Monday, May 07, 2007

Russia: Motives & Misperceptions

As relations between Russia and the West deteriorate, a growing tendency to misperceive Russian motives is discerned. Russia is not a monolithic power, but analysts increasingly tend to give prominence to factors that themselves cannot wholly explain Moscow's actions. A recent example is the Russian-Estonian crisis.

The current crisis between Moscow and Tallinn has its specific origins, and should come as no surprise to most observers. The basic preconditions for crisis were set already in the early 1990s, and both parties are since stuck in a mutually detrimental relationship. The difference this time though is that there currently are no countervailing forces in Moscow to keep the conflict in check, as has previously been the case. This is matched by poor judgement on the Estonian side. Also, the conclusion by western analysts that Russia is using its energy weapon against Estonia by imposing an export blockade seems flawed and an example of mental bandwagoning among people prone to single factor explanations.

Public opinion in Russia about the Baltic states was forged from the disappointment of their determination to abandon the ailing Soviet empire. The Balts were considered part of the liberal and reform oriented forces in soviet society, why Russians felt betrayed by the Balts as Moscow perceivably strived towards the same political goals as the Balts were identified with. The realisation that the Baltics now were abroad took a long time for most Russians to come to terms with. That Russians had become subjects of a non-Slavic state in which they had to seek citizenship to enjoy the full rights of society was incomprehensible. That states like Kazakhstan might treat Russians badly was only to be expected, as they did not share the liberal heritage Russians associated with the Balts. A measure of double standards was thus introduced in comparing the situation of Russians in former soviet republics. As for the Baltics, Russians felt scorned in their identity as imperial civilisation carriers. An inferiority complex was thus the nucleus of the dispute over the situation of Russian "minorities" in the Baltic states.

As things have evolved in Russian-Estonian relations over the last month, the image conjured up by Russian media is that of Russians being wronged and bereft of their rights and heritage. The difference this time is that there are no countervailing forces in Moscow to keep too overt nationalist sentiments in check. Still, most analysts limit themselves to describe the conflict in either bilateral or Estonian terms, whereas Russian domestic factors are left out. This limits reporting to developments of the same Russian-Estonian themes covered over the last 15 years, and old articles might be taken out of the drawer to be rewritten or updated, simply filling in the new facts. In essence, however, they lack the proper contextualisation to explain why the conflict has taken a new turn for the worse. Action is not enough - as the removal of the Bronze Soldier and its consequences. Context must be added to analysis in order for us to understand the full extent of the problem.

Next year, Russia faces presidential elections. By all appearances it seems to be a runoff between Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev. The power struggle in the Kremlin is however already underway, and who eventually will get the upper hand sways back and forth between the two main contenders. Half a year ago, Medvedev was in the lead, but now Ivanov has made a comeback and seems to be in the best position to become master of the Kremlin in 2008. In this context, Ivanov has used the Estonian crisis to gather his forces in front of a common foe. Opinions on Estonia are by now so deeply set that they may be used as a vehicle to gather the Russian masses. Previously, Russian leaders have known where to draw the line in using the "Baltic question" but now president Putin cannot put the foot down as too great interests are at stake, in who will rule Russian politics in coming years, to risk anything just to preserve a working relationship with Tallinn. As for relations with the European Union and Nato, Putin walks a thin line in risking a multilateralisation of the Estonian issue.

However, Medvedev is also not left out in gaining the dividends of the Estonian crisis. Last week, Sergei Ivanov, during a meeting with governors in Murmansk, declared that the Russian oil and coal previously exported by transit through Estonia will now instead go through the port of St. Petersburg. Russia annually ships around 25 million tonnes of fuel oil, gas oil and petrol through Estonian ports. Imposing a Russian energy blockade on Estonia is regarded by many analysts as a way for Moscow to use its energy weapon. Such a conclusion, however, seems flawed as Estonia is relatively spared of any major consequences for its energy supply. Instead, it may prove a way for major Russian oil exporters - mainly Rosneft - to curve export competition by other Russian oil companies.

Transferring exports to St. Petersburg will indirectly give Rosneft greater control over who will be able to export Russian oil. St. Petersburg port is already today gravely undersized - not to mention corrupt - and much effort has been made in recent years to construct new harbours in the Gulf of Finland - Primorsk for oil and Ust Luga for bulk. Opting for Petersburg therefore means that companies that previously have exported by way of Estonia now are at the mercy of Rosneft to meet their deliveries to western customers. In essence, the energy blockade against Estonia gives Medvedev's interests a way to hit at remaining independent competitors within the oil industry. Consequently, Ivanov reaps the political and Medvedev the economic rewards of the Estonian crisis.

