Author Topic: Stratfor: Russia's Great Power Strategy  (Read 55533 times)

Crafty_Dog

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MEF: Russia's Great Power Strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean
« Reply #101 on: July 06, 2020, 11:03:04 AM »
Anna Borshchevskaya on Russia's Military Activity in the Eastern Mediterranean
by Marilyn Stern
Middle East Forum Radio
July 5, 2020
https://www.meforum.org/61185/borshchevskaya-on-russias-military-activity-in-libya


Crafty_Dog

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GPF: Russia Under Stress on Its Periphery
« Reply #103 on: July 16, 2020, 06:29:01 AM »
   
    Moscow Under Stress on Its Periphery
Russian interests are being tested in the Caucasus and Levant.
By: Allison Fedirka

Two weeks ago, Russia concluded a constitutional referendum meant to shore up the power of the Kremlin and especially of Vladimir Putin. Under the revised constitution, which was approved by nearly 79 percent of voters, Putin can theoretically remain president until 2036 – by which time he would be in his 80s. The move came not a moment too soon: Crises involving Russia-backed partners are erupting in the Levant and the Caucasus, not to mention the long-standing war in Libya, where Russia is a key player. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are faint signs of anti-government unrest in Siberia. For a while, Russia has faced a number of serious economic problems, and we have been alert to signs of domestic destabilization. Thus, any signs of domestic trouble, not to mention events on Russia’s periphery that threaten its strategic interests and raise the likelihood of high-stakes conflicts, are quick to grab our attention when they appear on our radar.

Domestic Instability

At its core, the internal threat for Moscow concerns the government’s ability – or inability – to maintain a basic standard of living for Russians after a sharp decline due to low oil prices, sanctions and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. On July 11, a leading architect of the Russian economy, Alexei Kudrin, made scathing remarks about the government’s management of the economy in recent years. Kudrin called for structural and institutional reforms and highlighted how disappointing Russia’s economic growth has been since the fall of the Soviet Union, a period when output should have surged as the economy transitioned to capitalism. This was one of the harshest recent critiques of the Russian economy, but it was far from the only one. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that economic difficulties lie ahead for the country, and Putin himself said Russian authorities need to act more decisively and make the economy more competitive, or risk becoming mired in an economic “swamp.”

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Kremlin is struggling to hide the country’s growth slowdown, stubbornly low exports, rising unemployment and declining real incomes from the population. Public dissatisfaction with the socio-economic situation and government policy is rising, especially in those peripheral regions that are remote from Moscow. These regions are mostly poorer and lack the infrastructure and economic diversity of the major urban centers. State welfare programs prop up the few areas with above-average incomes. Indeed, the results of the constitutional vote showed that the Kremlin is losing support in these regions: In the Nenets Autonomous district, which receives generous state subsidies and thus has the country’s second-highest incomes, 55 percent of voters opposed the draft changes. Even farther away from Moscow, in Khabarovsk, which borders China, turnout was only 44 percent, and 36 percent of voters opposed the constitutional changes.
 
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Khabarovsk is interesting for other reasons as well. On July 10, the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested in connection with the attempted murder of two businessmen in 2004 and 2005. (He pleaded not guilty.) The arrest has brought out protesters demanding the release of Furgal, who defeated candidates from Putin’s United Russia party to become governor in 2018, for several consecutive days. According to official estimates, 12,000 people rallied in support of Furgal on July 11, though unofficial estimates put the number of participants nearly three times higher. Subsequent protests have apparently not reached the same scale.

The Kremlin is no stranger to large protests, but demonstrations of this magnitude usually occur in places like Moscow or St. Petersburg. The sheer size of the July 11 protest suggests a high degree of organization and logistical support; it would have been difficult to bring out as many as 35,000 people for a completely spontaneous demonstration. The protest is also notable for its cause; typical triggers for unrest are things like wage arrears, not allegedly politically motivated arrests of local officials.
A single protest in Siberia – even several days of protests – is hardly going to destabilize Russia. However, what happened in Khabarovsk is enough of an outlier that – in combination with the country’s increasingly dire economic situation – it warrants Moscow’s attention, as well as our own.

