Back In the USSR

The tension between the United States and Russia is palpable. Following President Obama’s failed ‘reset’ with the Russian Federation, levels of mutual distrust between the two nations are arguably at their highest since the Cold War. Ever since President Vladimir Putin returned to power in May of last year, the former KGB officer has been tightening his grip on the Russian state, moving towards what commentators such as former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are claiming is a new USSR.

The sentencing of 36-year old lawyer and whistleblower Alexey Navalny to 5 years in prison made international headlines yet he is only the latest critic of the Kremlin who has found himself arrested or worse. Navalny first gained a following through his role as a prolific blogger, revealing corruption at the highest levels of Russian society with wit and analytical fervor. How was it that one man has been able to uncover what so many have missed? The reality is that corruption is so rampant in Russia that uncovering it is less a question of skill and more a question of will. Navalny’s team consisted of himself and four other lawyers, all working from home and their evidence was entirely found in publicly available government contracts. The fact that it took a corporate lawyer working in his free time to reveal such corruption is a testament to the compromised nature of the Russian press.

Since the 2011 ‘Russian Awakening’, where tens of thousands of Moscow residents protested the rigged legislative elections, Putin has been tightening his grip on Mother Russia, squeezing out the opposition through either intimidation or direct action until the one-party state is once again a reality.

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Think about the Snowden affair for a second and it’s difficult not to feel launched back into the Cold War. A dissenting U.S. intelligence officer flees to Russia with a briefcase full of confidential documents. Swap the briefcase with a hard drive and it’s clear that our relationship with Russia has in fact been ‘reset’, right back to the 1970s.

Snowden’s arrival in Russia benefits Putin in several ways. First, defending the former NSA agent’s right to asylum gives the Russian leadership a brief moment of favor in the liberal international media. Russian human rights leaders who devote their days to criticizing Putin tend to sympathize with Snowden’s plight. Tanya Lokshina from Human Rights Watch, normally a vocal critic of the Kremlin, even found herself in a carefully constructed photo op with Snowden, organized by the state.

Moreover, it is very likely that the Kremlin has already profited from the top-secret information Snowden has carried with him to Mother Russia. As Snowden is completely dependent on Russia, who could extradite him to his home country at any moment, it is difficult to believe that he could resist the efforts of the FSB (formerly known as the KGB) to extract his state secrets.

The most clear and chilling example of Russia’s spiral towards Sovietism, however, is its recent moves to re-establish its former territorial glory. In 2010, the Russian Federation launched a Customs Union with the former-Soviet states of Kazakhstan and Belarus with the goal of removing all borders, economic and physical, between the member states. While on paper the Customs Union is an agreement between equal partners, it is clear that Russia, which dwarfs the other countries in terms of both size and economic strength, will dominate any decision the group makes.

Moreover, as Russia seeks to expand its union even further westward, it is doubtful that the states that join the Customs Union do so of their own free will. Ukraine, with its vital gas pipelines that connect oil-rich Russia to the European Union, has found itself in Putin’s sights and feels the pressure to join the Union daily. Currently charged “unfair and enslaving” gas prices, in the words of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Ukraine is assured that such exorbitant prices will disappear if they join Russia’s union.

So far, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has shrewdly held off from sacrificing his nation’s sovereignty to the Kremlin, seeking instead to strengthen ties with the EU. European leaders for their part have been reluctant to take Ukraine under their wing, more concerned about the current crisis plaguing their economies. Taking such pre-emptive steps to encourage democracy in ex-Soviet space, however, is of critical importance and may well be the best we can do to avoid a return to Cold War politics.

Belinksi, an international energy consultant, is an American expatriate living in Moscow for the last 7 years.