During a recent campaign rally, Donald Trump said the following,
“I had a great meeting with Vladimir Putin, great meeting. I talked about everything, we will do great. And don’t forget — Russia wants our help economically. We have created such wealth. I have done a really good job – $11.7 trillion. Russia wants us to be involved. Everybody wants our help”.
The statement has predictably been widely taken out of context both by American opposition supporters who recoil at the thought of normalised economic relations between Russia and the US while the statement has also upset some actual and aspiring Russian nationalists who feel that Trump’s words were patronising and insulting to a nuclear superpower.
In reality, while Vladimir Putin has overseen his nation’s pivot back towards economic partnerships in the wider global south, Putin is not the anti-western leader that many of his supporters and detractors make him out to be. This is the case now and it was certainly the case when he first became President in the late hours of 1999.
In the 1990s, domestic oligarchs and traitorous officials throughout Russia conspired to sell off national assets at alarmingly low rates while adopting a US style financial system that was run by a combination of self-interested western individuals and local bandits who managed to develop a crony-capitalist political/economic oligarchy that created a more unequal society than the US or its capitalist allies had ever had.
The result was that Russians began dying earlier, many took to suicide, others were left homeless or turned to drugs and prostitution while millions of Russians found themselves refugees outside of Russia’s historic borders. The result was that many Russians who in the 1980s looked to America as a land of opportunity (when contrasted with the poorly run USSR of Gorbachev and Yakovlev) began to grow resentful at a United States that helped to hasten a rapid decline in living standards in post-Soviet Russia.
And yet Vladimir Putin was never one of these anti-American politicians that rose to national and in some cases international prominence in the 1990s. Veteran centre-right/populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov were in fact the leading politicians of the 1990s advocating for a Russia that turned as far away from the west as possible.
By contrast, Vladimir Putin was hardly on the national radar in the 1990s as his political career was mainly confined to administrating Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg. When Putin did become involved in national politics as Boris Yeltin’s Deputy Prime Minister in 1999, Putin gained a reputation not as a Zhirinovsky like pro-global south firebrand nor as a pro-Soviet leftist like Zyuganov but instead Putin developed a reputation as an effective technocrat which contrasted sharply with the gang of oligarchs that pulled the strings of the drink soaked buffoon President of the era.
For most of Putin’s early Presidency, he attempted and largely succeeded in pausing the economic collapse of the 1990s while working on making new economic inroads with multiple partners including those in the west. While the US tended to lose interest in Russia after 2001 when ironically America replaced Russia as a leading foreign power in an Afghan quagmire, the rise in global energy prices came to benefit Russia’s economic fortunes greatly. While some oligarchs continued to disproportionally benefit from Russia’s natural energy wealth, Putin was able to re-invest the profits into Russian society more effectively than his predecessor, but still far less holistically than that advocated by his main opposition – the Zhirinovsky led Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Communists under Zyuganov.
As China and other major Asian powers began to rise, it became clear that while the west either remained sceptical of Russia or ignorant regarding Russia’s potential for economic success, Moscow naturally gravitated towards the east. Yet most of Russia’s economic ambitions remained with Europe and the wider west.
Crucially, contrary to rumour, most of Putin’s top economic advisers throughout his presidential terms and prime ministerial term beginning in 2012 remained more Eurocentric (western driven) than pro-Asian.
In reality, it was the shift in circumstance in both north east Asia and Europe beginning in 2013 that helped to push Russia’s economic ties further to the wider global south. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled proposals for the Belt and Road initiative, a transformative endeavour to help both developed and developing nations benefit from a new age of global connectivity.
Months later in early 2014, NATO successfully pulled off a coup in Ukraine which brought about a neo-fascist government whose main policy was creating hostility towards the historic Russian regions incorporated into Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, while the new Kiev regime also made it a point to foment direct hostility against the Russian Federation.
It was at this time that the US, EU and their traditional partners passed sanctions against Russia while further militarising European states on Russia’s western frontier. This meant that Russia had little choice but to trade more and develop further economic relations with the wider global south as Russia was being systematically cut off from access to western markets and financial institutions against the will of many Russian elites.
To be sure, many frontline Russian politicians and influential commentators were calling for Moscow to look to the south rather than the west long before western sanctions came into force in 2014. That being said, the most influential policy makers remained more familiar with European trends than Asian trends. While Vladimir Putin is clearly a highly intelligent and worldly man, unlike for example the Turkish speaking opposition leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Putin’s second language of choice was German. Likewise, while Zhirinovsky was born in central Asia (in what is today the Republic of Kazakhstan), Putin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia’s most culturally European city.
While global trends surrounding the Belt and Road initiative and economic surges in Turkey, south Asia and south east Asia have vindicated Russians who prefer to look towards Asian rather than western economic powers for partnerships, Putin still would ideally like to re-connect Russia’s economy with its former western partners. This is not to say that Putin is hostile towards Russia’s existing and expanding Asian partners, but nor does he believe that economic relations are next to impossible with the west as many mainstream Russian opposition leaders do.
At the moment, Russia’s relations with the west are essentially contingent on the western policy makers rather than with Russian ones. While China has plenty of opportunities to offer the entire world, Russia’s economy has much more to offer to the global south than to the wider west although Russia’s energy sales to Europe are a very important exception to what otherwise is a general rule.
Thus, when Trump stated that Russia would like “our help economically”, while his choice of words were in fact patronising, his overall statement was in fact a reflection of reality. Vladimir Putin’s government is by no means hostile to the west. In fact there is a danger that if in the unlikely event the US and/or EU were to engage in an economic rapprochement with Russia, many top Russian policy makers might begin to neglect current eastern partnerships as the majority of older Russian policy makers still fail to fully grasp the importance of Belt and Road, China, south Asia, ASEAN and western Eurasian powers like Turkey vis-a-vis younger generations with fewer memories of a Soviet Union that had excellent relations with eastern and southern Europe’s communist states. Likewise, such older policy makers still tend to misread China based on a Cold War mentality that after 1961 pitted Moscow against Beijing.
It is true that the younger generation of Russians are in fact far more aware of trends in the global south than the older Russians who tend to dominate policy making circles in Moscow. This is especially true of non-affluent Russian youth who aspire to do business in China rather than to buy garish houses in Monaco, London and New York.
On the whole though, Trump’s reflection of the current Russian government’s position is accurate. While many western so-called journalists continue to say that Putin is anti-western, the truth is that much of the west is simply anti-Russian. For many Russians, the west remains a club that they wish to join even though a newer club that welcomes Russians is open for business throughout the global south.