By using John F. Kennedy’s words that “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us,” in order to wrap up his speech about a new cold war at the Munich Security Conference, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev unintentionally revealed the Kremlin’s policy of dodging the domestic agenda while creating an image of external enemy. In the current political narrative, the inner economic, ideological, and societal disorder (that had reigned even before the sanctions and the oil prices slump) is projected on the “unstable” and “disoriented” Europe struggling with the refugee and identity crises. However, despite Russia’s ambitious international policy, one cannot ignore what has always been inherent in the Russian political cuisine: a pinch of absurdity or, rather, at this stage, it is not a pinch anymore but a surfeit.
Sanctions, Oil, and Wheat
It is no more a secret that Russia’s richness in natural resources is not a boon but rather a curse to some extent.Russian economy is heavily dependent on oil prices with the oil-and-gas sector comprising 52% of federal budget revenues and over 70% of total exports. Needless to say that when the oil prices reached the bottom, a level unseen since 1998, it significantly shook up the economy. However, lamenting about misfortunes in the oil market and the overall global recession is the most convenient way for the Russian government to get away with the question who is responsible for the situation in which we observe reduction of ordinary people’s income and lay-offs en mass while, according to the 2015 reports, the state companies’ and banks’ CEOs have gained hefty compensations. Unsurprisingly, the champion of compensations has been Rosneft (the leader of Russia’s petroleum industry about 70% of which is owned by the Russian government) which granted its CEOs, including Igor Sechin, the head of the company, 312 million rubles, which is 43% higher (!) than in 2014. Obviously, Mr. Medvedev was right when he said in the interview for Euronews during the Munich Conference that “a priority for the government” is “to keep them [Russian citizens] as comfortable as possible.” Surely, those Russian citizens in Rosneft, Sberbank, and Gazprom feel the comfort.
When asked about the effect of the sanctions, the prime minister pointed out that they also had “a positive effect:” “The economy is healing, it is becoming less dependent on oil, and we have an opportunity to develop our own industry and agriculture.” He also mentioned that, “wheat, for example, is now exported in large quantities.” At this point, a curious question arises, why did not they have this opportunity to develop their own agriculture before the crisis? Well, actually they did but the oil addiction is just like a drug addiction. Although, in the period between 1999 and 2008, the Russian economy witnessed recovery and growth, generally , the share of agriculture in total GDP shrunk from 14.3% in 1991 to 4% in 2011. Despite the fact that Russia’s wheat market is export-oriented, it comprised only 0.78% of the whole export in 2013. The numbers seem to be bizarre, if not absurd, for a country that occupies the territory of 17.1 million km² and is full of plains. Perhaps, the Ministry of Agriculture simply has Scarlett O’Hara’s logic: I’ll think about that tomorrow.
As demonstrated by Mr. Medvedev’s self-confident answer, he is quite optimistic about the future of agriculture in Russia, but concerned about the European Union farmers’ incomes, which is very considerate of him. However, it is not so simple. On the one hand, Russia is indeed European Union’s third-biggest trading partner, and the European agri-food exports have suffered a considerable loss. Nevertheless, according to the EPRS, this loss is limited due to redirecting these exports to alternative markets. Meanwhile, the Russian market has been hit substantially by the loss of foreign investors. On the other hand, it is hard to estimate the damage on the both sides because of the general economic slow-down and the crisis in Russia even before the sanctions. Additionally, such a piece of cake as Crimea is certainly a new financial burden for the Russian economy. No wonder, Kremlin ordered, in desperation, to bulldoze tons of foreign cheese in August 2015 to show everybody how tough the “enfant terrible” can be.