The Caucasus

Besides domestic pressures, Russian interests are also under threat abroad. In a still-murky incident, Russian-led security forces on July 11 wounded and detained a Georgian citizen for unknown reasons in Georgian territory, near the border with South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since 2008. Detentions by Russian forces are not uncommon in this area, but the shooting of a Georgian citizen stands out as unusually aggressive. The Kremlin itself has not commented on the incident, but it did recently complete major military drills together with units of the local army in the territory of Abkhazia, which was also invaded by Russian troops in 2008.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has grown more antagonistic toward Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. On July 10, during a security council meeting, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan went beyond normal talking points of highlighting Armenia's claim over Nagorno-Karabakh and its strategic value to Yerevan. Pashinyan also emphasized the need to be tough on foreign powers trying to influence Armenian affairs. The next day, there was gunfire along their shared border at Tovuz, far from Nagorno-Karabakh but nonetheless a common point of dispute. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry accused Armenia of violating a cease-fire and targeting civilians. Armenia said the attack targeted army engineering infrastructure and technical facilities. Fighting resumed again on July 13.
 
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This incident is notable because of Turkey’s reaction to it. The Turkish government, normally quiet over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, threw its support behind Azerbaijan. Armenia and Turkey are long-standing enemies, so naturally Armenia accused Turkey of provoking instability.

Because the South Caucasus is a strategic buffer zone for Russia, tensions there naturally draw in Moscow. While Russia doesn’t need to fully control the South Caucasus to maintain territorial integrity, it needs to influence the area enough to reduce the risk of threats on its border. Russia therefore tends to be a moderating force between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, working to ensure no major conflict erupts in the region. But with Turkey submitting an official position, Russia will have a harder time being the voice of reason. Turkey’s involvement would force Russia to throw its support behind Azerbaijan since siding with Armenia would squarely position Russia against Turkey. Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Moscow has already warned of the potential for the situation to escalate into a major conflict. It may come to nothing, as clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh almost always seem to, but Turkey’s mere statement will make Russia uneasy.

The Levant

Finally, there is Lebanon, which is not geographically part of the Russian periphery but part of the periphery of Syria, which is an important Russian ally and recipient of Russian security guarantees. The country is experiencing its worst economic crisis since World War I. Mass economic dislocation has shattered the middle class and has made food financially inaccessible for the majority of the population, many of whom now suffer from malnutrition. Virtually every government effort to remedy the situation has failed. If things don’t improve, the possibility of national instability, even civil war, can’t be ruled out.
 
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So why does this matter for Russia? Because the Eastern Mediterranean is critical to Russia, and the Levant, and Lebanon’s position in it, is critical to the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia has parlayed its presence in Syria into an attempt to restore its image as a powerful military force. Security in Lebanon and in Syria have historically been intertwined. During the Lebanese civil war, the Syrian army occupied Lebanon in 1976 to project influence, counter Lebanese and Palestinian guerilla groups that threatened the Assad regime, and act as a counterweight against Syria’s main rival, Israel. Syrian troops withdrew in 2005, but Lebanon still serves as a buffer zone, with sectarian tensions, political gridlock and economic instability that create ripe conditions for foreign influence.

As Beirut weakens, outside powers will move in to protect and advance their interests. They cannot abide the uncertainty of political instability in Lebanon nor allow one country to acquire more power there at the expense of their own. In this kind of environment, it doesn’t take much for conflict to escalate. Chaos in southern Lebanon may give Israel, for example, the opportunity it has been waiting for to move against Hezbollah. Hezbollah may see war as a better option over isolation and thus draw in Iran and Syria. The U.S. and Russia would not be able to ignore it. The degree of cooperation between Israel and Russia, while variable, would rile the United States. Turkey would have an opportunity to make a play for influence in northern Lebanon where the location lends greater access to the Mediterranean.

Maintaining control over its periphery has always been a challenge for Russia, but it’s not one it can ignore. Which puts Moscow in the position of managing four regions – one domestic, three foreign. Domestically, Russia faces a host of economic challenges. This, combined with signs of brewing public unrest, raises the possibility of regional disintegration and thus is a major threat to Moscow. Whether or not these same forces will be reckoned with through political settlements or military conflict remains to be seen.   




Crafty_Dog

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Re: Stratfor: Russia's Great Power Strategy
« Reply #104 on: July 30, 2020, 05:47:17 AM »
   
    Forecasting Russia: Strength and Weakness
Thoughts in and around geopolitics.
By: George Friedman

Our forecast for Russia, dating back to my earliest books, was two-fold: first, that Russia would reassert itself and at least appear to be a significant force facing the European Peninsula and in the Caucasus, Russia's two essential frontiers, and second, that the forces that brought the Soviet Union to its knees would continue to haunt the Russian Federation. In other words, there would be a resurrection of Russia followed by a second crisis that would tear it apart. The first forecast was accurate. We are now seeing the second unfold.

