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Robert Amsterdam Headshot

Russia Huffs and Puffs as the House Comes Down

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It really is impressive the level of tolerance we've built up when it comes to Russia's confrontational antics. Take for example the move in early August to deploy two Akula II-class nuclear attack submarines off the East Coast of the United States. The Pentagon quickly discarded any potential threat from the stunt, which was only slightly more diplomatic than the response to the resumption of bomber patrols: "If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision," a State Department rep quipped back in 2007.

It's the same story with the Europeans. At the end of the G8 Summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev resurrected his threat to place Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave, shortly followed by Ukrainian police stopping a Russian military convoy hauling missiles around Sevastopol streets. What can they do but shrug before this kind of behavior? Back in 2008 the Polish Defense Minister politely pointed out how often these threats come from Moscow: "Of course we don't like it when the Russian president or Russian generals threaten us with nuclear annihilation. It is not a friendly thing to do, and we have asked them to do it no more than once a month."

Meanwhile, inside Russia, a type of bloody anarchy is beginning to reign. On July 15th, the award winning human rights journalist and advocate Natalia Estemirova was brutally kidnapped, shot, and dumped by a roadside outside of Chechnya. Not even a month later, the husband and wife human rights workers Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Djabrailov were found murdered, stuffed into the trunk of their car. This week, Construction Minister of Ingushetia Ruslan Amerkhanov was shot dead in his office. At some unknown date, human rights worker Andrei Kulagin was also murdered -- his body discovered later on at the bottom of a quarry. That's all just from the summer so far.

So the question is why Russia bothers to go through the motions -- sending Soviet era submarines of a rapidly degrading naval fleet, flying bombers which belong in a museum, or otherwise huffing and puffing in anger with all their aging military toys? They know that we know that actual military capabilities do match the hostility of the rhetoric, and they can predict our response. With these growing problems at home, how does the muscle flexing serve Russian interests?

Among the competing theories to explain this conduct, I find that deflection is the most convincing. By creating manageable confrontations, especially with Europe, the United States, and the former Soviet states, the Kremlin is attempting to govern outwardly, diminishing pressures for greater accountability in their domestic shortcomings, and helping to stir up nationalism and support for the regime. The impunity of murder in Chechnya is out of their control and beyond the limits of their political will, the embarrassing failure of the Bulava missile, the prize military technology of the New Russia, is unacceptable to the brass, and the poor management of the economy is becoming widely palpable among citizens.

When Medvedev launched a sharp personal attack against the unpopular Ukranian president Viktor Yushchenko, perhaps we are less likely to pay attention to the fact that the economy shrank by 10.9% in the second quarter, that the state is running a budget deficit of 9.4% of GDP this year, or that both the IMF and World Bank are raising red flags. As the Duma prepares to pass an ominous new legislative bill which will give the President the authority to deploy Russian troops abroad to defend interests from third party states, that's just one less headline reporting on the rumors of a 30-40% devaluation of the ruble. When Russia signs deals to send more tanks to Venezuela, and small arms for a government now strongly linked to FARC terrorists, we can safely ignore how their ten-year long campaign to join the World Trade Organization was scuppered by an ill-advised customs union stunt.

Whatever tensions are available to stoke, Russia may see an advantage in reinforcing their own portrayal as a besieged fortress, drawing attention away from the rule of law fiasco that is the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or the official grand corruption highlight by the William Browder/Hermitage lawsuit alleging a $250 million fraud with participation from the Interior Ministry (disclosure: I am a member of the Khodorkovsky defense team).

One of the most frequently quoted lines from Joe Biden's candid interview with the Wall Street Journal was that the Russian leadership finds itself "in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable." That's exactly what we can see behind the submarines, the verbal attack on the Ukraine, and the guns for FARC, the Abkhazians, and anyone else who wants them. The nature of the Putinist authoritarian model is not order and stability, but anarchy and unpredictability. The enormous level of corruption and business participation by government officials has blurred the line between national interests and personal bank accounts, with policy-making rationality as the first victim.

Resorting to the old Cold War script presents an artificial but familiar political dynamic within which the panicked leadership is comfortable working. As more blood is spilt in Chechnya, we can expect more and more chest thumping and aggression. Unfortunately for the siloviki, however, this elaborate performance of deflection and misdirection is quickly becoming unsustainable and less believable. Let's just wait and see what comes next.