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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

Russia has always faced three basic threats. They may have come in different forms and configurations over the years and been perceived differently at different times by society and the elites, but the essence of these threats has remained the same. They are kind of super-factors that combine a number of localized and derivative threats, challenges and dangers. The experience of living with these threats gives rise to corresponding fears and behavioural patterns which, in turn, reproduce the existing patterns of threat perception. This super-troika is made up of the following threats.

First, the threat of conflicts with the external environment, the diverse experience of such conflicts and the consequent feeling of vulnerability to external aggression from foreign states or groups of foreign states.

Second, the threat of domestic unrest, the volatile and fleeting imbalance of the elites and the system of checks and balances, followed by a wave of mass violence and anarchy on a daily basis.

Third, the threat of the economy, state administration and political institutions stumbling and falling behind. The backwardness of the very way of life of the country and its archaic institutions.

All three threats are interconnected. What is more, attempts to eliminate one of the threats may well cause the others to worsen, or all three may manifest themselves at the same time. Even though not unique to Russia, these threats have certainly grown out of proportions in this country. The threat of aggression is exacerbated by the sheer size of Russia’s borders, coupled with the fact that “well-armed gentlemen” are ready and waiting on the other side. The threat of domestic unrest is compounded by the different rates at which state institutions develop. Lop-sided modernization and self-replicating imbalances of state power are driven, among other things, by excessive mobilization for countering external threats, but at the same time generate instability and vulnerability every now and then. The threat of the country falling behind is made worse by the scale and complexity of Russian society, the possibility that it could change “overnight,” the lack of freedom and the pressing need to overcome the country’s backwardness in order to contain internal and external threats. Ironically, attempts to overcome backwardness in Russia’s past have often led to “breakdowns” and subsequent turmoil.

By the beginning of the 2010s, Russia had proved itself to be better equipped than most to deal with several types of threats at once. Domestic political changes have drawn vocal criticism from the West, yet they have seriously hampered the ability of Russia’s Western partners to orchestrate the street protests and opposition activities inside the country. The Russian Army has undergone a painful but mostly beneficial reform. New strategic weapons have come as quite a shock to many foreign observers. The preventive actions in Crimea demonstrate Russia’s readiness for the targeted use of force at the slightest hint that a potential opponent has “crossed the line.” The operation in Syria has become a prime example of a small-scale yet extremely effective military campaign that has brought some very useful political dividends. Russia has proven itself as a serious player in digital security. Progress has also been made in terms of demographic improvement. Alcoholism and violent crime have fallen significantly, the death rate is down and life expectancy has increased. Russia still lags far behind Western standards, but a few countries in the West face a similar knot of problems and contradictions.

The procession of “colour revolutions” forced Moscow to take a fresh look at the threat of civil unrest, which came to be linked to street protests directly or indirectly coordinated from abroad. The country’s political system is now significantly more consolidated. But at the same time, competition has begun to shrink once again. The strengthening of the power vertical that was crucial following the crisis-ridden 1990s made the political system more vulnerable than during the Yeltsin period. Yeltsin’s system was extremely chaotic, and political responsibility was spread across a great number of players – the government, parliament, governors and the local authorities, not to mention shadow figures. Grotesque as it may have appeared from the outside, this blurred model of responsibility actually gave the authorities an incredible amount of stability. From separatism to miner’s strikes, large-scale left-wing rallies to the machinations of the right, nothing could shake it. As the vertical gained strength, chaos and constant turbulence fell by the wayside. The system now looked decent and respectable. However, concentrating power in the hands of a few has given rise to new problems. Now any failure at the local level becomes a problem of the centre. Many issues require personal oversight and are often of top priority. In addition to dealing with major strategic tasks, the government has to put out fires all over the place. Small-scale protests that would have gone largely ignored in the 1990s now receive far greater scrutiny. In other words, the threat of internal destabilization has not been removed completely.

The Russian authorities are once again faced with a choice. They can either go with the flow, make the system more competitive and delegate responsibility. Or they can keep the situation under control, conscious of the fact that this will make the system less efficient, limit the opportunities for getting direct feedback from the people and clamp down on any protest activities.


Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you?

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

On February 22, 1946, advisor to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Moscow George Kennan sent what would later become known as the “Long Telegram” to the Treasury Department. The document would form the basis for the American and then the Western approach to the Soviet Union for decades to come.