My view was that with the emergence of Vladimir Putin, an old KGB man, the perception of Russia as broken and weak after the fall of the Soviet Union would be reversed and, once reversed, that Russia would be at once overestimated and underestimated as a global power. It would confront the West enough to be seen as a threat but never enough to go to war.

Putin understood that appearing to be a threat is far safer than appearing to be weak. Other countries take advantage of the weak and are cautious around the strong. It followed that Putin would attempt to make Russia stronger and, more important, seem stronger than it was.

Evidence of this strategy abounds. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. It repeatedly threatened to withhold vital (and notably expensive) energy supplies to strongarm Europe. It sent troops to Syria for no strategic reason. And it waged psychological warfare through social media in the hopes of weakening potential enemies.

All the while Russia remained weak, so much so that in 2014, it faced an existential crisis: the uprising in Ukraine, which Russia claimed was fomented by Western intelligence. Since the 18th century, Russia has protected itself from the European Peninsula with buffer states – the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine. Of these, Ukraine was by far the most important. It had gained independence with the Soviet collapse, but there appeared to Moscow to be a tacit understanding that the West would not intrude on these buffer states. But it immediately did, first by integrating the Baltics into NATO and then, from Moscow’s point of view, by deposing the constitutionally elected president of Ukraine and replacing him with a Western puppet. This appears to Moscow to be a deliberate assault on Russian national security.

Putin countered the so-called Maidan Revolution by instigating a pro-Russia uprising in eastern Ukraine and by annexing Crimea, neither of which came close to reversing the revolution. Clearly Russian intelligence had not only failed to mount an effective insurgency but had also misread events in Kyiv, failing to understand the forces arrayed against it. This failure is central to the story. Intelligence services have been vital to Russia ever since it was ruled by czars. A vast country required a powerful force to control it. The Soviet Union had a superb intelligence service. By 2014, it couldn’t even manage events in a region it knew well. For a while, Russia asserted itself by using energy exports as a weapon to cow Europe, but as oil prices fell, Russia could no longer afford to continue, as it needed income to support its centralized economic system. It continued to act as a great power, and this appearance had value, but underneath it, Russia was the Soviet Union, with all the weaknesses that broke it.

After all, it wasn’t a popular uprising that felled the Soviet Union; it was the fact that it was a Third World country, heavily dependent on the export of primary commodities, particularly oil and natural gas, whose price it could not control. It was also the fact that the Soviet Union had engaged in military competition with the United States whose primary currency was expensive advanced technology. The U.S. could bear the price readily. Between falling oil prices and a large share of its economy devoted to defense, the Soviet Union simply broke under the pressure. It was never able to develop a modern economy that could effectively serve its people or win it a stable place in the international system. There were moments, such as the 1950s, where this seemed possible, but it was never to be. The Soviets had convinced the U.S. that it was a great power, and the U.S. responded as if it were. The Russian belief in the bluff turned into an agonizing Cold War, where the U.S. feared the Soviet Union so much that no effort was spared to match it. The Soviets' efforts had to go to pretending they were dangerous without fully achieving it. The question was asked at NATO: If the Russians are so powerful, when will they attack? The answer, never uttered, was that they won’t attack because they know they will lose.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a global sense that the world had entered a new age, with Russia part of it. It had abandoned its costly and dangerous Eastern European empire. It had allowed many of the Soviet republics to go their own way. It had freed itself from the burdens these countries imposed and had cleared the way for turning Russia into a modern country faithful to its own culture.

Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister who is still highly respected, provides a statistic that quantifies the problem. Since 1990, the economy has grown 30 percent, or roughly 1 percent per year. Forgetting the collapse of oil prices, or the weakness of the FSB, or any other data, this fact is staggering. Russia had been badly organized and managed before 1990. Even minimal measures should have stimulated the country’s economy for a while. That didn’t happen.

There are many reasons for this, but for me there is always the staggering reality of Russia: its size, the distances that must be traveled, the transportation system, the roads and rail lines, challenging conditions, and so on. A nation cannot grow if its products cannot readily reach its markets, nor if its producers are so spread out that it’s impossible to know what the market is demanding and providing. Russia always suffered from its wealth in space, people and products. Large nations must invent their own geography. Russia lived with its geography.

