On Valentine’s Day, the Russian newspaper Vedemosti wrote a tough-love letter to the people of Russia. It pointed out that one-fifth of the Russian urban population has no hot water in its homes, and that one third of the population, nearly 50 million people, have inadequate hot water supply. More than 20 million Russians have inadequate heat, and over 13% rely solely upon their stoves for heating (a massive fire hazard, one reason Russia has one of highest fire fatality rates in the world).
These facts are reflective of Russia’s continuing backwardness compared to the Western nations with which it would compete. Russia ranks #130 in the world for life expectancy of its citizens, right behind Bangladesh and Philippines. It ranks #53 in the world for per capita nominal GDP, behind Uruguay and Equatorial Guinea.
So why is this backwards, impoverished nation declaring war on the United States, the world’s only superpower? The evidence shows conclusively that is exactly what is happening.
The United States had to scramble fighter jets at its major military base on the Pacific Island of Guam last week. The reason? Nuclear-armed Russian bombers were aggressively challenging U.S. airspace. The U.S. almost never takes actions of this kind in regard to Russia, but such actions from Russians are common.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent the better part of a week trying to get his Russia counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the phone to discuss North Korea’s latest binge of nuclear testing. Lavrov repeatedly snubbed Kerry, refusing to take his calls.
One of Russia’s many English-language propaganda mouthpieces, Voice of Russia, ran an extended article last week openly threatening cold war against the United States if it dared to continue support a missile defense system for Eastern Europe.
Russia banned imports of meat from the USA on frivolous grounds, right on the heels of banning adoptions by U.S. parents.
An article appeared in The Ukrainian Week, documenting the Kremlin’s efforts to use such tactics as energy blackmail and the exploitation of ethnic disputes to destabilize the governments of former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia in order to bring them back under Russia’s neo-Soviet umbrella. As if to prove the thesis, Russia announced criminal charges against a member of the Georgian government, whom Russia accused of supporting the work of opposition political groups in Russia. And the Kremlin announced (Russian-language link) that Russia is forming vigilante groups to persecute ethnic minorities within Russia and reviving the Stalinist system of “propiska” registration (Russian-language link).
And then, of course, Russia took one of the most barbaric actions in its entire history when it decided to put the corpse of Sergei Magnitsky on trial. Coming only a short time after the U.S. imposed a blacklist on the corrupt Russian officials who tortured and murdered Magnitsky, this neo-Soviet show trial speaks volumes about the true nature of the Putin regime and the extent of its visceral hatred for all things American, regardless of the extent to which Russia alienates itself from the civilized world.
All that in just one week in February 2013.
Seasoned Russia watcher Pavel Felgenhauer published a column last week in which he argued that such aggressive anti-Americanism and nationalism reflect the Kremlin’s neo-Soviet ideology. At a recent speech, Felgenhauer says, Putin openly declared war on foreign NGOs and foreign Internet content, calling upon the KGB (now known as the FSB) to use all its powers in pushing back against these foreign toxins. Felgenhauer writes: “Putin announced that last month, FSB officers got a 40-percent pay increase, that 11,000 free apartments were handed out to loyal agents in 2012 and more bonuses will be in the offing.” Ironically, some of the leading proponents of anti-Americanism also have vast holdings of real estate in the USA.
It’s really quite breathtaking how willing, even eager, Russians have been to see the apparatus of the old USSR reinstalled. It seems they are even willing to stomach the feverish, embarrassing neo-Soviet lies. When a meteor crashed in to Siberia last week, frenzied reports claimed that this was a test of a terrifying new weapon (Russian-language link) by the evil Americans, and then that powerful Russian technology had shot down the meteor before it could make landfall. Both reports were absolute nonsense.
And of course Russians have been willing to embrace handing unchecked power for life to a proud KGB spy named Vladimir Putin. Putin infamously called the fall of the USSR and the breakup of its empire a “catastrophe” and “tragedy,” and quick as he could he brought back the national anthem of the USSR, which was written to glorify Josef Stalin. It now plays for Russia at the Olympics and elsewhere. He’s sought to rehabilitate Stalin himself, and regularly tells Russians that their Soviet past is something to be proud of.
There’s only one way that Putin’s tilting, Quixote-like, at the American windmill might not be thought irrational and absurd: That would be if he believes Barack Obama will let him get away with it. Throughout Obama’s first term, there were many signs that Putin might rationally entertain such hope about Obama, who ignored Russian belligerence and anti-democracy crackdowns and helped Russia win most-favored nation trading status and WTO admission.
But now there are signs that even Obama is appalled by Russian backsliding, and is moving away from his “reset” policy towards one more grounded in reality. It may well be that just like his Soviet ancestors Putin now has Russia on the fast track to national collapse.