The Soviet Empire Strikes Back

The West’s quiet in the face of growing Russian autocracy is shameful.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

In his quest for a pure autocracy, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his government have improved upon Joseph Stalin's epic achievements.

In his day, Stalin famously said that if there is no man there is no problem. The KGB similarly boasted that if there is a man, there will be a case. Putin's minions have done these worthies one better. As the recent posthumous conviction of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for tax evasion shows, contemporary Russia does not even need a man to fabricate a case. A corpse will do just fine.

Magnitsky, moreover, is hardly alone. Other instances of official government intimidation include the recent, public prosecution of Alexei Navalny, Russia's most famous blogger. These are just the most public of many simultaneous and overlapping efforts now underway by Russia's leaders to silence dissent and convert Russian politics into a graveyard.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The country's elite, meanwhile, continues to steal Russia blind. Russia's Ministry of Defense itself has reported that in 2012-2013 alone, corruption in the defense sector increased by 450 percent! This figure overlays the long-held belief by specialists that 20-40 percent of the national defense budget is stolen annually.

Neither is this corruption confined to Russia's defense sector. Virtually every facet of the contemporary Russian state is engulfed in corruption of the sort that Magnitsky and Navalny have attacked—and for which they are now being tried. Indeed, Russia's problem today is not that the state is corrupt, but rather that corruption and associated criminality are the system.

The current repression aims to ensure that things stay this way, and that unaccountable autocrats continue to rule Russia. But the consequences of letting this system continue with impunity do not stop at Russia's borders. Autocracy in Russia is synonymous with empire, and the criminality we see in Moscow is a fundamental instrument of Russia's neo-imperial policy throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Yet even as Moscow pushes for renewed empire, what Soviet scholars used to call a revolutionary crisis is fast becoming the only alternative to Putinism.

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The shameful Western silence in the face of the travesties of justice now occurring in Russia merely encourage the current rulers to profess that the West is corrupt, decadent and generally devoid of any moral value or lessons for Russia. Our silence encourages Russia to undermine its neighbors' independence, to build conventional and nuclear weapons, to resist arms control, to sell arms to bad actors across the globe, to engage in widespread criminality at home and aboard, thwart democracy in the Middle East and support proliferators.

For Russia's leaders, the real challenge is staying in power. The Kremlin's current repressions show bravado, not strength, and fear rather than confidence. They presage the accelerating crisis of a system that cannot compete economically or politically with its peers. 

The late Adam Ulam, one of the founding fathers of Soviet studies, once observed that Russian history is tragic, glorious, but also preposterous. Under Putin, the tragedy and preposterousness continue. But the glory is nowhere to be found.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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