The ongoing decline in oil prices – even though they have modestly recovered – is a crisis for Russia. Moscow collects the taxes and distributes the money to the rest of the country. This pays teachers, nurses, police and most other government workers. Under Boris Yeltsin, the money didn’t come and the people suffered. This problem went away under Putin at first, but there are increasing reports that these workers aren’t being paid now. The memory of the 1990s burns in their minds, and there are the first signs of a return to that period. There are demonstrations in the Siberian town of Khabarovsk, for example, where tens of thousands have been protesting for weeks against Moscow's arrest of a popular mayor. Why he was arrested and why they are demonstrating is unknown to me, but there has to be more here than meets the eye.

The Yeltsin years recreated a Russia where the countryside was extremely poor. It was my belief that this would happen again, because it is built into the weakness of the Russian economy and the politics of distributing scarcity. I think the next phase will come, and the weaknesses will show themselves again. Bear in mind that few expected the first collapse or the apparent recovery. Russia hides itself well.   




Crafty_Dog

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Re: Stratfor: Russia's Great Power Strategy
« Reply #105 on: August 31, 2020, 10:47:24 AM »
   
    In Russia, Mercenaries Are a Strategic Tool
Companies like the Wagner Group fill in certain security blanks.
By: Ridvan Bari Urcosta

Belarusian intelligence has accused Russia of sending private citizens to interfere in the country’s affairs and generally engage in acts of provocation. These same citizens participated in the annexation of Crimea a few years ago and fought on Russia’s behalf in the breakaway region of Donbass, according to officials in Ukraine, who demanded their immediate extradition to Kyiv. Instead, the Belarusian government sent them back to Russia.

To no one’s surprise, the citizens were members of the infamous private military company known as the Wagner Group, which over the past few years has been involved in every international conflict strategically important to Russian interests. The case of Belarus and Ukraine – the first instance on record of Wagner operating so close to NATO’s eastern flank – underscores just how useful a political tool Wagner has become for the Kremlin.

Organization and Formalization

Private military companies are by no means unique to Russia, but Wagner has a unique Russian flavor. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant depression left thousands of Russian soldiers rudderless. They were unemployed but well trained and ready to fight, so they informally banned together in the 1990s to sell their services throughout Eurasia. By 2008, there were no fewer than a dozen private military companies in Russia. The most famous of them, the one that would serve as the blueprint for Wagner, was officially created in 2013 in response to the Syrian civil war. Known as the Slavonic Corps, the group comprised former Russian special forces whose primary task was to protect the oil fields near Deir el-Zour. This naturally led to clashes with the Islamic State.

Among the members of the Slavonic Corps was Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces commander in the GRU, Russia's military intelligence unit, more commonly referred to by his call sign, “Wagner.” Most would be arrested for mercenary activities when they came back to Russia. (The legal status of private military companies is murky. Officially they are illegal, but they are “coincidentally” deployed to areas vital to Russian interests. One of the Wagner Group’s biggest benefactors, a billionaire named Yevgeny Prigozhin with oil and mining operations in Africa and the Middle East, is tight with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Either way, the Wagner Group returned to Syria in 2016 and cooperated closer with Russian regular forces. They are believed to have participated in the assaults on Palmyra in 2016 and 2017, and they are rumored to have fought with Syrian forces, and thus against U.S. forces, in the battle of Khasham in 2018.

The group has since expanded its reach considerably, particularly in Africa. It trains the military in Sudan, which reportedly granted mining concession agreements to a company tied to Prigozhin. It has participated in military parades in the Central African Republic, and is thought to be in Burundi as well. Its most high-profile client, of course, is Libya. The United Nations estimates that more than 1,000 Wagner members are fighting alongside the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The document says that mercenaries help to repair military equipment and also perform the functions of gunners, sappers and specialists in electronic warfare. Putin denies funding or supporting them; in fact, he has said explicitly that they do not represent the Russian government in any way. But curiously, Haftar met directly with Putin and Prigozhin back in 2018, and by 2019, the group was reportedly assisting in Haftar’s attempt to retake Tripoli.
 
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Leverage and Maneuverability

This partly illustrates the allure of Russia’s private military companies: plausible deniability. They simply don’t have the political baggage of total state affiliation, which gives Moscow political leverage and maneuverability. They are well trained, they have their own equipment and training facilities – the primary one located in Molkino in Krasnodar Krai near the Black Sea – and even have their own airfield. Yet, they are also relatively cheap on the global market. Salaries for the average soldier start at $2,000 per month but can go as high as $20,000 per month. The low end of that spectrum may seem low, but it’s higher than enlisted pay in the Russian armed services. (It should be noted that reports from 2017 suggested salaries had dropped.) Money comes from private sources, local governments that want to use their services and, allegedly, classified disbursements from the Ministry of Defense.
 
