbachev was determined to save the Soviet Union and modernize the failing system.

Gorbachev’s tools were glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). The floodgates of reform were fully opened and the old and unworkable system couldn’t resist them. By 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

In the two decades since, Vladimir Putin has emerged as the Ironman of Russia. In the process, Russia has been described and viewed by many as a kleptocracy ruled by the few who have pillaged national wealth for their own benefits.

Under what Republicans and Democrats alike in the United States see as a government of and by thugs, human rights have been violated; dissidents and members of the media arrested; and opponents of the Kremlin subjected to purges and show trials leading to long prison sentences.

Russia’s immediate neighbors are fearful of the return of the aggressive Russian bear anxious to spread its influence through manipulating its oil and natural gas reserves for political purposes and through military maneuvers designed to intimidate.

Further, cyberattacks, principally against Estonia, reinforce this perception of a neo-Soviet Union under the leadership of former KGB Colonel Putin. And Putin’s commitment to far greater military spending as well as unwillingness to accept NATO’s missile defenses raises sinister possibilities.

Within Russia, discontent on the part of many Russians is waxing. Outright theft on the part of oligarchs has gone too far. Persecution of political opposition is particularly vexing. And the health and longevity of a declining population reflects more than excesses of consumption of vodka and harsh winters.

Indeed, as a buffer to Putin’s intent to ramp up his military, the Kremlin faces a very limiting factor: 90 percent of all Russian youth are unfit for military service.

Unfortunately, the West in general and the United States in particular have never been very good at Kremlinology (or indeed in understanding many foreign cultures).

Whether Putin is aware of the ticking time bomb over which he presides or not, Russia is still very important to Western interests. Syria and Iran are two major crises where Russian support could be important.

But exploiting the possibility of a third Russian Revolution requires skill, patience, comprehension and wisdom, not always Washington’s longest suits. The analogy of triangular politics invented by the Nixon administration in which reconciliation with China was a strategic lever to use against Russia has some relevance provided we substitute Putin’s domestic problems as the new lever.

Clever statecraft is essential. On the one hand, incentives are vital such as accepting Russian arguments in opposition to missile defense. Russia believes that until it can reach parity conventionally with NATO, its tactical nuclear weapons are vital deterrents. Missile defenses in Europe do have capability in that regard although none against intercontinental weapons.

On the other hand, Putin should be worried about Russia’s future economic prospects given the growing reductions in exports of gas and oil that will contract further.

Another “reset” isn’t the solution. But a hardheaded discussion of Russia’s potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities is.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.

Photo credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office