Sebastian Awatramani

The Horse and the Horsefly

A horse need only sweep its tail to send a fly abuzz, but it is not common that the sweep will strike its target with accuracy, and the fly need only drone for seconds before honing in on a new target, or a new spot on the same. Its purpose is not the horse’s death, for the horse is its life blood. Rather, its purpose, like the purpose of all life in the state of nature, is to fatten itself and consolidate its power.

Mankind, it is thought by some, is different. It is guided not exclusively by want of power, but by higher principles of justice, order being necessary to secure those ends. And so states are established to secure this order, where the anarchy of the state of nature is traded for the collective security offered by the Leviathan. But unlike the Leviathan conjured by Hobbes, wherein the sovereign is absolute, and the citizens have no voice in the promulgation of laws—save for the assembly in which the sovereign is formed—Western democracies have been instituted such that limited power is delegated to the state, theoretically checked by the wants of the People.

In theory, Russia has done the same. In actu, this is not so clear. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia has struggled to modernize its government, and whatever hope some might have held that that its track was righteous has been beset by the rise of Vladimir Putin, who has consolidated power in the Kremlin, at the expense of the people and their representatives in regional government, taking Russia down an unnecessarily confrontational path with the West. In doing so, Putin has brought to slightly below boiling the tensions of the Cold War, albeit in an age where the unthinkable—mutual nuclear annihilation—is not only unthinkable, but farcical within the modern cultural zeitgeist.

Still, old patterns have emerged. For one, and as mentioned, the underlying conflict between Russia and the West pits liberal democracies against a nearly autocratic ruler controlling a state with imperial tendencies. Second, the conflict takes place at the periphery, centered on Eastern Europe and the Middle East, rather than between the powers themselves. Finally, as the living standards of the West either rise or remain steady at historically high levels, in Russia it declines as their ruler focuses on military enlargement rather than on domestic health, where attention is needed.

This is not a game that Russia is likely to win in the long term. As the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated, there is a temporal limit to the functioning of a state which follows the path Russia is in the midst of readopting. In the short term, however, it can fly abuzz before landing on a new target to continue biting. And like the horse and the horsefly, the West and Russia have distinct advantages and disadvantages. The horse will continue to live after being bitten, but that does not mean it will be free from disease and agitation so long as the horsefly lives.

The disease for the West is the potential of destabilization, an end to which Putin has many means. As democratic nations, the legitimacy of their governments depends on decision making that flows from the bottom to the top, but the bottom is vulnerable to attack on multiple, non-violent fronts—a vulnerability not shared by the people in the top down control structure of autocratic governments.

In this modern game of Cold War chess—distinct from the Cold War Monopoly preceding the fall of the Soviet Union—Putin is tending to this destabilization in two significant and related ways. First, there is the militarization and politicization of refugees from Syria, which Putin is directing in two ways. First, by targeting civilian areas in Syria, causing more to flee to the European Union, and second by directing migrants from Russia through the Nordic and Baltic States to the same. [1] The effect of this is to stoke the ideation of right wing, anti-EU parties throughout the Union who are often friendly to Russian interests, threatening the structure of the Union itself.

In a related fashion, Russia propagandizes the refugee crisis through state run news outlets like Russia Today. In one instance, Josh Rogin reports that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Labrov “publicly accused the German government of covering up a gang rape of a 13 year old girl by Muslim refugees in Berlin,” [2] stoking nationalistic fury throughout the Union.

The ultimate effect of these techniques remain to be seen, but what is clear is that Russia has an advantage with these tactics. Open Western societies are predicated in large part on the freedom of media and the free exchange of ideas, a circumstance which makes the population susceptible to propaganda spread by the Kremlin. This is not a problem in Russia, where the state controls in large part the media, and where Putin can silence his political opposition and suppress popular dissent. Considering that Voice of America has been broadcasting continuously for decades while Putin’s approval ratings hover around 80%, it is unlikely Western propaganda is having much of an effect.

Another disadvantage on the democratic side are the multiple forces that must be in agreement before foreign policy decisions are made. While in Russia Putin has the volition to direct the whole of Russian foreign policy, democratic countries must forge a consensus—not only between the government and the people—but between branches of government. [3] Beyond this, Western European democracies, sharing military strength, and depending in a significant respect on United States leadership , must forge consensus internationally as well.

A further concern is loss potential. In Western democracies where the standards of living are significantly higher than those of Russia, there is much more to lose, and a more impactful outlet for the People in the case that their standards of living decline due to prolonged conflict. That is, the people may protest and vote from office leaders who they don’t believe are handling a crisis correctly, which itself has the potential of exacerbating the crisis. Putin meanwhile has consolidated enough power such that whether he can be voted out of office is an open question. In an ominous parallel to Plato’s narrative of the tyrant, in which he demands “a personal bodyguard to preserve [the] champion of the people,”[4] Putin, as reported by The Daily Beast, fired thousands of Russian servicemen, and reorganized a military and police force to serve as his personal “Praetorian guard” [5]—though he denies this ties into the coming elections, instead asserting that it is meant to protect himself from a Western coup.

Again, the ultimate effect of the democratic versus non-democratic process in foreign affairs, as well as the future of Putin and Russia remains to be seen as it unfolds rapidly before us. However, as tense as this all may seem, it bears remembrance that Russia’s economy is a fraction of the United States’ or the European Union’s, and even short term destabilization is less likely to be as impactful as a prolonged conflict would be on Russia’s economy. Further, the Russian economy is heavily intertwined with the West, being that they have failed to diversify beyond oil exports to the very countries they attempt to destabilize. Ultimately, Putin will keep biting, and the West will keep swatting. But just as horseflies would go extinct without horses to feed on, Russia minus the West equals zero. Whether Putin recognizes this is also an open question, but there are reasons to believe he does.

The choice of soft tactics, i.e. destabilization as opposed to confrontation, should perhaps inform us that he wishes merely to remain in the shadows, striking petty blows when opportunities become apparent. His choice too to engage only partially in Syria should perhaps lead us to believe that he is concerned with the appearance of strength, rather than its outward exercise.

At any rate, whatever his motivation, he would stand to gain much more from restructuring the Russian political system and economy, leaving something better than what he inherited. Should he follow the path he is currently on, he will be remembered meagerly as one in another line of self-aggrandizing and ultimately ineffective Russian dictators. Should he follow a more righteous path, the prestige he stands to gain would solidify his place in history as one of Russia’s great rulers, continuing in the tradition of the enlightened monarchy of Peter the Great rather than the despotic and violent regime of Joseph Stalin.

[1] Rogin, Josh. Bloomberg View. How Russia is ‘Weaponizing’ Migration to Destabilize Europe. 24 March 2016

[2] Ibid

[3] There are some exceptions to this. Britain, for example, is comprised of a powerful central government not slowed by checks and balances and so is in a better position than other countries to forge policy.

[4] Plato. The Republic. 566d.

[5] Nemtsova, Anna. The Daily Beast. Putin Creates Enormous Praetorian Guard, Puts his Bodyguard in Charge. 12 April 2016