2014 November 23 Sunday
A Bad Road In Russia While Its Military Buzzes Its Neighbors

Russia is corrupt and its government can't do some really basic things (e.g. build decent roads). But Putin is throwing his weight around trying to do a new version of the Cold War. The Finns are worried and watching the big bear closely. Putin is not a good Tsar. Back in October 2013 NY Times writer Ellen Barry took the highway from St. Petersburg to Moscow and stopped at villages and sites along the way. The result is an essay that gives a glimpse of the decay and corruption that is Russia. The Russia Left Behind: A journey through a heartland on the slow road to ruin.

Mr. Chertkov has begun to crave order, something he imagines existed under Stalin. He feels envious when he drives through Belarus, where the police are too afraid to ask for bribes. The Russia he sees from the cab of his truck doesn’t suffer from a lack of freedom; it suffers from a lack of control.

The highway between St. Petersburg and Moscow is in appallingly bad state. The Russian government's policy makes no sense. It could enact fuel taxes to fund a huge highway construction program. Why not? It is not like democratic opposition to the fuel taxes would find any voice. Putin controls the TV stations and the newspapers are mostly cowed at this point.

Meanwhile Russian troops are carving out another piece of Ukraine and the Russian military is conducting attack runs against Western targets. The most interesting move: expansion of the Russian government-supported press to spread propaganda. How effective will this be? The assorted Western news organizations produce a huge amount of news. Can Russian publications have much impact in this age of the internet?

Vladimir Putin is confused in thinking the West is his biggest problem. His own government is his biggest problem. Russia is not well governed. It ought to be.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2014 November 23 08:09 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at November 24, 2014 1:43 AM:

1) There is no question that Russia has an inherent corruption problem that is deleterious.
2) It is also true that Putin made a silly miscalculation in Ukraine.

However, neither 1) nor 2) change the inescapable fact that Russia's long term perception of Germany and its intentions are somewhat justified: It was EU with Germany's leadership that originally encouraged the pro-EU coup in Ukraine, and this was not just to add Ukraine to EU, this was especially part of Germany's hopes that the unrest would cascade into the actual Russian territory and cause Russia to fragment and gradually fall into European Union's (Germany's to be more exact) orbit, so that Germany can get the Russian raw materials (not only hydrocarbons, but also the fabulous mineral resources) at fire sale prices; this way Germany was going to obtain politically, what it could not obtain militarily. And Russians think in terms of 100 year cycles, and they are not blind enough to realize that when NATO countries expand all the way to the Baltic region (literally within a few hundred miles of Saint Petersburg), and when Germany becomes even more powerful in a few decades, this would represent a new treat to Russia after the US basically gives up its control of the European wing of NATO and let Germany lead all the European military power by 2039. For all their faults, Russians are the ultimate realists and they are good at seeing things as they are (although they are not good at seeing things as they should be, but that's another matter): when Germany's tentacles approach the Russian sphere of influence so much, Russia would react in a negative way. Incidentally, the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine contains many industries that are very connected with Russia, and losing these industries is another cause for concern in Russia (not just because of the economic loss in the short run, but it would also encourage the disgruntled sectors of the Russian economy to secede in order to join EU for better economic management, leading to the full disintegration/fragmentation that would make Russia a German satellite, where Germany would get all the raw materials it needs at fire sale prices.

Meanwhile, the rising Caliphate that is destined to threaten both the EU and Russia, is another dimension of geopolitics that Germany may have forgotten when it encouraged and supported the original pro-EU coup in Ukraine. Instead of working together in a win-win economic partnership, Germany and Russia are in a lose-lose situation now.

James Bowery said at November 24, 2014 8:13 PM:

Putin and the oligarchs could easily enact a citizen's dividend paid for by a tax on fossil fuel extracted and privatize the petroleum industry, allowing the demand-driven restructuring of Russian society. Of course, in order to do this, he would have to unleash citizens militias -- along the Swiss model -- to expel immigrants seeking the dividend stream.

Of course, there are a zillion things Putin and the oligarchs could do better but they won't because they don't _have_ to. Perhaps when their lives are imminently threatened...

