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Real Russia Story Behind The War
Published Mar 23, 2023 IN Features,
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AS the first anniversary of the Russian war in Ukraine ticks by, it’s worth reflecting on how we got there and what we can learn from these events.

“It’s the economy, stupid” is a mantra credited to Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville. It becomes a lot clearer why there is antipathy between Russia and its European neighbours if you start there.

Arising from its growing fossil-fuel wealth, the Putin regime has been trying to carve out its own economic sphere to rival the European Union. The problem? The Russian economy is too small and dysfunctional to provide a basis for an attractive alternative to the EU.

Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s and only about 10% of that of the entire EU. Other than in military hardware it does not have much of a tech sector and even the military sector relies on imports. An economic alliance with such a small economy is hardly attractive as an alternative to one with a much stronger bloc.

Why does Russia have such a weak economy?

Part of it is a classic example of the difficulties of an extractive economy. In recent years, oil and gas have been about 20% of Russian GDP, enough to be a significant overall influence. An extractive economy is subject to booms and busts, affecting other sectors.

An example: Australia stopped making cars in 2017 after the Australian dollar was pushed to new heights by a commodities boom. As imports became cheaper, local manufacture became too expensive to compete.

South Africa during the 1980s gold boom was partly spared this effect because we had a protective economy, particularly as sanctions started to bite. But tariff barriers are strongly discouraged in the modern trade environment and in any case are, at best, a short-term benefit as a protected industry in a small economy cannot compete on long-term research and development.

Another factor is the large investment Russia put into modernising its military. Aside from corruption that made this less effective than it could have been, this is a largely unproductive investment as it has little effect outside its own sector.

More broadly, endemic corruption has made it hard for Russia to modernise its economy. This is one of a number of reasons that make its economy unproductive.

Rather than address its systemic economic problems to make it more attractive as an economic partner, the Russian state has resorted to bullying. Since Ukraine is in the news, I use that example but the same applies to other neighbours who tried to assert their independence such as Georgia and Moldova. Several other small countries fall between this space and Belarus, Vladimir Putin’s most reliable ally, in terms of their closeness to Russia, like Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan.

In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine on a promise of moving towards joining the EU. There were several obstacles to this including a demand that he release his chief rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, from jail after she was convicted for what outsiders believed were trumped up charges. Polling at the time showed that an agreement with the EU was three times as popular as an association with Russia, with strong support for joining the EU.

So why did Yanukovych pull out of EU negotiations and turn to Russia? The EU is a bit fussy about details like jailing political opponents while trying to join. It also has standards for corruption, and the refusal of the Yanukovych–dominated Ukraine parliament to pass measures turning that around was a trigger for Ukraine switching focus to Russia. Once you’re in, policing these may not be such a big deal; Hungarian President Viktor Orbán is exploring the limits. Russia doesn’t particularly care. And an unpopular, corrupt authoritarian regime is easier to control because it may need external support against its own people, hence Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s slavish loyalty to Russia. Originally popular as the first post-independence president who stabilised the post-Soviet economic chaos, he has become increasingly authoritarian as his popularity has slipped and is now dependent on Russia to maintain his security state. That is where Putin would like Ukraine to be; failing which, it should be erased.

When Putin evokes the history of Peter the Great and insists that Russia has an inherent right to redraw its borders based on past imperial glory, that is for his base. This isn’t the 18th century and Ukraine was a founder-member of the UN, retaining its nominal independent status even through the Soviet era.

Yet when I hear representatives of the EU and Nato talk of how successful the “rules-based order” has been at maintaining peace, it does not surprise me that some in developing countries aren’t moved. Whose rules? What order? Western Europe has indeed been very peaceful since World War II and, other than 9/11, the United States has managed to avoid significant attacks on its own soil (mass shootings and far-right bombings apparently are peaceful).

But the rest of the world has not had much peace, nor are the “rules” consistently enforced. Selective justice is no justice at all. Until the rules-based order is consistently applied and the rich and powerful are not favoured, it weakens arguments against those who break the rules.

In the case of Ukraine, a solid argument is that the rules as applied there ought to be applied everywhere. If they were, the Middle East would not be such a mess, for a start. And possibly a few past leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair would be in jail.

But that is not the world we live in.

What we should really do is learn the lessons from successes and failures of others, while pushing steadily for a truly just rules-based order. If we wait for the latter before moving, we will never solve any problems.

One clear lesson from the Ukraine-Russia conflict is the high price of corruption. Had Ukraine not been so corrupt in 2014, they would have had a more competent military and not been as weak when Russia took Crimea.

They have learnt lessons since and Russia hasn’t, hence the Russian military’s numerous catastrophic failures over the past year. Predictions that Kyiv would fall in three days should have been accurate given the relative size of the militaries. Russia today whinges about all the Nato weapons sent to Ukraine but, in the early days, Ukraine did not have most of the systems it has today.

Russia may be doing better than expected economically in the face of sanctions, because of high oil prices, but they have lost a lot of their younger talented people either to the war or to fleeing to avoid conscription. Putin’s delusions of being the new Peter the Great could yet result in his country finding itself in the 18th century.

For South Africa, this lesson ought to be clear. Basic services and infrastructure are failing even without a war. Ukraine, despite Russian shelling and missile attacks, has more consistent electricity availability than South Africa does. Our economy is too weak for us to pursue a truly independent path. With a few more missteps we will be at the mercy of an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment plan.

History, geopolitics and so on are important for framing debates, placing ourselves on the right side of history and for escaping the past. But we have to have an effective government that serves our own national interest, otherwise we will fail our own people.

A rules-based order? How about we get that right domestically? That is not just a concept for international relations.

Philip Machanick is an emeritus associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.

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