Corruption Forever in Russia?
Led by a proud KGB spy, Russia is descending back into the bleak darkness of Soviet dishonesty and hypocrisy as it becomes ever more mired in its imperialist aggression in Ukraine. As in Soviet times, territorial lust has blinded Russia to the horrible danger inherent in provoking conflict with the entire world as the nation’s economy slides into recession.
A little over a month ago, the U.S. Navy destroyer Donald Cook, with a complement of 71 American officers and 210 enlisted personnel, was “attacked” in international waters in the Black Sea by a Russian SU-24 bomber, which repeatedly flew low around it and refused to answer attempts to communicate. The incident reveals three critical facts about Vladimir Putin’s Russia as it grapples with Ukraine.
First, the reckless provocation exposed Putin’s thrust to assert dominion over the Black Sea. Just a few weeks later, the world realized that by grabbing and annexing Crimea, Putin had put himself in a position to oust Ukraine from hundreds of square miles of offshore oil and gas drilling rights surrounding the peninsula. Another nearby chunk of the Black Sea is claimed by Georgia, which was victimized by Russian aggression in 2008.
Second, the incident highlighted that Putin is unafraid to risk a massive escalating military conflict with the U.S. and NATO in order to pursue his neo-Soviet ambition of territorial conquest in post-Soviet space. Putin isn’t just buzzing U.S. warships in his vicinity with conventional attack aircraft; he’s also buzzing the shores of California, as well as remote U.S. military bases like Guam, with nuclear bombers.
And third, Russian misreporting of the incident shows how radically isolated from basic facts the people of Russia are becoming, a worrying trend that mimics their ignorance during the Soviet era. Back in April, the U.S. Navy was laughing at the Russian incursion, one commentator calling it “about as tame a flyby as you can get” and stating that the Cook did not even go to battle stations. But Russian reporting made jaw-droppingly contrary claims about the events.
It stated that the Russian plane had been able to totally shut down the Cook’s radar systems with super-secret Russian jamming technology, rendering it blind and impotent and forcing it to rush into port. It claimed that when the ship arrived, its entire crew (which it incorrectly numbered at just 27) resigned in fear and shame.
An even more spectacular example occurred when the leading Russian broadcast TV network, a state-operated institution, used video footage from a gun battle in Russia’s own roiling Caucasus region to wholly falsely depict alleged acts of violence in Ukraine. To say nothing of the dishonesty, the hypocrisy was simply blinding: Russia routinely characterizes the separatist activity in Ukraine as a “civil war” that justifies Russian intervention, yet such activity in the Caucasus is chalked up to “bandit” criminal activity, and any suggestion of outside interference is viewed as outrageous.
This is, of course, exactly the same type of deranged pseudo-journalism that routinely used to emerge from the USSR. But it’s not a joke in Russia; it’s real life. Now, as then, the Kremlin has total control over all news that is reported on broadcast television and dominates print reporting as well. The internet, once touted as a bastion of independence, is now under massive assault by Putin’s minions.
Indeed Dr. Timothy Snyder of Yale, one of the world’s leading experts on the Ukraine crisis, writes:
By this point, Russian propaganda is so self-contradictory that it gives Orwellianism a bad name. Russia claims to be supporting democracy even though it has no free elections and is acting to hinder those of a neighbor. Moscow instructs the West, absurdly, that the Ukrainian government is fascist, while meanwhile supporting actual fascists in Europe and designing its own foreign policy along the traditional fascist program of protecting coethnics by military force, whether they want protection or not.
As Putin lashes out at the world, just as his Soviet ancestors did, he is emulating them in another respect as well: he is destroying his country’s will to succeed just as they did, condemning it to a future of misery and collapse.
According to Transparency International, only 42 countries in the world are more corrupt than Putin’s Russia. Russia’s score of 28 on the TI Corruption Perceptions Index, unchanged from 2012, places it on the same level of moral and legal development as Pakistan, Nicaragua, Gambia, and Lebanon. The USA, by contrast, has a score of 73 (100 is perfect integrity; the best score is 91 by Denmark and New Zealand) and ranks #19 in the world.
TI essentially asks the world two questions: will the people of this country steal, and if so, then will their government turn a blind eye to it? The answer to both questions where Russia is concerned is a resounding YES!
Levada, Russia’s most-respected polling company, recently asked Russians (Russian-language link) what they think about corruption. Seventy-five percent of them think that corruption has remained the same (64%) or gotten worse (11%) during the 14 years that Putin has held power. A majority (52%) said that those who hold power in Russia are more concerned with building their personal wealth and power than with building the prosperity of the nation. A whopping 78% of respondents held Putin himself wholly or partially responsible for Russia’s morass of corruption. Less than a third (27%) thought he would be any more successful in dealing with corruption in the future than he has been so far.
Putin maintains high approval ratings despite his total failure to address corruption, something he openly and repeatedly promised to do in all three of his presidential election campaigns, because Russians have a deeply fatalistic view about corruption. They see it as a fact of life, inevitable as the sunset, and they believe that Putin is doing all he can to battle it, that nobody could do more, and that nobody can reverse it. In other words, essentially, they believe that Russia is doomed to wallow in a mire of dishonesty forever.
For this reason, Russians even ignore clear proof of Putin’s personal corruption, such as a devastating story last week from Reuters showing how state funds were directed away from hospitals to build a personal palace for Putin to vacation in.
In other words, Putin has done something to Russia that is much more toxic than simply failing to reverse corruption: he has broken the national spirit, much as his ancestors in the USSR once did. He has convinced Russians that they, and he, are capable of nothing better than matching Pakistan stride for stride. As a result, he and his nation simply shrug when booted out of civilized organizations like the G-8 and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. They pretty much ask: “What took you so long?”
This is why you don’t find Russian consumer products in the stream of world trade – because Russians don’t believe they can compete with other countries in making them and don’t try. This is why Russia does not rank in the top 150 counties in the world for life expectancy, an even lower position than on the corruption list – because Russians think this is their lot.
Russians have no factual basis for believing that Putin is doing all he can to address corruption. If you asked them what measures he took in 2013 to do so, none could answer. He’s never been forced into a presidential debate on the issue, nor has he ever been grilled by journalists. Most Russians get their news from TV, which never reports critically about Putin’s performance, and those in the internet like Alexei Navalny who seek to fill in the gaps have found themselves facing criminal charges for corruption.
The relative ease with which Putin was able to annex Crimea, after taking similar action in Georgia to bite off its Ossetia and Abkhazia territories, shows incredible weakness and spinelessness on the part of NATO and the U.S. Is the West really prepared, once again, to simply watch as a maniacal European dictator consolidates power, gobbles up smaller neighbors, and rushes headlong into global conflict?
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.