Wolf-Dog said at November 24, 2014 8:44 PM:

James Bovery: You mean Putin should impose a value added tax to gasoline in Russia? Most people in Russia are so poor that they don't have cars. The Mercedes-driving upper class in Moscow represent a small fraction of the Russian economy, and taxing their consumption will not make a big difference. In fact, even imposing a strong VAT tax on on all the luxury items consumed by the rich Russians will only help just a little bit because the Russian upper class is hoarding most of the export money, keeping that money out of circulation. On the contrary, it might be more effective to start taxing the profits of the Russian upper class by closing the loopholes and making the tax brackets progressive instead of flat. Otherwise, the poorer Russian majority will never be able to compete with the Russian upper class and all the money will accumulate in the upper class, leading to a feudal society in Russia, as in the 19th century.

The solution is to dramatically increase the quality of education in Russia, to start a free enterprise innovation cycle.

Joseph Moroco said at November 25, 2014 4:51 AM:

Actually it was USG that miscalculated when Nuland and Pyatt rioted out the elected (and very corrupt) leader. Putin played the hand he had to.

Mike Street Station said at November 25, 2014 8:51 AM:

Putin is expanding his propaganda arm because it works, even in the age of the internet.

A friend of mine's wife is ethnic Russian (Moldovan) and was recently skyping with her father in Moldova, although as Russian speakers they get their news from Russian TV news. They had an argument about something Putin related and he hung up on her. She's normally pretty much pro-whatever Russia's doing but she hated the propagandizing of Russian media, which totally misrepresents the West and it's intentions. Living in the US, she knows that Obama is a dolt who has no idea what he's doing in foreign policy and trying to avoid Putin as much as possible, but in Russia, Obama is a criminal mastermind plotting the demise of Russia and preparing for full on war.

I guess the real problem is that there are not enough legitimate Russian language sources online that are not under Putin's thumb.

Mr. Clausewitz said at November 25, 2014 9:13 AM:

Trade embargoes are not "avoiding" anyone. Nor is working with the Saudis to drive down the price of oil. Obama has fired the Cold War up again, that's all. And a Cold War against a nuke armed enemy is a bit smarter than a hot war.

In Yugoslavia we just told the Serbs that we were going to split off Kosovo and use it as a giant US military base and if they fought us we would carpet bomb Belgrade. And we probably would have carpet bombed Belgrade! But the Serbs had no nukes, so we could just threaten and dismember Yugoslavia as we saw fit. It just doesn't work the same way with a nuke-armed enemy. You have to take the fight to the people and starve them into submission with trade embargoes.

Starving the people, cutting off their medicine, water, fuel, whatever is not "doing nothing". Obama is doing his best to make the white Christians of Russia suffer so much that they blame their government. And isn't that better than a hot war with Russia?

Matra said at November 25, 2014 5:06 PM:

A friend of mine's wife is ethnic Russian (Moldovan) and was recently skyping with her father in Moldova, although as Russian speakers they get their news from Russian TV news. They had an argument about something Putin related and he hung up on her. She's normally pretty much pro-whatever Russia's doing but she hated the propagandizing of Russian media

In my case it was refusing to accept that the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was necessary to stop fascism that led to my being cast aside by a "patriotic Russian! Here's another example from Amerika.org:

I had stated that if in the unlikely event Russia had decided to invade Finland, I would stand with the United States in support of a massive intervention on behalf of Finland. Hearing this, the Russian contact unfriended me and said rather bluntly “it’s nice to see your true colors.” What was most stunning was that we had a cordial and friendly relationship over the past year. We often laughed and joked, and basically agreed on most issues, but one single remark about a vague rumor spurred her to discard me and silence my dissent.

Russians seem to treat every disagreement with their rulers as a personal attack on every Russian ever born. It is a characteristic that is more Asian than European. Their relationship to the truth is very different from ours! That's why I don't think a Russian propaganda effort can succeed in the West unless they get Westerners to staff the new Russian press. As we are seeing from Ferguson when Western liberals lie by omission and through selective criticism of their own government it is more convincing to the news consumer than the Russian style - ie outright whoppers and blunt repetition of Kremlin talking points.

Matt said at November 25, 2014 6:27 PM:

State media outlets like the Russian RT or Chinese CCTV don't really make any bones about being state propaganda outlets though. They're pretty clear about it. Whereas in the West we have people running around pursuing their own agendas under the guise of being objective or impartial media. Whatever might be said of the former, the latter is certainly more insidious and deceptive.