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So even though Moscow can claim not to use private military companies, it makes sense that it would. Groups like Wagner can secure facilities conventional militaries can’t or won’t for political purposes, and thus they are perfect for non-linear and limited-scale conflicts. (They tend to fare worse against conventional militaries.) They usually work more closely with local security forces and help to organize those forces. Moreover, military campaigns conducted between states can be complicated and logistically complex. Private companies can simplify this process. And ultimately they give Russia another contingent of forces to work with. When Putin announced plans to partially withdraw from Syria, Moscow thought it could offset the losses with private military companies.

Notably, Russia’s preference for private military companies is a relatively recent development, one ushered in by the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, which made it clear to Moscow that the Wagner Group is an effective supplementary global tool. Maintaining semi-official groups enables the Kremlin to send them into dangerous places to secure Russian companies’ interests without officially claiming responsibility. They fill out the strategic blanks, forming a sort of symbiosis between the state and the private groups whereby the state allows soldiers of fortune to earn money. In return, the state gets subordination and partial cover-up. It’s a small but important part of the Russian grand strategy. Russia will continue to use the private military companies as an instrument of its global strategy in the near future especially under Putin’s rule.   


Crafty_Dog

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Re: Stratfor: Russia's Great Power Strategy
« Reply #106 on: September 14, 2020, 04:56:10 AM »
September 14, 2020   View On Website
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    The Kremlin's Unusual Silence
The problems for Russia's central government keep growing, but the leadership seems reluctant to act.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to New York this week for the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly, reportedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Putin’s annual television program and Q&A show, which usually happens in June but was postponed this year, also will not occur in 2020 – because of the pandemic. In general, the Russian president has limited himself lately to vague decrees and brief comments, usually in online interviews. It’s easiest for the Kremlin to blame the pandemic for Putin’s relative absence from the spotlight, but Moscow is under pressure from many directions, and the virus is just the best distraction. There’s the instability in neighboring Belarus, Russia’s most important buffer and its last remaining ally to the west. There’s the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which threatens to bring down new sanctions against the Kremlin and endangers the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is important for the Russian economy. There are unending protests in Khabarovsk and, of course, the economic impact of COVID-19 and the fall in oil prices and consumer demand.

The pandemic has strained governments the world over, but what’s interesting about the Russian case is the government’s silence and apparent inaction in the face of not just COVID-19 but also many other challenges. All this creates the impression that the Kremlin is struggling to maintain its strength and the country’s economic stability.

Silencing, or Ignoring, Criticism

Arguably the clearest sign that something strange is happening in Russia is the apparent poisoning of Navalny last month. The 44-year-old anti-corruption activist was aboard a plane from Tomsk to Moscow on Aug. 20 when he fell violently ill, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing so that Navalny could be rushed to a hospital in Omsk. On Aug. 22, he was moved to Berlin’s Charite hospital, where specialists reported signs that Navalny had been exposed to Novichok, a deadly nerve agent that was used in the assassination attempt against Russian defector Sergei Skripal in the U.K. in 2018. For obvious reasons, accusations focused on Moscow, and Western governments began discussing new sanctions against the Kremlin.

It’s uncertain who is to blame, but there are at least two main possibilities. The first is that Moscow fears its power in the regions is weakening and authorities wanted to warn the opposition. Perhaps not coincidentally, Navalny’s poisoning and a government raid of the headquarters of the opposition United Democrats both occurred just before a general election on Sept. 13. The second possibility is that a government rival of Putin wanted to destabilize his position, since the poisoning will hurt the government’s support. In either scenario, Moscow is dealing with uncertainty that affects its ability to govern throughout Russia’s immense territory.

This is also demonstrated by the ongoing protests in the Far East city of Khabarovsk. On July 9, the former governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, was arrested and sent to Moscow, where he was accused of involvement in the murders of several businessmen in the 2000s. On July 11, thousands of people turned out in Khabarovsk to protest the arrest, saying that it was politically motivated. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Furgal was never a serious opponent of the Putin regime, but skepticism of Moscow’s intentions in Khabarovsk remains high. The emergence of protests is itself notable: This is the first time in modern Russian history that a governor accused of a criminal offense has received massive public support. Protests popped up in other cities, and they have occurred daily in Khabarovsk since they began, with help from the Russian opposition via social networks. Also notable is their durability, even though the protests are smaller than they used to be.
 
