Battles and Breaks

The West needs to provide stronger incentives for the creation of strong institutions in Russia’s neighborhood.

While the world was looking at the Russian military campaign in Syria, Russia may have scored a victory in Europe: the government of Valeriu Streleț in Moldova was toppled by a vote of no confidence initiated by pro-Russian parties in the Chișinău parliament. Meanwhile, opposition protesters clashed with police in Montenegro’s capital and the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, visited Moscow. It seemed as if Russia had been on a winning streak. But in reality, Vladimir Putin has too many battles to fight and his own strategy — if there is one — put him under pressure. In fact, Russia is winning only where it does not have to have a strategy.

On 29 October, the government of Moldova had to resign after a successful vote of no-confidence in the parliament. It did not come as a surprise. The country had been in a turmoil since May, when a report by the Kroll company about the “heist of the century,” a scheme that resulted in the theft of $1 billion, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP was made public. The report accused Ilan Shor, a 28 year-old banker, of orchestrating the theft.

But clearly, it needed more than that: it needed connivance by Moldova’s political elite and institutions.

Digging deeper into the case reveals how, astonishingly, the Moldovan government, the prosecution, the central bank, the police and anti-corruption institutions stood by for years, even before the current coalition took power, while billions of dollars, mostly from Russia, were laundered in Moldova and then actually stolen, practically from Moldovan citizens who will bear the costs of salvaging the three banks involved.

Most astonishingly, the scandal did not change anything. Half a year has passed since May but we still don’t know where the money went or who those responsible are. The governor of the central bank resigned, but only after protesters in Chișinău demanded the resignation of the whole government in one of the biggest protest actions since Moldova’s independence. Ilan Shor is the mayor of the town of Orhei and he is free. Vlad Filat, a former prime minister and the leader of the party that until last week had led the three-way pro-European coalition, is in jail with the suspicion of facilitating the takeover of the three banks — but based on a testimony by Shor.

And last week, probably the most obscure party in an obscure coalition, the Democratic Party, propped up by Filat’s rival, Vlad Plahotniuc, voted together with the pro-Russian opposition to dismiss the government.

This does not necessarily end Moldova’s EU integration. There could be a new pro-European government although it would be equally shaky. But it must be plain to see where this story is headed. If new elections are held, the pro-Russian Socialist Party and its allies will probably win, withdraw from a free trade agreement with the EU and stop Moldova on its Euroatlantic path.

Other than using the anti-government protests in Chișinău as a platform — with moderate success — Russia and its allies did not have to do anything in Moldova. Russia did not have to use the frozen conflict in Transnistria, the restive autonomous region of Gagauzia or introduce new trade embargos. It had to sit and watch.

Corruption in Moldova did not start with the pro-European coalition. But the pro-EU parties did not do anything to fight it. Neither did the EU. And yes, whatever their actual roles are, it is perfectly plausible that all governing parties, especially the leading two with strong business backing, had to do with the scheme. This suspicion makes perfect sense for Moldovans and it should ring the alarm bells for the EU.

Meanwhile, in Montenegro, pro-Serbian opposition parties took to the streets and clashed with the police. The protests were held against the government of Milo Đukanović, Montenegro’s uber-statesman who has led the country in various positions for over 25 years, but they were also conveniently held during a visit of NATO leaders to Podgorica, discussing Montenegro’s impending accession to NATO.

Đukanović accused Russia and some unnamed Serbian political forces of organising the protests. He could be right. But at the same time, the fact that Đukanović has been leading the country for more than two decades in a thoroughly corrupt and increasingly undemocratic way is also true. It is quite difficult to feel any sympathy for him.

And the next one can be Ukraine, sooner than we might think.

Battles to wage and battles to sit out

It seems that if there is one thing that Russia has learned from its fortunes and misfortunes in Ukraine is that military intervention, even a clandestine one, is not always the best solution. It is always good to keep puppet states like Transnistria, South Ossetia or the Donetsk People’s Republic in your pocket but sometimes sitting and waiting pays off more than boots on the ground. In the case of Moldova, Russia does not even have to have a strategy: it only has to wait and good things will come.

In fact, by allowing this, the West also lets Russia conceal the fact that very often it would not even be able to come up with a strategy if forced to.

Take Syria. One of the most striking things about Russia’s intervention in the country is that since the beginning there has been no endgame in sight. Before getting engaged in a conflict, probably the most important task is to define a goal and draw up a Plan B: an exit plan in case your objective becomes too costly to achieve. In the first month of the Syrian intervention, Russia seemed to have none of these. Stated goals varied from fighting terrorism (with an unknown objective) through retaking the whole of Syria for Bashar al-Assad to now seeking a political solution. Vladimir Frolov recently called this a “clever plan.” I would rather call it improvisation. It may work out, but it may not — after all, the political situation in the Middle East is as messy as ever — and in this case, maintaining the military campaign in Syria will quickly become too costly for Russia — logistically, financially, politically.

This matters, because Syria is not the only battlefield where Vladimir Putin does not seem to have an endgame or a contingency plan. The other, more important battle he has to wage in Russia.