"At the bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was the insecurity of peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighbourhoods of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with the economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason, they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the world around them or if foreigners learned the truth about the world within. And they have learned to seek security only in the patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.

This was how the American diplomat believed the Russians viewed external and internal threats. He was not really offering a new perspective, however, as many elements of this point of view appeared long before Kennan turned up on the scene. What the “Long Telegram” did do was shape an archetype, one that was expressed in a compressed form of dots and dashes. The same effect can be achieved today through tweets and emojis. The content is more or less the same, but the concise format leaves little room for argument.

A Timeless Combination

Kennan was an educated and even somewhat enlightened representative of his generation. For most of his working life and beyond, he was considered a leading authority on international relations. He does not pull any punches in the telegram. He speaks from the heart and there is no pretence in his words. However, even those with a passing knowledge of Russian history will find some strange comments in Kennan’s letter, no matter what side of the political fence they sit. It is well known that from at least the beginning of the 18th century and for some 200 hundred years Russian rulers actively tried to develop all manner of ties with the West for the purposes of modernizing the country. The history of European and Russian diplomacy up until the middle of the 20th century is a chronicle of various alliances, communities and unions, and Russia played a prominent role in all of them. Compacts and compromises were staples of Russian diplomacy, and “total destruction of rival power” was hardly an objective. Just look at how Russia treated France following its victory in the 19th century. And as for the destiny of Poland in the 18th century or of Germany in the 20th century, Russia was not alone to divvy them up – its Western partners took quite an active part in it too.

It is true, however, that the Russian people have historically felt insecure and wary of the aggression of their “competent” neighbours in the West, and sometimes with good reason. It is also true that Russia’s economic backwardness has been, and continues to be, a big problem for the country. And it is true that there was a despotic inequality between the elites and the regular people in Russia. Yet what Kennan failed to notice, even when the majority of the elites spoke French, was that this inequality existed side by side with an undeniable sense of unity – the kind of unity that allowed Lev Tolstoy, whose characters were often the perfect example of the “archaic” elite that was “artificial in its psychological foundation,” to enjoy such popularity among the ordinary people. And then there was the Soviet state apparatus, which was made up entirely of representatives of the lower classes who had ridden the waves of revolution, mass industrialization and significant social change. It was the threat of turmoil inside the country (another instinctive fear of the Russian people to go alongside external threats) that Kennan missed altogether.

Western observers and analysts today far exceed Kennan in terms of their Russophobia. And we should stress here that Kennan was an educated and quite reasonable person. What should we expect then from those who are far less erudite yet more active and energetic than he was?

In the same vein, we would do well to take a look at how Russian experts interpret American and Western politics. Russian opinions can also cause bemusement from time to time. "Many of them are too ignorant of the outside world and mentally too dependent to question self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe. ” These are Kennan’s words, again about Russians. And he is right. The only problem is that he did not see similar manifestations in his own country, or even in himself. (Looking at what is happening in U.S. politics right now, it would seem that Kennan was writing first and foremost about his country.)

Human beings tend to see others and themselves in a distorted and stereotyped form. Group dynamics only amplify this tendency. The political reality is woven from perceptions and images, and extremely tenacious ones at that. Objectivity cannot exist here, and science can only smooth out these distortions so much. And while it is true that science itself is based on subjective assumptions, it does at least require a certain level of transparency and rigour. Subjectivity can also be restrained by law and morals, although in certain circumstances, law and morals can make one's conclusions even more subjective.

Our view of the threats facing Russia is unlikely to differ greatly from Kennan’s in terms of its trustworthiness. However, we will attempt to move beyond the framework of the current standoff between Russia and the West. We will try to assess them with scientific detachment, yet at the same time from the point of view of a Russian who is a fully functioning member of Russian society and a beneficiary of its culture.

Russia has always faced three basic threats. They may have come in different forms and configurations over the years and been perceived differently at different times by society and the elites, but the essence of these threats has remained the same. They are kind of super-factors that combine a number of localized and derivative threats, challenges and dangers. The experience of living with them gives rise to corresponding fears and behavioural patterns which, in turn, reproduce the existing patterns of threat perception. This super-troika can be supplemented with the following threats.

First, the threat of conflicts with the external environment, the diverse experience of such conflicts and the consequent feeling of vulnerability to external aggression from foreign states or groups of foreign states.

