Amid new developments in the Russia-Belarus oil conflict, Swedish Institute for International Affairs director Tomas Ries spoke about Russia at The Nixon Center last Wednesday.
Ries described his remarks as "deliberately provocative" and a "conservative" take on Russia. He argued Russia is "less like Western Europe than we thought", and that with the clear exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg, many parts of the country are well behind Europe developmentally-with some rural regions yet to be electrified.
In the wake of the Belarus crisis-when German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly said Putin's halting of oil supplies was "not acceptable", according to the Financial Times-this view is gaining popularity, Ries continued.
"Much of Russia is very primitive, with a raw material extraction-based economy", Ries said. "After the Cold War there was the misconception that if we took off the chains, Russia would liberalize because that's a natural tendency. But it doesn't have the economic and social preconditions, such as a stable middle class."
The 1990s saw a gradual descent into anarchy until Putin's rise to power. By introducing authoritarianism, the leader brought stability.
"He re-took control from the oligarchs in a rough way", Ries said. "It's true that money is flowing to a different set of oligarchs now, but it's also flowing to state coffers. Now the state is benefiting from oil revenues."
However, Ries said, today many Russians see the world as a zero-sum game of power politics, with Western plans to "go in, chop up the Russian Federation and steal natural resources." Events in Iraq are not so negative from this perspective, as "they're weakening the main concern, the United States."
Regarding Russia policy, Ries divided European countries into two groups.
The first is made of major EU powers. To challenge Russia, two of the three major powers-Britain, France and Germany-must act together.
Britain has a history of taking Russia seriously, but future tactics are unclear with Tony Blair resigning. (Gordon Brown is favored to head Labour next.) French policy faces similar uncertainty with elections fast approaching.
Ries viewed Angela Merkel's increasingly firm stance toward Putin as a positive development. However, she shares power with the softer Social Democrats and has promised a demanding domestic agenda. Also, the country depends on Russian oil.
The second important group of European countries lies in the Nordic region. Norway, for example, works with Russia on regional issues including fisheries and oil. In addition, there is an oil transit route through the Baltics near St. Petersburg, Finland.
There's also the issue of Baltic independence. "I suspect Putin does not see it as acceptable for them to be independent, but he's not going to do anything dramatic about it", Ries said.
Robert VerBruggen ([email protected]) is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.