Being tough with the European cheese and bacon is not enough, though. Militarization, specifically of the Russian Arctic, has become one of the priorities during the crisis. Since global warming has had its impact on the Arctic region, allowing to explore it farther, countries have resumed their activities here. In February, Russia submitted an application to the UN commission to expand the Arctic shelf bordersby 1.2 million km², which can theoretically take about three years under the review. A similar claim was already made by the Russian government in 2002, but was rejected for lack of scientific evidence. Obviously, it is not scientific exploration of the region that is in focus for the Kremlin, but rather military and defense. In March 2015, Mr. Putin demonstrated that his plans for this territory are determined and the numbers are quite impressive: six military bases, 35,000 Russian troops, 50 surface ships and submarines along with 110 aircraft, and 41 already existing icebreakers and 11 in planning. Moreover, it was allegedly planned to deploy 80,000 troops to the Far North in a crisis.
The international media have been questioning the Russian militarization of the Arctic region ever since, and versions vary, as usual with the unpredictability of Russia. Primarily, the “land grab” and the demonstration of military power are seen as a sign of escalation of a new cold war with NATOand a claim for the region’s oil and gas reserves. Some see it as farceand Mr. Putin flexing his muscles. The official explanation was given by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who denied the militarization of the Russian Arctic, stating, “If we come to the Arctic region economically and implement such global projects as the work on the Arctic shelf, the development of the Northern Sea Route, it is clear that the economy requires security.”
Well, the Arctic is indeed a tasty pie stuffed with the estimated 90billion barrels of oil beneath its seabed and with around 30% of the world’s yet undiscovered natural gas. However, at the end of the day, it is all about money. Firstly, drilling oil and gas in the Arctic is a very high-cost and high-risk production, let alone the environmental issues. The current financial and economic situation in Russia will hardly make it possible, even in the nearest future. However, it won’t come as a surprise, if the Kremlin decides to boost money by cutting budget spending (a strategy that it has already implemented) or by imposing new taxes on the population as already done with Platon System, which caused a huge strike by truckers. Secondly, bringing weapons and troops to the region can hardly produce a favorable impression on potential investors. Thirdly, even if the money issue is miraculously solved and drilling is in full swing, Russia is facing the same old story again that is economy dependent on natural resources (see Sanctions, Oil, and Wheat). So far, strategically, it all can be justified as showing off muscles to the population, as well as to NATO.
The Russian government has always had fatherly feelings for its own people. Thus, it has been concerned not only about the economic well-being of its population but also the spiritual one, which is even more essential, especially, in the times of the external threat. Its concerns for the “moral safety” were reflected in a bunch of bills and initiatives, such as the criminal punishment for insults of the sentiments of religious believers, the prohibition of sale, import, and production of lace panties, the anti-gay propaganda law, the law banning swearing in media and in the arts, and—the latest initiative—punishment for insulting patriotic sentiments. Well, in the situation when the people fleeing from their own country en mass while, among those who stay, about 20 million people live below the poverty line, and with the S&P cutting the country’s rating to ‘junk’, this is surely the right moment to punish those who undermine patriotism among the citizens.
Who else can fulfil the function of keeping the nation’s spirit alive better than the HolyRussianChurch? Since Mr. Putin came to power, the Orthodox Church has been gaining more and more property, influence, and political clout. For example, in 2013, the Church’s revenues comprised 140 million dollars. Moreover, it actively invests money in business and financial activities. Let us assume that this is the God’s will and priests have to earn money because not all sinners are capable of paying for their redemption. But the Patriarch’s activities are not confined by the accumulation of wealth. He also feels responsible for the whole civilization including the “doomed” West and warns Europe about losing its Christian roots. He himself presented a good example of his holiness and righteousness recently by visiting Antarctica to commune with penguins. With all due respect (to penguins), is this the most important mission of he spiritual leader at the moment? No answer is needed when the photos and the video of the trip are published online.
Pinning blame on the West, historically, is not new for the Russian political discourse. Trapped by the economic and social turmoil, the Kremlin resorts to the policy of fear and loathing, and plays the role of enfant terrible in Europe by showing his military muscles, while demanding love and understanding at the same time. The difference between the domestic games and the international ones is that the first turned to be a theatre of the absurd even before the oil crisis and the sanctions. It would be funny if it were not so sad.
Rita Rozhkova is currently enrolled in the Masters Program in American Studies at the University of Leipzig. Her spheres of interest include political economy, critical theory, literature, and visual communication.