Second, the threat of domestic unrest, the volatile and fleeting imbalance of the elites and the system of checks and balances, followed by a wave of mass violence and anarchy on a daily basis.

Third, the threat of the economy, state administration and political institutions stumbling and falling behind. The backwardness of the very way of life of the country and its archaic institutions.

All three threats are interconnected. What is more, attempts to eliminate one of the threats may well cause the others to worsen, or all three may manifest themselves at the same time. Even though not unique to Russia, these threats have certainly grown out of proportion in this country. The threat of aggression is exacerbated by the sheer size of Russia’s borders, coupled with the fact that “well-armed gentlemen” are ready and waiting on the other side. The threat of domestic unrest is compounded by the different rates at which state institutions develop, lop-sided modernization and self-replicating imbalances of state power that are driven, among other things, by its excessive mobilization for countering external threats, but at the same time generate instability and vulnerability every now and then. The threat of the country falling behind is made worse by the scale and complexity of Russian society, the possibility that it could change “overnight,” the lack of freedom and the pressing need to overcome the country’s backwardness in order to contain internal and external threats. Ironically, attempts to overcome backwardness in Russia’s past have often led to “breakdowns” and subsequent turmoil.

The Time of War and Revolution

The super-troika has traditionally come in various flavours. At the turn of the 20th century, the world found itself on the brink of war. However, the threat of direct military aggression was still far off. The West was divided, and Russia had the luxury of being able to choose which coalitions to join, play on contradictions and avoid military confrontation against everyone at the same time. Considerations of prestige heavily influenced the country's politics, and the prospect of finding an enemy at the gates was considered unlikely at the time. Of far greater urgency was the need to somehow remedy the backwardness of the country’s economic, and particularly its political, institutions. Russian capitalism had developed at a frantic pace in the decades that followed the great reforms of Alexander II. The country’s huge demographic potential, the boundless energy of the people and the political demand for modernization all spurred rapid economic growth.

The Russian authorities were painfully aware of the fact that the country’s backwardness meant it could not compete on the international stage. Russia was a leading country in terms of economic and industrial growth rates, and the groundwork that had been laid during the era of modernization was used for years after the October Revolution. However, economics and politics would soon start to develop at different rates, with the former pulling far ahead. The spectre of impending turmoil hung with increasing heaviness over the second half of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was ready to rear its hideous head. The authorities were terrified of even the smallest of changes, believing, quite rightly as it turned out, that they would not be able to maintain control during a time of political transition. Opting for stability proved to be a fatal mistake. Reforms were invariably introduced when it was already too late, as reactionary measures were dictated by the turmoil unfolding in the country. The government managed to withstand the events of 1905. But by 1917, the super-troika of threats had aligned: a protracted war, repeated military failures caused by the country’s backwardness and the collapse of political power under the pressure of the same old problems.

After the Revolution, Soviet Russia (and then the Soviet Union) found itself in an even more difficult situation. The West was still divided, but now the USSR posed a far more serious threat to it. The popularity of leftist ideas grew exponentially and the Soviet Union had turned into a large-scale ideological challenge. It is one thing to come up against Marxist rebels and left-wing parties. But it is another thing entirely to be faced with a great power (backward as it may be) armed with a new ideology and the determination to spread this ideology and support these very same Marxist rebels and left-wing parties around the world.

The collapse of the Russian Empire marked the end of a lengthy period of ambitious but quite realistic and pragmatic foreign policy. The time of ideological politics had arrived. Ideology was both an opportunity and a deadly threat for the new state. All the more so because the ideological boom, coupled with the rapid development of government institutions started to set the tone in the West. Nationalism, in all its manifestations, had become no less powerful than left-wing ideas. In the Soviet Union, the external threat was at times presented in a hypertrophied manner, which served, alongside other factors, to legitimize its power. But it was just a matter of time before a new large-scale war would take place, regardless of what the reasons and motivations may have been. And the Soviet leadership was fully aware of this.