James Bowery said at November 25, 2014 7:23 PM:

Wolf-Dog, no I'm referring to something along the lines of the Alaska oil dividend. Although Alaska puts a lot of that dividend into a fund for future generations "for when the oil runs out", Russia needs to just dispense it all in a citizen's dividend now to stimulate the economy and stem their womb and brain drain.

Ryan said at November 25, 2014 7:57 PM:

James Bowery,

How reliable is that Alfin blog on Russia? I'm not a Russia cheerleader, but that Alfin blog seems to have an ethnic hostility towards Russia that leaps off the page in its blogs on Russia.

The fourth doorman of the apocalypse said at November 26, 2014 7:40 AM:

Oh, the NT TImes, still telling us how good Russia was under Communism.

Can you believe anything that is printed in the New York Fish Wrap?

Wolf-Dog said at November 26, 2014 11:40 PM:

James Bovery: The article about Russia's "womb and brain drain" seems very accurate. Previously I was only worried about the brain drain and low birth rate of Russia, but I did not realize how much the womb drain is accelerating the demographics of Russia. Probably the most intelligent and genetically high quality women are the majority of Russian women who are leaving. The article correctly points out that by 2050 the Chinese immigrants will dominate all of Siberia all the way to the Ural Mountains, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: at least this will be a counterweight to the inevitable expansion of the Caliphate population that will germinate not only in the peripheral countries that are surrounding Russia, but also in its interior. At least the Chinese government allows some degree of personal and intellectual growth and preserves the rights of atheists, while the Caliphahists clearly won't.

Seth W. said at November 27, 2014 3:02 PM:

Putin is just the expected reactionary force against all aggressions from the west, specially the USA. Many people in Eastern Europe, Asia and especially in Latin America see him with good eyes, regardles of their presidents' rhetoric. Maybe a new version of the Cold War is needed to restore international law, as much as possible anyway, bring some balance back. After all the world wasn't as bad during the Cold War as it is today.

jaakko said at November 27, 2014 5:51 PM:

Well I'm from Eastern Europe (Finland) and at this point half the country is in panic mode, big money is escaping the country and citizen volunteer defense is coming back for most of us who aren't planning to flee the country if (and when) Russia attacks. Russia is completely crazy and once again there will be no future for peoples and countries that border Russia. Everybody with children once again has to maintain contacts abroad so that we can send children to safety if the worst happens again.

There is just no way to describe the utter insanity that's happening here. We had rather many Russian immigrants over the past few decades, there was a lot of intermarriage and now my half-Russian relatives are getting non-stop calls from Russia about how they need to be saved from the Nazis and gays that supposedly run around all over the place torturing and abusing Russian children. My cousin's wife's family in Russia has broken ties with her simply because she tried to tell them that there isn't any fascism here and homosexuals aren't as dangerous as Russian state TV insists they are. She got disowned as a Westernized fascist that denies the constant crimes against Russians that are supposedly happening here.

The Russian media spews nonstop lies about entirely made up atrocities in Finland, Baltics, Poland and Ukraine and it's not what a trustworthy neighbor does. It's creepy potentially Hitlerian groundwork for preparing the population for war. We are in an extremely bad situation now and the problem goes much deeper than Putin.

Wolf-Dog said at November 27, 2014 10:03 PM:

Jaakko: I am also worried about the monopoly of media that the Russian government has, and as you said they are preparing their country for conflict. Of course, it is obvious that if the Russian economy collapses, Putin would want to be able to blame it on a foreign conspiracy, since economics ultimately determines how governments come to power and stay in power, except military emergencies, and so it is clear that this can lead to war. But as I mentioned above, although Russian psychology has been historically very aggressive, the same history shows that Europe invaded Russia a lot more often than the other way around. For this reason, Russia has a very dim view of the NATO membership of the former peripheral countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, etc, since the distance between Talinn, Estonia and Saint Petersburg, Russia, is only 195.6 miles (314.78 kilometers). The possibility of seeing Ukraine join the EU and NATO is something the Russians cannot tolerate, especially because the future leader of Europe will be Germany. But more importantly, at the beginning, it was EU that encouraged the pro-EU coup in Ukraine, ostensibly to accept Ukraine into the EU, but Russia would also worry about losing the advanced industries located in the Eastern part of Ukraine where the Russian-speaking minorities live: the departure of that industrial Russian-speaking region to join the EU, might encourage many vital economic sectors that are within Russia, to consider revolting and threatening to join the EU as well. The latter scenario would be the end of Russia, and please note that as we speak, as of this moment, even Angela Merkel is showing signs that she understands the Russian position in such a way that not only she is no longer so interested in absorbing Ukraine into EU, but she definitely does not want Ukraine to join NATO (although the right-wing Ukrainian followers of Stepan Bandera ironically did say that they want to join NATO.)

