Opinion: Siege mentality or the paradox in interacting with Russia (II)
With President Putin’s ratings soaring to supposedly 80 percent in Russia, it is clear that the Russian government has the backing of its population. With democratic expectations rising around the Russian periphery, it is curious to see such a development, but there is an easy explanation for this.
Strong national pride and a yet an uncomfortable sense of being besieged combine into a potent mixture. By turning much of global opinion against its state and yet successfully powering through the events in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian government is establishing a convenient picture. The Russian government appears to be declaring, “The world is against us, but we will persevere. We will power through because we are the descendants of two mighty empires.” By establishing an antagonism with the West, the state provided its public with an important enemy that efforts can be directed against, rather than looking at issues of economy and accountability at home. For those unconvinced by the supposed foreign aggression, there’s always the national pride in the seeming strategic and tactical successes enjoyed by Russia through bullying significantly weaker states. Obviously this will not convince everyone. Judging by the protests a few years ago it is clear it hasn’t.
Nevertheless 80 percent approval rates are as good as 100 percent approval rates at this stage. Herein is a dilemma – it is crucial to make sure that the necessary preparations are in place and that adequate responses are provided to Russian swashbuckling in its near abroad, as well as further away, but at the same time, by taking an opposing stance, we end up fuelling the regime internally. If the West and others stay inactive, Russia gains momentum and can build on a sense of national pride. If the West and others take a strong stance, they strengthen a Russian siege mentality which will just keep escalating as Russia’s satellites and neighbours slowly experience democratic expectations creeping in. The more Russia is pressured, the more it will harden.
The solution is mainly to play an active waiting game. The EU, and states on the Russian periphery interested in maintaining their independence have several very important tasks that will both help push against Russian influence and whittle down the solid barrier of approval ratings that the current government enjoys. Unfortunately, it is expensive but it is the healthy way out. States need to diversify their fuel imports and make sure they do not rely on exporting or importing into Russia.
This is a good solution for two reasons. First, diversifying export partners is prudent in the long term and decreases Russia’s capacity to use reliance on its raw resources and internal market as a tool for policy. By relying on a single partner, even if they were a reliable and responsible state, one ends up at a risk of being hurt greatly by whatever calamity may befall their trade partner. Even if Russia was a model democracy, importing half or more of your gas or other fuel from one source is a potential recipe for disaster. Still, it is clear that many European states have been rather unwilling to commit earnestly against Russian aggression in Ukraine because of their import or export agreements.
Diversity is absolutely crucial to ensure that losses due to unpredictable factors are minimised and obviously to ensure that no state can wrangle you into submission by flexing its trade agreements at you. Obviously fully sufficient and immediate diversity is a pipe dream, but it is still important to take steps to at least minimally progress toward diversity, furthermore, steps that increase reliance should not be taken, especially with a partner that has such a spotty history. Some may disagree, of course, and continue to build new pipelines from Russia or close affiliates.
Diversity is important not only in terms of resources. Cultural factors play a part as well. It is necessary to have a diverse information environment, especially when vulnerable minorities that could be targeted by the Russian state are concerned. Russia Today is an effective tool for spreading the Russian line, so while there is no need to specifically create propaganda or spread half-truths (in fact this would likely be counterproductive), it is important to encourage the creation of independent programming and releases not only in local national languages, but also those of minority groups. Monopolies are generally a bad thing, so it should come to no surprise that they ought to be discouraged on a cultural basis as well.
Jurgis Vedrickas is a graduate of Aberystwyth University, UK. He has a BA degree in International Politics.