The key incentive for large-scale modernization in the interwar period was the threat of war. The Soviet Union was making quantum leaps overcoming its backwardness in a number of areas and demonstrating impressive results. The government had acquired an entirely new quality that made the “despotic tsarist regime” look decidedly tame in comparison. As the victors in the destructive Civil War, the Bolsheviks could not shake the real and imaginary fears of counter-revolution. These fears were compounded by the old adage that “Revolution devours its children” – internal conflicts, the concentration and then personalization of power. A modern form of government was indeed born in the Soviet Union during this time, but it depended entirely on the efficiency of the instruments of control and mobilization, as well as the ability to “oversee and punish” on an unprecedented scale.

We could argue long into the night about whether or not tsarist (or democratic) Russia would have been able to defeat the Nazis if the radical changes carried out by the Communists had never taken place. All we know is that the Soviet Union remained standing. It emerged from the Second World War with a devastated economy and people that had suffered unthinkable hardships. Yet it was stronger than ever, a powerful and consolidated state. The Soviet Union now occupied key positions in the world order and boasted an industrial and technological base never before seen in the country.

Likewise, the country had never seen this kind of governmental control over society before. Never before had individual and institutional freedom been so restricted. Former satellites of the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe became fixated on the apparent trauma inflicted by the "Soviet dictatorship." For them, it was an external factor, a "tyrannical totalitarian regime" that had arrived from the outside. But Russia has been traumatized too. The only difference is that Russia was a victim of its own government and its own people. This is why it will take a long time for us to be able to recognize and reflect upon this. Like victims of child abuse, it is difficult for us to look at our scars, so we hide behind our achievements and victories instead. And like the identity of Eastern Europeans is skewed towards “suffering as a result of the Soviet occupation,” Russian identity is wrapped up in this denial of our past injuries, a kind of Stockholm syndrome whereby we feel love for our “despotic parents.” Our identity hides behind Russia’s well-deserved successes, but it is nevertheless skewed as well. And old injuries will always play up from time to time.

The Dialectics of the Cold War

The configuration of the super-troika changed once again during the post-war period. For the first time ever, Russia came up against a united West that was prepared to hold it in check militarily, ideologically and economically. “As long as we’re not at war!” This phrase, which appeared as a result of the suffering on the battlefields of the Second World War, was especially relevant given the “crusade” against the USSR. At the same time, the Soviet Union was painfully behind the United States and the rapidly recovering Europe in a number of areas. Yet it still managed to make a real breakthrough, achieving parity with the United States in nuclear and conventional weapons and making ground on – and in certain areas even surpassing – the Americans in advanced military and dual technologies. Soviet troops maintained a high degree of preparedness for a non-nuclear confrontation. Quality of life in the Soviet Union improved significantly and, while it may not have been on a par with Western standards, it was certainly a massive step up from the abject poverty of the interwar and post-war periods. The country’s standing in the world grew tremendously following the Second World War.

At the same time, however, the focus on military progress meant that other areas began to suffer. The economy that suited perfectly well the “fortress country” was not conducive to competition within civilian industries. The Soviet Union took a huge step forward here too. But the West was still in front. And it was in the most unexpected areas that the Soviet Union began to bend beneath a burden of its backwardness. The political system soon became a liability as well, as Soviet power found itself faced with the same choice that perplexed its predecessors during the pre-revolutionary period. It could either loosen the reins, allow competition, revitalize grassroots activities and share power and responsibility (or at least devolve some power to the local authorities and business owners), or do the exact opposite and maintain stability and control, tightening the screws wherever necessary. The answer may seem simple, but in reality, it is a very complex dilemma, as both scenarios are fraught with serious risks.

By the end of the 1960s, Soviet attempts at “democratization” had run out of steam. The authorities had chosen a different path. The stability that the country enjoyed under Leonid Brezhnev’s rule is considered by many to be the golden age” of the Soviet era – a powerful army, stable prices and unwavering success. But behind the façade, other processes were taking place. The economy was becoming increasingly dependent on oil and gas, losing its dynamism and effectiveness. The moral degradation of the government institutions led to the gradual erosion of the Soviet ideology. Cynicism, apathy and alcoholism were hiding behind the reports of economic and industrial success, although many of these successes were very real. The elites became enticed by Western notions of the “benefits of civilization.” Formal isolation from the West, and from the outside world as a whole, existed side by side with informal attempts to capitalize on limited and desperately sought-after access to Western countries. The very notion of “deficit” became ingrained in Soviet reality. By the time the 1980s rolled around, it had become abundantly clear that the system had to change. But we missed the opportunity.