So, should all explanations based on the actual situation in Estonia and relations with Russia be discarded? Of course not. However, it is equally important to analyse the conflict on its own merits as it is to contextualise it, striking a balance on the domestic-foreign frontier. An obvious example is the risk that the conflict may spread also to Latvia. Most observers would say that situations differ too much for something similar to happen in Riga, but still Latvian authorities are apprehensive. From both a political and economic perspective, Ivanov and Medvedev may gain from sparking a crisis also with Latvia for the very same reasons why they have let the crisis with Estonia get so much out of hand. There simply is too much to gain and too little to lose domestically at the moment, that a Russian-Latvian crisis should not be ruled out just because situations in Estonia and Latvia are not similar enough. Giving the crisis a Russian domestic political contextualisation shows this.

Still, is the Kremlin willing to risk its relations with the West - EU, Nato and the US - over such an insignificant issue as the Baltic question? Actually, such an assumption should not be ruled out. Already, Moscow is at loggerheads with Washington, and the US understands that it now has to be tough on Russia in order to have a working relationship. The European Union, however, takes a much weaker stand when it comes to Russia, and when it does confront Moscow it is on negotiation issues such as the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and the European Energy Charter. Until now, Russia has never had anything to lose in real terms in relations with the EU, and the Union consistently avoids putting its foot down in relations with Moscow. That Poland and other member states, in this context, may hamper EU-Russia negotiations is officially treated with resignation in Bruxelles, while most unofficially sigh with relief. Thus, Russia rationally calculates that the EU will never truly make a stand in their relations, why Moscow really risks nothing by a confrontational policy.

Developments in Russia are met with growing concern in Europe, and there is an understanding that sooner or later the European Union will have to confront the issue, as many of its members are already experiencing the realities of a more assertive Russia on the world stage. Doing so, however, sets out from, on the one hand, foreign relations and, on the other hand, Russia's domestic political situation. The latter is mainly directed at the crisis for democracy and human rights and far too seldom at the factors that Russian rulers themselves would deem of political importance. Foreign and domestic factors are increasingly treated as monolithic and attempts at joint analysis are often superficial or aim at the wrong factors.

The result is that it is becoming all the more of a mystery in the West why Russia acts as it does. The West is once again allowing Russia to become "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" for the evident reason that Europeans are too subsumed by their own values, norms, perceptions, and prejudice to follow the simple logics of current Russian politics and society. Then it is much easier to produce an image of a state that once more might pose a threat to Europe - an alien entity accepted by its mere existence but doomed to remain foreign to Europe. Here, the Russian-Estonian crisis serves as a striking example of how the West fails to account for important factors in its perceptions of Russia. As European public opinion turns increasingly against Russia, the risk of misperceptions may become an even greater danger than a revived Russian threat in the eyes of Europe. Russian motives are not always what they seem.


Pēteris Cedriņš said...

A refreshing, provocative, unusual, and impressive analysis, Vilhelm!


Giustino said...

Honestly, it's about time Russia invest in its own Baltic ports. The aged idea that Russia 'needs' control over the Baltic countries is false.

I am glad they are finally getting around to that realization.

As far as I can tell, Estonia's economic partners continue to be Sweden and Finland. Not America, not Germany, not even Russia.

I think the Scandinavians and the Finns like investing in Estonia because it's so easy for them and its a market they can dominate because of the lack of competition.

It makes sense that Estonian-generated capital should move in that direction, rather than the other one.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Pēteris,

Thank you for you praise! I do not know if I have that much to offer on Estonia, but I am still happy that you liked my analysis.



Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Giustino,

The thing is that most analyses emphasise the state aspect of Russian-Estonian relations. What I want to add is the financial-economic perspective. One example is how Russian cargo is now transferred from Sillamäe port to Tallinn-Muuga harbour once transports have been resumed. Muuga is controlled by Russian business interests in contrast to Sillamäe.

It also seems as though the annual negotiations on Estonian railway cargo quotas will come out in favour of Russian companies with links to the Kremlin. Russian companies already control a significant proportion of railway cargo, but it now seems as though part of this influence will be transferred to business interests connected with the Kremlin.

As I repeatedly claim, in Russia, finance comes before politics.

As for Sweden's and other Scandinavian countries' and companies' role in the Baltic states, I feel their engagement is somewhat embarrasing. They own and control a disproportionate share of Baltic business, but act as if they did not know much about the countries and markets they are active in. Just remember the Hansa Bank scandal of the early 1990s over Estonian assets in Moscow. Who do you think gave a helping hand there to imbezzle those funds? Of course, I would not know or could not say ;-), but perhaps you can make a qualified guess.



Latvian abroad said...

Russia appears to be unwilling to strike confrontation with Latvia. Here is what I wrote about Russian behind-the-scenes moves on my weblog:
I haven't been able to figure out why they are treating Latvia and Estonia differently, though...

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Latvian Abroad,

You are quite right! I do not know what I was thinking of at the time, when even hinting at the risk of the conflict spreading to Latvia. Well, I can only blame my general male lack of simultaneous capacity, not having been able to keep different factors and reasonings apart.

As for Latvia, one should perhaps see which business interests control transport capacities as for e.g. the ports of Ventspils and Riga. That may partly explain why relations are so cordial at the moment. A tacit "deal" has obviously been struck on the extent of Russian influence - primarily financial - in Latvia. Then most outstanding issues can be solved, including border agreements.