In the past two years, Russia’s new, assertive foreign policy have completely taken over the place of domestic policies. You only have to take a look at Russia’s budget to see this. Despite falling oil prices and a linear cut in budgetary headings, now including wages, housing and welfare costs, Russia’s defense budget remained intact. An earlier proposal to reduce it was quickly overturned when Russia intervened in Syria. Pension funds are gobbled up by the state, there were talks about a levy on oil extraction being raised by changing the way it is calculated and Russia’s Reserve Fund — the more liquid of the two rainy-day funds — will be wiped out next year. Dozens of regions are on the verge of bankruptcy, following a surge in social expenditures. Poverty has sharply risen. Yet defense spending remains untouchable.

Part of the reasons for this lies, again, in a lack of strategy. Putin needed to shift the focus on foreign policy because the slowdown of Russia’s economic development and the “castling” of 2011, which brought him back to the presidency, eroded his legitimacy both in the political elite and in the population. A strong alliance with the arms industry and the glorification of the president as the person who restored Russia as a global empire temporarily solved this problem. But not entirely. The posturing in Ukraine benefited some and hurt many others in the Russian elite: bankers, state-owned enterprises and the energy industry. And there is growing division about the Syrian campaign in the society, as a new Levada poll showed last week.

Putin has, without doubt, a long list of conflicts around the world and in Russia’s immediate neighborhood where Russia can intervene to maintain this semblance of Russia’s being a global power, from the Baltics to Afghanistan, from Iraq to the Arctic. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service spoke about an “invasion of Central Asia by the Islamic State” (IS) this week, supposedly to justify a bigger Russian presence in the region. But if this is a strategy, it is a weak one.

As the former Kremlin pundit Gleb Pavlovsky put it in an interview last December, Putin’s system was built on globalization. First on its benefits and then on its criticism. You can use an external phenomenon to anchor your domestic policy to or to put the blame on when things don’t work out but this will also trap the system. Russia is now forced to move from one form of criticism of globalization to another while still being on the life support of the same system.

And improvisation can be a risky game. Sometimes unexpected things happen. This week saw the first officially confirmed death of a Russian soldier in Syria (unconfirmed press reports had claimed more) and the disaster of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula for which IS claimed responsibility. The moment Russia entered the Syrian war, this was bound to happen. Of course, the plane was not necessarily blown up by terrorists. It may just have been an accident — after all, Russian airlines are notorious for their low safety standards. But what if it doesn’t matter?

In a recent novel of the always thrillingly original Viktor Pelevin, S.N.U.F.F., a “discourse monger,” a professional trusted with provoking wars to entertain a narrow elite, tells a young citizen of the fictional “Urkaina,” how films merged with the news. It happened both ways, says the discourse monger: news were presented as films and films as news. OK, replies the young Urkainian, I can see how the first one happened: news reports were sensationalized and tweaked to stimulate the senses of viewers; but how did the other one happen? How were films presented as news? The other way around, the discourse monger explains; people got so immersed in work and their other activities during the day that the only relaxation they could allow themselves was watching a film spread out in front of the screen in the evening. Therefore, whatever was shown became part of people’s realities. They learned about the characteristics of the world from these programs.

Russia’s information war was built on the act of spreading confusion. The USSR tried to get through its narrative, its own interpretation of the news to targeted audiences around the world. Russia does not do this. It spreads conspiracy theories, sows confusion and scatters awed questions, everywhere. But there is a backside to this policy: If you get your people addicted to conspiracy theories, it will become a part of their reality. They will see conspiracies even where you do not want them to see them. They will believe that the Islamic State is behind the aerial disaster over Egypt even if Russian investigators show them that it is not. And they will not stop there.

A global puzzle

The greatest weakness of Putin’s strategy — both home and abroad — that it is very much dependent on globalization. If its fortunes are high, Russia can prop up its demands with hard money. If not, it can only cause trouble. Causing trouble can be a very efficient way to achieve a short-term political goal: the resignation of a government, the dropping of an international treaty, the selling of a key company. But in neither case can Russia offer an answer to the question of what comes next; of what narrative Russia can offer to the countries it is dealing with. True, when there is enough money involved, this question seldom gets asked.

But it is because of this that Montenegro has far more chances to emerge from this turmoil with its democracy enhanced and its pro-EU course maintained than Moldova. It is because Montenegro is a NATO and EU candidate and Moldova was never even offered that possibility. And neither was Ukraine.

Euroatlantic integration in Russia’s immediate neighborhood — or anywhere — should be about one core thing: strong institutions. The EU and the NATO can give their candidate countries the perspective, the narrative and the vision that Russia cannot. Yet, as Moldova’s example shows, the EU is failing to do this.

Strong institutions can only be built with strong incentives. Strong incentives are credible, tangible and simple goals that can be achieved by meeting clear benchmarks. By denying Moldova and Ukraine a membership perspective, the EU lets these countries and their European perspectives be destroyed by their own political elite and Russia emerge victorious from the chaos.

Brian Whitmore said in a riveting debate in last week’s Power Vertical podcast on RFE/RL that the EU had to win a normative game. This is true. But this normative game is actually about geopolitics. In the Europe of Le Pens, Orbáns and Zemans, Russia will not stop at the borders of the EU if the EU’s normative foundations are shaken. In a decomposing society, any good citizen may become a crook or a criminal. The same rule holds in geopolitics. Today it is Moldova, tomorrow it will be Ukraine and soon enough it may be the EU.

This story first appeared at No Yardstick, October 31, 2015.