Acceleration, glasnost, perestroika and the new thinking of Mikhail Gorbachev all represented attempts to reshape priorities in the context of the three-pronged threat. Top priority was given to making up the ground that the Soviet Union was losing to the West. And when it became clear that the reforms were stalling, transformation of the political system took its place. According to Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War and the “reconciliation” with the West were supposed to free up the huge amount of resources that were needed to revamp the economy. Gorbachev was hoping that the new geopolitical reality and the reduced tensions would create new opportunities for cooperation with developed countries. The tragedy of Gorbachev is that his attempts to democratize the Soviet Union and introduce reforms eventually led to the country’s collapse and a new period of turmoil. On the one hand, he had to fix the mess that those who had chosen to put a stop to the reforms in the 1960s in favour of stability had left him (a decision that saw the Soviet Union fall even further behind). On the other hand, he had to take sole responsibility for what happened.

The elites played a significant role in the failed reforms and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost no one could have predicted that the state would crumble. However, it did not take long for those members of the elites who were hungry to capitalize on and privatize their power to form various interest groups. Another part of the elites did not even lift a finger to save the state. Neither the almighty KGB, nor the huge army, nor even the all-powerful Communist Party fought to save the country. Gorbachev did not want to resort to iron fisted methods to sort the mess out, and even if he did, it was already too late. The USSR did not fall as a result of a war, nor did crumble under pressure from below. The USSR fell apart because it unravelled at the very highest echelons.

Rise from the Ashes

A whirlwind of changes at the beginning of the 1990s shifted the configuration of the threats. Turmoil and internal discontent became the most serious dangers. The chaos and uncertainty in the government meant that the goal of reversing the country's backwardness was all but forgotten. The new authorities were all about market reforms, but the reality was that they were fighting for the survival and stabilization of the resource-based economy. Any thoughts about large-scale technological or industrial breakthroughs had to be put on the back burner. Factories and buildings that had housed research projects were turned into markets and trade outlets controlled by gangsters of all stripes. A civil war was taking place in the shadows ¬– a strange combination of flashpoints, gangster shootouts, separatist attacks, outbursts of aggression and domestic violence. There are few periods in Russian history where foreign political problems have been so insignificant in terms of perceived threats. The West looked at what was going on with a mixture of shock and enthusiasm, applauding the apparent democratization of the country and the return of Russia to the European community. This process took place on rather disadvantageous terms, but this was to be expected given the state and capabilities of the country at the time. However, the lack of external threats allowed Boris Yeltsin to consolidate his regime. Positive shifts were already taking place by the end of the 1990s. Thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Putin, a breakthrough had been made in the war in the North Caucasus. Russia had become one of the key participants in the war against international terrorism. The crippling recession had finally started to turn around thanks to favourable external conditions and a growth in domestic consumption.

This is when the troika of threats started to make its presence felt once again. After a period of convalescence, Russia started to step back into world politics. Relations with the West remained rather constructive for another 15 years or so, although the two sides started to drift further and further apart during this time. Alarm bells first started to ring when NATO decided to drop bombs on Yugoslavia. Russian diplomacy skilfully avoided excessive frictions with the West, as it would have been pointless to kick up a fuss at the time. This was followed by a series of colour revolutions, the most painful of which was the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Russia again accepted the situation, but the West’s unconditional support for the street protests and dubious change of power left a bad taste in the mouths of many in Moscow. Russia’s relations with the West cooled temporarily following the short-lived war with Georgia and Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it likened to the international recognition of Kosovo, but things soon returned to normal. The situation took an irrevocable turn for the worse in 2013–2014 when Ukraine once again found itself in a state of political crisis. The Crimean status referendum and the outbreak of war in Donbass proved to be the proverbial nails in the coffin for relations between Russia and the collective West, as the two found themselves in an open rivalry. The race for military supremacy, info wars, sanctions and restrictions – these are now part and parcel of everyday life. The nuclear capabilities of both sides mean that open conflict is highly unlikely. However, a military and political confrontation with the West is a growing possibility.

