Over the coming months, as the sound and fury of the EU referendum slowly begin to recede, some other stuff is going to happen in a desert near Astrakhan. This is where initial testing is to take place of Russia’s new RS-28 Sarmat missile system. According to The National Interest, the RS-28 will weigh over 100 tons, not including the payload, and be able to carry as many as “15 independently targeted thermo-nuclear warheads”. Or, as the Russian news agency Zvezda summed it up [as reported here]: it will be a missile “capable of wiping out parts of the earth the size of Texas or France”. It will have a range of 10,000 kilometres and be able to evade radar. A single invisible bomb that could eviscerate the whole of the UK without warning.
And who will have his finger on the trigger? Vladimir Putin. Certain adjectives seem to fit politicians like gloves: Trump = crass; Boris = bumbling; Churchill = Churchillian. For Putin, that word is ‘creepy’. The bare-chested para-militarism; the billion dollar bank accounts; the gaudy, soulless, Russian bling; the dead Botoxed face. If a sad Dickensian orphan-child were cross-bred with Roland Rat, Putin’s tiny-eyed, mournful face would be the result. A sordid, anaemic pixie.
Putin, by common consent in the West, is a bad guy. He is a threat. Many have leaped upon his annexation of the Crimea as being grounds for destabilising his regime through sanctions. A New York Times article enthused that, “There is good evidence that sanctions are working … The Russian economy is in recession. Why would we want to hand the Russian government a lifeline now?” A Huffington Post contributor put it thus, “The West must not waver when it comes to sanctions. They are working and undermining Putin’s support”.
I can think of no country I would less like to see politically destabilised than Russia. Who do we envisage taking over from Putin? Or are we in the West just falling back into our now traditional ‘Mr Micawber thinking’ on foreign policy: something will turn up. Just like something turned up when the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan; and something turned up when Gaddafi was ousted in Libya; and Batista in Cuba. Something always turns up.
Will something nice turn up in Russia once Putin goes? At the last presidential election, second place went to Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party. Zyuganov has called for the “re-Stalinisation” of Russian society. His party’s politics are a mix of socialism, extreme nationalism, and virulent anti-Semitism. Zyuganov has stated that, “the Zionization of Russian state power has been one of the reasons behind … the extinction of its population.”
However awful Zyuganov may be, he is less awful than the man who came third: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party. A vulgar, violent hyper-nationalist, Zhirinovsky once claimed that Condoleezza Rice would benefit from being gang-raped by Russian soldiers until she had “Russian sperm … leaking out of her ears”. Now a bit-player in Russian politics, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democrats actually managed to finish as the largest party in the 1993 Duma elections, coming first-placed in 64 out of 87 regions. This despite the fact that they advocated invading the United States of America so as to relocate all Ukrainians there.
The Moscow Times has cited opposition politician Alexei Navalny as being a potential challenger to Putin. Navalny has agitated against state corruption, receiving coverage in the Western press for doing so. This has led to his being harassed and arrested on trumped up charges by the authorities. But even Navalny defines himself as a nationalist fighting for the rights of “ethnic Russians”. He has appeared on platforms alongside neo-Nazis and has in the past called for all Georgians to be expelled from Russia.
Openly neo-Nazi organisations infest Russia, having committed hundreds of racist murders, even filming themselves decapitating immigrants. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Russians are appalled by such excesses, these opinions do, however, form the sharp edge of more widely held nationalist beliefs. Recent opinion polls have shown that 58 per cent of Russians want a return of the Soviet empire, and 40 per cent believe Russians to be a “special people”. 75 per cent see the West as an adversary.
More realistically, Putin’s successor will come from within his own government or party. The defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, has been touted as favourite to succeed him. But would this be an improvement on Putin? Shoigu has been dubbed the “real force behind Russia’s military aggression” and the instigator of large increases in military expenditure.
The existence of powerful nationalist sensibilities in Russia is the reason why Putin does as he does. Putin needs to harness them to remain in power. If a vast majority of Russians thought that LGBT rights were the burning issue of the moment, Putin would be out leading the next Gay Pride procession (probably with his top off). To wipe away the current regime is not to wipe away the politics. Ugly nationalists from a sizeable minority of the Russian electorate. Do we believe that the trashing of the Russian economy is going to reduce their number?
Russia is as it is. To demand it change is to fuel that which scares us: its chest-thumping nationalism. When, in the 19th century, the arch-royalist Otto von Bismarck justified to a fellow conservative his dealings with the hated symbol of revolutionary politics, Napoleon III, he wrote:
“My political principle is, and remains, the struggle against the Revolution. You will not convince Napoleon that he is not on the side of the Revolution. He has no desire either to be anywhere else … There is thus no question either of sympathy or of antipathy here. This position of Bonaparte is a ‘fact’ which you cannot ‘ignore’”.
Perhaps once the West stops reaching for a shimmering liberal dream alternative of what Russia should be, and starts dealing with ‘fact’, we might ensure that Russia keeps in place its unpleasant but relatively sane leader, and those 100-ton missiles remain on ice. The Crimea is never going to be a part of Ukraine, or the EU or NATO. The idea of US ships docking in Sevastopol is not going to happen, not without a war. What Bismarck realised in his long career is that you can only ever deal with the world as is.