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Moscow’s response – or lack thereof – is also unusual. Located nearly 4,000 miles (6,000 kilometers) from Moscow, Khabarovsk is near the border with China. In theory, the stability of a border region in such a distant area should be a priority for the Kremlin. But since the arrest, the central government has been largely absent. Putin does not comment on events in the region, security forces have not suppressed the protests, and the Russian media is focused on unrest in Belarus. It’s possible that the Kremlin worries that attempting to disperse the rallies would cause greater instability and fuel greater discontent, with the potential to spread to other regions. Meanwhile, some political force – the ex-governor’s supporters or other opponents of the Kremlin – has an interest in keeping the protests going, organized and productive. Moscow’s hesitance to engage suggests that it is uncertain about its position and afraid of sparking a larger, more widespread rebellion, especially in other remote cities and regions.

The Price of Stability

Another challenge for Russia – one not of its own making – is energy prices. The Russian economy and budget are heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, but the coronavirus-induced recession has sent energy prices plummeting. The global economic recovery overall has proceeded slowly, and demand for energy hasn’t recovered. Russia’s revenues from oil exports from January to July amounted to $43.9 billion, a decline of 37.7 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Export revenues from gas fell by 51 percent. This translates into greatly reduced budget revenues for the state.
 
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Less revenue means less money to distribute among the population and regions, and this is an especially sensitive time, as COVID-19 has affected standards of living throughout the country. During the lockdown, more than 1.2 million Russians were left without work. At the end of the second quarter, the purchasing power of Russians for basic food products dropped to its lowest level in the past 10 years. Regions continue to develop unevenly, poverty remains an issue, and government subsidies are needed to create demand. And although the economy is not yet an inspiration for protests, a prolonged decline in living standards may exacerbate negative trends in society. The Kremlin fears that at a time when the population and economy need a boost, it will lack the funds to distribute because oil prices are expected to remain low for a while.
 
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In times like these when money is tight, the Kremlin typically looks to the oligarchs and heads of the largest companies to replenish the budget, and this time is no different. The heads of the largest Russian oil companies (Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Tatneft and Zarubezhneft) complained to Putin about the Ministry of Finance’s plans to raise taxes on hydrocarbon production, but their concerns apparently fell on deaf ears. Russian billionaires have lost some $16.7 billion since the beginning of the year because of the pandemic, and it will get worse: The personal income tax rate of 13 percent, which has been the same for everyone for 20 years, is set to increase to 15 percent next year for those earning more than 5 million rubles (approximately $67,000).

Russia still has $177.6 billion, about 11.7 percent of gross domestic product, in its national wealth fund, but the Kremlin is determined to save what it can for tough times ahead. Without a significant increase in energy prices, Moscow’s only choice to replenish the budget is to raise taxes on the rich to redistribute to the rest of the population. This would help Putin’s popularity with the majority, but it could lead to dissatisfaction and a loss of support among the wealthy and may cause additional capital flight, which would hurt the economy.

Finally, there’s Belarus, the last Russian ally in the west and the only thing standing between U.S. troops in Poland and Russia’s borders. Protests and strikes in Belarus have continued unabated since that country’s disputed presidential election on Aug. 9 and the announcement of incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory. Labor collectives from the largest Belarusian companies have joined the action. Moscow supports Lukashenko but it is in no hurry to intervene. Russian military assistance in suppressing mass protests would mean an invasion, which, of course, would only worsen Russia’s position in international trade and would mean more severe economic sanctions, which Russia’s slowing economy may not withstand.

Russia’s territorial size is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The different regions of Russia are unequal, are at different stages of economic development and are only loosely connected. A stable government, a strong security apparatus and calm borders are important for preserving the unity of this vast territory. Moscow also needs substantial buffers, as the flattened borderlands act almost as a highway to the capital for foreign armies. Buffers also create a kind of economic zone, sometimes with a large amount of resources (including labor), through which Russia can supply resources to the world market and bypass sanctions. Russia’s security and territorial integrity are a constant challenge, especially when Moscow has fewer financial resources to support the country’s poorer regions, the buffer zones are unstable and the ruling party lacks the confidence to act.

Why Russia has been relatively quiet is unclear. Putin has avoided making loud statements, leaving that to his team: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is in talks with Cyprus and Syria; Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who last week brought together the defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who is preparing for a visit by Lukashenko. None of this means the Kremlin isn’t under pressure. More likely, it means the leadership is aware of its weaknesses and trying to hide it from Russia’s competitors.