By the beginning of the 2010s, Russia had proved itself to be better equipped than most to deal with several types of threat at once. Domestic political changes have drawn vocal criticism from the West, yet they have seriously hampered the ability of Russia’s Western partners to orchestrate the street protest and opposition activities inside the country. The Russian Army has undergone a painful but mostly beneficial reform. New strategic weapons have come as quite a shock to many foreign observers. The preventive actions in Crimea demonstrate Russia’s readiness for the targeted use of force at the slightest hint that a potential opponent has “crossed the line.” The operation in Syria has become a prime example of a small-scale yet extremely effective military campaign that has brought some very useful political dividends. Russia has proven itself as a serious player in digital security. Progress has also been made in terms of demographic improvement. Alcoholism and violent crime have fallen significantly, the death rate is down and life expectancy has increased. Russia still lags far behind Western standards, but a few countries in the West face a similar knot of problems and contradictions.

The procession of “colour revolutions” forced Moscow to take a fresh look at the threat of civil unrest, which came to be linked to street protests directly or indirectly coordinated from abroad. The country’s political system is now significantly more consolidated. But at the same time, competition has begun to shrink once again. The strengthening of the power vertical that was crucial following the crisis-ridden 1990s made the political system more vulnerable than during the Yeltsin period. Yeltsin’s system was extremely chaotic, and political responsibility was spread across a great number of players – the government, parliament, governors and the local authorities, not to mention shadow figures. Grotesque as it may have appeared from the outside, this blurred model of responsibility actually gave the authorities an incredible amount of stability. From separatism to miner’s strikes, large-scale left-wing rallies to the machinations of the right, nothing could shake it. As the vertical gained strength, chaos and constant turbulence fell by the wayside. The system now looked decent and respectable. However, concentrating power in the hands of a few has given rise to new problems. Now any failure at the local level becomes a problem of the centre. Many issues require personal oversight and are often of top priority. In addition to dealing with major strategic tasks, the government has to put out fires all over the place. Small-scale protests that would have gone largely ignored in the 1990s now receive far greater scrutiny. In other words, the threat of internal destabilization has not been removed completely.

The Russian authorities are once again faced with a choice. They can either go with the flow, make the system more competitive and delegate responsibility. Or they can keep the situation under control, conscious of the fact that this will make the system less efficient, limit the opportunities for getting direct feedback from the people and clamp down on any protest activities. The first option carries the risk of repeating Gorbachev’s mistakes. Reform and political liberalization can easily lead to chaos and turmoil, especially considering the rivalry with the West. And while this rivalry played a negligible role in the turmoil of the early 1990s, the confrontation today raises questions about foreign policy complications in the event that controllability is lost. However, if the authorities choose to clean up the political establishment and choke off competition, then the shadow of the stagnation and corruption of the Brezhnev era, the senseless arms race, the inefficient economic system and the cynicism of the bureaucracy and society will undoubtedly creep up on them, as will the spectre of Nicholas II, who failed to seize the initiative and implement changes in his country.

Both options are dangerous. The first requires greater resolve, while living with the second and relying on luck is somewhat easier. But we will likely not have much time to catch our collective breath, as the dilemma is compounded by the third side of the triangle – the backwardness of the Russian economy and institutions. Russian macroeconomic indicators are relatively healthy right now. However, there are no grounds to believe that a qualitative change in the economy is going to take place. It would be naïve to think that the democratization will lead to a quantum leap in development. Having said that, rigid control is also unlikely to produce results.

It looks like we will have to move forward with the greatest of care, like a bomb disposal specialist in a minefield. We are not at a dead end yet, and careful and consistent changes can still help to solve the problem. Judicial reform is key here. The emergence and consolidation of an impartial and effective judiciary in Russia will have a tremendous effect on the county’s development. It will also be useful for the political system, fencing it off from potentially explosive clashes between populists and radicals while at the same time increasing reliability and legitimacy.

A big question for the future is what the new generation will look like. Today, decisions are made by people who grew up during the Brezhnev era, when the confrontation between East and West was at its peak. What will the frame of reference be for the generation that grew up in the 1990s and 2000s? How will the fact that this generation has not experienced a large-scale war (“hot” or “cold”) affect it? How important will foreign policy and international risks be to these future leaders? What will be their “go-to” risk management strategies? Whatever the answers to these questions are, we will nevertheless have to deal with the eternal super-troika. And it is best that we tackle each of these fundamental threats one by one, and not at the same time. Otherwise, we run the risk of ushering in a new “era of extremes,” and the West may feel compelled to write another “long telegram.”

First published in Russia in Global Affairs.

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