jaakko said at November 28, 2014 8:23 AM:

The reason St Petersburg is closer to Europe is because they wanted it to be and they wanted to be influenced by European nations like Sweden (which Finland and Estonia were parts of back then). If they've changed their mind there is plenty of secure land in Russia where you can build another city from scratch (in better climates and locations, St Pete is in middle of peripheral swampland from Russian POV).

Only a few hundred years ago the area belonged to Sweden and in the place of St Petersburg there was a Finnish / Swedish / German populated town that we called Nevanlinna and the Swedes and Germans something else, the countryside population still connecting Finns and Estonians with a continuum of dialects. The Russians razed the town to the ground and killed or enslaved the entire population, leaving the Finns of the countryside as slaves to build St Petersburg.

Russia is a thousand year program of ethnic cleansing and expansion where they declare that they need a bit of land for security, take it, kill or deport the natives, russify the land with colonists and repression of native cultures, then declare that they need the next bit of land to secure their previous conquest... if civilized countries of the world are not willing to stand against this monster we need to consider options like nuclear weapons. Ukraine gave theirs up and look at what happened to them.

Matra said at November 28, 2014 8:30 AM:


Merkel has been very much against Ukrainian membership of NATO for...ever. The Germans made it clear before the current crisis that they'd block Ukrainian NATO membership even though there was virtually no desire (less than 20%) in Ukraine itself to join the organisation. It was all about reassuring Russia and not giving the Ukrainians any illusions on the matter. But now that the Russians have started a war that has killed thousands and are showing every sign of maintaining a 'frozen conflict' that will prevent the country from sorting itself out there has been a sea change in Ukrainian public opinion regarding NATO. Sweden may now want to join NATO too. The Russians have a history of doing things that come back to bite them. They are not alone in this regard, however, Russian media, by keeping the public ignorant and in fear, are making it difficult for the Russian people to critically assess the situation so that at some point the brakes can put on what may be a drive to war. Instead, as jaakko says, they seem to be preparing the Russian people for war against Hitler's heirs! If Russia had even acknowledged the Holodomor or what happened to the Baltic peoples under Stalin (even in the West most don't know about the mass atrocities and deportations those three tiny nations suffered through) it could've dampened anti-Russian sentiment and perhaps enhanced Russia's security in the long run. Alas, Russia is not Germany. No introspection, only victimhood.

Matt said at November 28, 2014 10:52 AM:


I don't want to justify Russia's actions. Just want to get an as objective as possible picture of the situation.

I'm interested in your thoughts on the following issues since you seem to have some knowledge about this.

What do you think about post-Cold War NATO continuation and expansion? I've heard that Gorbachev was promised by the West that following the dismantling of the USSR, NATO wouldn't be expanded eastward. Since NATO wasn't disbanded after the Cold War and did expand eastward, do you think Russia is justified in feeling threatened?

Regarding the Ukraine situation, what do you think about the Russia view that the previous pro-Russian regime in Ukraine was overthrown by alternative means and with US help? Also what about the ethnic divisions within Ukraine between the more pro-Western and pro-Russian groups?

Matra said at November 28, 2014 2:02 PM:

What do you think about post-Cold War NATO continuation and expansion?

I was never keen on it but I can understand why all the ex-Soviet bloc along with ex-Soviet Republics favoured it. I thought it would've been better for these countries and some Western Europeans to form a new alliance to deter Russia but maybe that was just untenable. It doesn't really matter as the the US had no intention of going home. Without NATO the smaller Russian neighbours would need their own nukes.

