Russia is not North Korea. It is not a murderous police state, even though it employs targeted and usually non-violent repression. It is not a dictatorship, even though its elections are rigged and its politics managed. It is not seeking to isolate itself from the outside world, even though it wants to pick and choose the economic, political, and social influences that result.
In essence, look beyond the sound and fury of the current confrontation between Moscow and the West, and you see Russia as an extraordinarily cosmopolitan country on a trajectory of convergence with the latter, eagerly looking to be integrated into a community of nations and peoples with whom it rightly feels a part. Putin’s imperialism and adventurism, however dangerous and disruptive here and now, will from the perspective of future historians be judged a blip, a last spasm of Eurasianist great power ambitions, the painful death of an imperial dream.
Or at least that has been my view, but sometimes something comes along to make me doubt it. The most recent and striking comes from Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigations Committee – a powerful body which in US terms is half-way between the FBI and the Office of the Attorney General – who is often one of the most authoritarian outliers in the apparatus. In an extensive piece in today’s Kommersant newspaper, he sets out what in many ways could be considered a manifesto for Russia’s comprehensive declaration of independence from the world.
To an extent, one can discount this precisely because Bastrykin is an outlier. Furthermore, as a figure who lacks any close personal relationship with Putin or a strong network of allies (quite the opposite, he has a talent for collecting enemies), Bastrykin often must play the role of the attack dog. One of his functions is to bark and growl fearsomely enough so that any less rabid repressive measures adopted end up looking like moderate compromises.
Nonetheless, he has been quiet for a while, and his interjection comes at a time when other signals suggest that the mood in the Kremlin, or rather than small and shadowy circle within which strategy is made, is increasingly alarmist, even paranoid. The foundation of the National Guard as a Praetorian force to keep masses and elite alike in check is disruptive of the current political balance within the security apparatus and raises all kinds of practical problems for law enforcement. More to the point, it seems to be a weapon to counter a threat no one else yet sees.
So in this context Bastrykin’s manifesto might represent not just the fulminations of an authoritarian out of step with the mainstream, but an attempt to pitch ideas to a Kremlin contemplating an authoritarian turn.
Western “hybrid war”
Noting the “negative trend” in crime and terrorism through 2015 (“extremist crimes” rose 28.5%, terrorist attacks by 36.3%), Bastrykin sees in them not a reflection of socio-economic pressures, falling police budgets and a lack of hope in the North Caucasus, so much as outside attacks:
“In the last decade, Russia, and a number of other countries, have experienced so-called hybrid war unleashed by the US and its allies. This war is being waged on different fronts – political, economic, informational, and legal. And in recent years, it has moved into a qualitatively new phase of open confrontation.”
Viewed through Bastrykin’s conspiratorial lens, everything wrong that has happened to Russia reflects deliberate efforts to bring down the Russian economy and thus its political system. Furthermore, he lumps together a range of cases in which Moscow has found itself on the wrong side of national and international courts – and, one could suggest, global opinion and the judgment of history – and considers them all parts of this campaign:
“Obvious examples of this were the outcome of the Yukos case, the judgment on the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, the report of the Security Council of the Netherlands on the investigation into the downing of the Malaysian Boeing MH17, the FBI’s investigation into the legitimacy of Russia and Qatar being awarded the right to host the world championships in 2018 and 2022, the United States’ kidnapping, forcible transfer and sentencing to long prison terms of our citizens Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko and so on.”
As if that were not enough, Bastrykin again rehearses the notion that the US deliberately fostered jihadist extremism in the Middle East and even harkens back to the use of “information warfare” at the end of the Cold War to bring down the Soviet Union. Apparently, its downfall had nothing to do with systemic economic failure, corruption and cynicism within the Communist Party, and a rise in national consciousness by subject people. Rather, “it is clear that the undermining of the ideological foundation of the Soviet Union, which was based on the principle of brotherhood between peoples, was also initiated from the outside” and the engineering of inter-ethnic strife.”
Now, he claims that Washington is “inciting anti-Russian sentiment in neighbouring states, establishing Russia's pro-American and pro-Western so-called non-systemic opposition, [and is responsible for] the spread of inter-confessional and political extremism within our country” as well as stirring up the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to “create another hotbed of war on the border with Russia”.
Ba Stri Kim: the North Korean option
So far, so predictably revisionist. However, what is most striking about Bastrykin’s long article are his proposed responses to this “information war” against Russia.
“It seems that it is time to put an effective barrier to this information war,” especially “in the context of the upcoming elections”. Democracy, he asserts, is not the same as the interests of the people, and that means thinking about “the common good, rather than the absolute freedom of individual members of society”. As a result, “it is important to create the concept of the ideological policy of the state”.
This ideology can be used to knit together the varied communities into a single multinational Russian people and provide the basis for the “ideological education” of the younger generation. He gives a nod to the notion that this is a measure to prevent terrorist radicalisation, but it is clear this is meant to prevent any wider spread of democratic ideals and such pernicious notions as publicising the corruption of officials and misdeeds of the state.
To this end, he returns to one of his pet themes, greater control of the internet and the materials Russians can access, on which he approvingly notes China’s approach as an example Russia ought to consider. The state, in his opinion ought quickly and easily be able to block sites spreading “radical” ideas, and the burden of getting such blocks lifted ought then to rest with the domain owner: guilty until proven innocent.
While it may be easy to understand a campaign against sites advocating violence or connecting would-be terrorists, that Bastrykin’s real targets are political oppositionists soon becomes clear with the specific example he gives from Crimea. There, simply questioning the official line on the legality of the annexation referendum, for example – or as he puts it, “the legal expression of the popular will of the Crimean population to become an integral part of Russian constitutionalism” – is deemed “extremist activity”.
In Bastrykin’s worldview, it is not just through information that the West is trying to undermine Russia, but also through money. Moscow, in his opinion – one that he has expressing for years now – needs much tighter monitoring and control of cross-border financial flows, but especially needs to keep tabs on new virtual cryptocurrencies or ban them altogether. I wonder if he is again advocating the creation of a Finance Police under his control.
Put together this represents one of the sharpest recent expressions of a perspective that would lead Russia to deliberately withdraw itself from its connections with the outside world, in political, social, cultural and economic terms. Yes, this is nothing like a real “North Koreanisation”, with its slave labour and starvation. But if one puts all the aspects of Bastrykin’s manifesto together – demonising opposition as acting as agents of the West, blocking information not scripted by the state, developing and enforcing a “national ideology”, controlling financial flows – then this would be a dramatic and unwelcome reversal of the integrative processes since 1991.
Bastrykin is not a key mover and shaker, not one of Putin’s closest cronies and confidantes. He has said similar things before without them coming to pass, so perhaps we can ignore this as just one more in a sequence of eruptions of authoritarianism. Yet he is framing his manifesto in terms that do speak to Kremlin concerns at a time when it seems especially uncertain and nervous. Russian policy-making is often driven by a successful “pitch” in the informal marketplace of ideas that sets up its stalls and booths around the Kremlin and Putin’s Novo-Ogarevo residence. Let us hope no one is paying attention this time.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.