A Superpower with “Super-Tasks”: A Critical Analysis of Putin’s ‘State of the Union’

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March 6, 2018 – Fort Russ –

Op-ed by Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1st, 2018 has drawn heightened interest from all over the world. While attention has been primarily directed towards the military-political and foreign policy dimension of the President’s speech, the first half of Putin’s address, which featured a program of social and economic reforms, also deserves serious consideration. This aspect of Putin’s speech not only directly concerns Russia’s citizens, but is no less interesting from a purely cognitive point of view with regards to Russia’s trajectory. Allow me to present Fort Russ’ readers with a brief analysis of this aspect of the President’s speech, first and foremost by attempting to answer a pressing question: What “super-task” has Putin set for Russian domestic policy for the coming years?

While speaking of a certain stability that has been achieved (indeed, pro-government “propagandists” present such as the main achievement of Putin’s first eight years – 2000-2008), Vladimir Putin nevertheless admitted a lack of stability in view of growing poverty, the scale of which, according to Putin, is considerable even if incomparable to the scale of destitution which plagued Russia when he assumed presidency in the early 2000’s. Hence the first goal for Russian domestic policy, in Putin’s words: “At the heart of all of this is the preservation of the people of Russia and the wellbeing of our citizens. It is precisely here that we need to accomplish a decisive breakthrough.”

By “preservation (sberezhenie) of the people” –  a term which, as far as I can judge, can be traced back to the program of the prominent 18th century scholar who might be called the Russian Leonardo da Vinci, Mikhail Lomonosov (after whom Moscow State University is named) – Putin meant not only combatting poverty, but also improving the country’s demographic situation. While Putin’s speech does not directly address this, it is clear from context that his program for “preserving the people” presupposes a rejection of migration as a solution for labor shortages, the main proponent of which, let us recall, is the American lobby in the Russian establishment (Anatoly Chubais and others).

Putin’s address also attached fundamental importance to Russia’s technological lag behind the advanced industrial countries and set the ambitious goal of bringing the country into the top five economies of the world. In Putin’s words: “Technological backwardness and dependence mean decline in the country’s security and economic capacity, and as a result – a loss of sovereignty.”

Hence the second strategic task: overcoming the technological gap and rearming the Russian economy. A further derivative of this goal is increasing Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and ensuring growth rates above global averages which, in Putin’s opinion, means no less than 5%. In this regard, emphasis is also put on the non-oil sectors, such as industry (especially engineering), transport, construction, etc. By the middle of the next decade, Putin envisions GDP growing by one and half times.

Let us recall that in his decrees in the early 2000’s, Putin already set the ambitious – but, according to my economist colleagues, fully realizable –  task of doubling GDP. These decrees, which came to be known as “national programs”, however, were not realized. And it is here that Vladimir Putin is once again setting the same goals, albeit more modest ones.

Finally, Putin’s address featured a third point which, in my opinion, is the sought-after “super-task” and encapsulates Vladimir Putin’s main motive as the leader of Russia. Let us quote him directly and at length:

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia…speaking of our national borders lost 23.8% of its territory, 48.5% of its population, 41% of its gross domestic product, 39.4% of its industrial potential (almost half), and 44.6% of its military potential in connection with the division of the Armed Forces of the USSR among the former Soviet republics. The Russian Army’s equipment became obsolete and the Armed Forces found themselves, frankly speaking, in a deplorable state. Civil war raged in the Caucasus, and American inspectors sat at our leading uranium enrichment plants.

This part of the President’s address has not been devoted sufficient consideration, yet it explains the details of Putin’s program.

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The main goal of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, as Vladimir Putin sees it, is thus restoring Russia’s sovereignty. This presupposes restoring Russia’s greatness. Russia can be either strong or not exist at all.

Here I’ll express a thought which Russian pro-government propagandists will not take to their liking. Talk of “preserving the people”, fair and self-critical judgements on Russia’s technological gap, and recognizing the necessity of a technological breakthrough – all of these are for Vladimir Putin merely means for achieving the most important task of restoring the sovereignty and greatness of Russia.

In this regard, if my assessment is correct, then Vladimir Putin is very, so to say, “national-oriented” or “nationalistic.” There are more than a few such prototypes in Russian history, the most vivid example of which is Emperor Peter the Great. Putin’s program, if it becomes something more than words on paper, will be akin to a new series of Petrine reforms for the 21st century. As a person with life and professional experience from the Soviet KGB, such state, or more precisely imperial goals are closest of all and most understandable to Putin. Hence the constant references to the historic trauma of Russian consciousness that was the collapse of the USSR and the partitioning of the Russian people. This is not an abstract theoretical problem, but a permanently bleeding wound. In this regard, the war in the former Ukraine, like 100 years ago, is a fight for the unity of the Russian World.

The American Empire is deliberately doomed to defeat by Russia, for while it might be many times stronger economically and politically, it is not nearly as willing to lay itself on the altar of victory as are Russians.

Overall, a study of Putin’s program leaves somewhat of an ambivalent impression. On the one hand, it is a program for social, economic, and technological development. It is a program for restoring Russia’s sovereignty and, consequently, the country’s greatness. However, at the same time, this is a developmental program set within the old Soviet model which has demonstrated its ineffectiveness at best and depravity at worse. From the point of view of a philosophy of history, the Russian Federation is not a new, modern phenomenon, but merely a “post-USSR.” All the basic rules that determined Russia’s existence after 1991 originated in the late Soviet Union – in particular bureaucratism and the leveling of everything Russian (russkii) into Soviet (or “Russian” – rossiisskii).  Even the nasty phenomenon of the oligarchy originated within the late Soviet system and was just waiting for its time to come. 

Of course, I understand that these remarks touch on too complex of a subject which demands philosophical elaboration and an altogether separate article which I hope to write one day. But such is relevant insofar as Vladimir Putin’s program reflects this painful contradiction of pursuing truly national goals – and even universal ones insofar as Russia is the main hope in the struggle against the hegemony of the “Golden Billion”  – without relying on the nation, on the people.  President Putin’s remarks on cadre programs and raising a new elite are unconvincing and were left on a secondary and small scale. In the early 2000’s, the outstanding Russian philosopher and geopolitician (a native of Makeevka, Donbass), Alexander Panarin, voiced the formula of a “people’s president”, and wrote that “the ruler should rely on the people over the heads of the boyars” or, in current terminology, over the heads of the “elites.”

I did not see such reliance on the people in President Putin’s speech, which is a point of divergence with the program of Peter the Great, who created a new layer of elites out of the Russian nobility and the most gifted layer of the Russian common people. Meanwhile, in contemporary Russia, I see interesting sprouts of non-bureaucratic potential for the President’s patriotic program in the All-Russia People’s Front.

To sum up, from the standpoint of national and anti-globalist aims, President Putin deserves the support of Russian patriots and those in favor of social justice. Nevertheless, his program is not a break with the current, rather depraved model which some critics call late-Soviet bureaucratism, or what Immanuel Wallerstein’s school calls the capitalist world-system. For this reason, the program’s feasibility will inevitably suffer insofar as it remains for the people but without the people.

In view of all of the above said, I see no other positive solution besides supporting Vladimir Putin while constantly but constructively critiquing him. I would like to stress the debatable nature and incompleteness of these theses of mine, which I open up for discussion with the readers of Fort Russ.

 

Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation. 

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