I've heard that Gorbachev was promised by the West that following the dismantling of the USSR, NATO wouldn't be expanded eastward.

Gorbachev has said there was no agreement on no further NATO expansion however he feels the spirit of NATO's statements and assurances was violated by NATO expansion. As someone else said Russia has been invaded from the West many times and it is part of the Russian psyche, something which the West, the US in particular, has been insensitive about. The unjust NATO bombing of Serbia certainly didn't help. But can anyone imagine any of the European countries of today deciding they need to invade Russia? It's preposterous but perhaps not if all you know about the outside world comes from Kremlin approved media.

Regarding the Ukraine situation, what do you think about the Russia view that the previous pro-Russian regime in Ukraine was overthrown by alternative means and with US help?

The US certainly sided with the demonstrators and no doubt encouraged them. It may even have helped them in small ways but it was angry Ukrainians who began the protests, sustained them, and eventually were willing to fight (and die) to remove the government. The $5 billion figure Russians keep bringing up (thanks to the State Department's Victoria Nuland) that the US supposedly spent overthrowing the previous government actually refers to US investment in Ukraine since independence in 1991 (presumably, though I'm not sure, including some of the cost of disposing of its nuclear weapons left over from the USSR).

Also what about the ethnic divisions within Ukraine between the more pro-Western and pro-Russian groups?

Though the country is divided it appears to be less so now thanks to Putin! Even Russian-speakers in places like Odessa, Kharkiv, and Mariupol who in the past have voted for the more pro-Russian candidates, have been siding strongly with the Ukrainian side. Crimea has always been different. Ukraine would be as well to let Crimea go but it would be rough on the Tatars. The Donbass region where all the fighting is happening today is more pro-Russian in part because many of the people who live there are the descendants of Russian settlers brought in to replace Ukrainian famine victims of the 1930s. Even so those willing to actually fight for the pro-Russian cause were so thin on the ground that Moscow had to send its own operatives to get a rebellion going. Clearly the Ukrainian government thinks the Donbass is worth fighting for.

I mentioned Odessa. That city is more Russian than Ukrainian. However, they see themselves as a kind of 'free city'. They have a different outlook from Russians in Rostov or Vologograd. They might not mind being a part of Russia but not an anti-European Eurasianist Russia. I suspect it is Putin's authoritarianism more than a love of the entity called Ukraine that has led many ethnic Russians to side with Kiev rather than Moscow. So although commentators like to say Ukraine is split down the middle between pro-Ukrainians, who are Western oriented and pro-Russians oriented towards Moscow it is quite a bit more complicated than that.

Matt said at November 28, 2014 3:55 PM:

So isn't it simply a matter of geopolitics then? And if the West is justified in taking steps to deter Russia, isn't Russia justified in doing the same vis a vis the West?

I don't think Russia fears the European countries specifically themselves at the moment. It has had good relations, perhaps the best among the European countries, with Germany, which is the most powerful European country. I think Russia fears the current dominant Western power, which is the US, and sees the European countries as proxies of the US, which given the US's power and influence over Europe, isn't completely inaccurate. Do you think Russia's fear of the US is unjustified?

If there are meaningful divisions in Ukraine, is it justified to consider the actions of the pro-Western, anti-Russian rebellion as decisive for all of Ukraine? Isn't it more reasonable to divide the country up?

Lysander Spooner said at November 29, 2014 11:53 AM:

Matt, here is a reference to Russian fertility and death rates. They are looking good. Russians are confident enough in their future (after the banker/oligarch rape of Russia under Larry Summers and Chubais) to start making babies again. Regarding the economics issues, Putin's speech at Valdai is worth reading.

And finally, I recommend the very recent Q&A with Russian economist Mikhail Khazin, which is quite enlightening. His explanations of the power struggles among the various elites in Russia, Putin, and the Western IMF/WTO cadre are insightful, as are his predictions of how and why the IMF/WTO/American-dominated Bretton Woods system is going to fragment and the system of regional currencies/trade zones that will replace it.

The Putin hysteria is whipped up at the top by those who know at a visceral level that the current uni-polar American-ruled Bretton Woods WTO/IMF system is going to collapse and have absolutely no idea what is going to replace it other than utter chaos (to the extent they even permit themselves to think about it). We are in for some interesting decades to come!

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