March 2, 2022

International politics

Notes on Russia

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Red Square, Moscow. © Vyacheslav Argenberg, www.vascoplanet.com

Red Square, Moscow. © Vyacheslav Argenberg, www.vascoplanet.com

Coverage of Russia has long focused upon Putin at the expense of a deeper understanding of the country he leads

To state the obvious: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is sobering and historically significant. Civilians, including children, have died. And more will. This week, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that he had placed his nuclear forces on high alert, while Belarus – Russia’s neighbour and client state – quickly passed laws allowing for the hosting of Russian nuclear weapons.

I am not an expert, and this moment does not need another slight but supercilious column. What follows, instead, are some thoughts derived from conversations with various experts since 2014, and prompted by a sense that our Russian coverage has long focused upon Putin at the expense of a wider and deeper understanding of the country he leads. I also believe that the West has for a long time underestimated Russian capacity and ambition. What follows is rough, and humbly offered to invite conversation, not to enclose it.


A country of 144 million people and more than 17 million square kilometres, Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, and second largest exporter of oil. And yet, relative to its size, Russia is poor. Its economy is comparable in size to Italy’s, and it has been undermined by two decades of gangster-state ownership.

But Russia’s relative poorness has never excluded its ambition, pride or its state’s capacity for disruption or violence. Russia has Europe’s largest military, and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. It’s long been expert in espionage and counter-espionage and, relatedly, possesses a sophisticated capacity for cyber warfare (for which Australia is not adequately prepared).  

This means it has great leverage. Russian aggression is not limited to this invasion. It can also exert power by threatening to cut or limit oil and gas supply to a dependent Europe, or by threatening foreign cyber systems. Russia has not exhausted its capacity for harm, which means it hasn’t exhausted its capacity for influence.

But all of this is largely material. We should have considered Russian history, and how it has shaped its statecraft, spycraft and national self-conception. I don’t think Westerners have done a good job of this, diplomatically or journalistically.

In current Australian coverage, most attention is given, often superficially, to Putin the man. There is an emphasis on him as a kind of inscrutable villain or geopolitical chess master, which, I suspect, betrays an ignorance of the long-held grievances and desires of Russia, of which Putin is merely an aggressive mouthpiece. (In a 5000-word essay last year, now unreachable online, Putin specified these grievances and desires at length. In Australia, it was largely ignored. This invasion is that essay manifest.)

Putin may be personally significant – which is to say that things might have been different with a different leader these past 20 years. But I don’t think his personal significance stems from his KGB history, his contempt for the West or his abiding sense of humiliation about lost national glory – these things are all common to Russia’s ruling class, and beyond. Rather, Putin’s individual significance might be the fact that, from day one, he sought to reverse the partial democratisation of Russia and replace it with a brutally maintained kleptocracy. Yet I suspect that we overstate the indispensability of Putin. For all the superficial attention we give to his spooky demeanour, he remains an instrument of a history that we haven’t cared to learn, however fantastically and murderously he interprets the past.

So we should at least know the following: for centuries, Russia has been invaded; well before Putin, Russia has also sought to maintain its own empires; the Soviet Union profoundly bore the most military and civilian deaths of World War Two; the Warsaw Pact’s sudden dissolution in 1991 was disorienting for Russia; NATO’s significant increase of membership in 1999 was considered by the Russians, not irrationally, as treacherous and threatening; the triumphalism of American neocons after the Cold War (who took too literally Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis) resulted in the United States’s provocative condescension of Russia; and, finally, Russian Orthodoxy prevails in ways alien to Western secularists, which has helped unify Russians in a kind nationalist mysticism.

The above is almost an arbitrary list, and crude, but I offer it because each has helped forge a particular and powerful sense of identity and grievance. So powerful that Putin has felt that he can maintain a kleptocracy in its name.


NATO has long been undermined by underinvestment from its members, and by Europe’s dependence upon Russian oil and gas. Germany is significant in both these failures. Beginning with former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany made plans to decommission its nuclear plants, which were practically accelerated after the Fukushima disaster of 2011. In 2000, almost a third of Germany’s domestic energy was nuclear; by 2020 it was less than 12 per cent. This year was to be when the final nuclear plants were shuttered. This was premature.

There is also the issue of state capture. Not long after Schröder lost the German leadership in 2005, he became an adviser to the Russian state-owned energy corporation Gazprom, the world’s largest provider of natural gas. In 2006, Schröder helped negotiate a sponsorship deal between the company and German football club Schalke 04 (“Gazprom” had featured on the team’s shirt until last week), and just last month Schröder was nominated for a seat on Gazprom’s board.

Germany’s dependence upon Russian gas has grown, and, not coincidentally, it was hesitant about sanctions. In the past few days, word came that Russia would be excluded from the international banking transfer system SWIFT, though Germany wanted exemptions for the payments of energy.

Energy independence matters: while Europe relies upon – and pays premium prices for – Russian oil and gas, Russia is providing it to China at mate’s rates. Europe has tied itself to Russia and its bond is literally fuelling China.


I’m compelled to mention the grotesque Orwellian distortions that Putin has made to justify this war. Invading soldiers were “peacekeepers”, and he claimed he had to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country that democratically elected a Jew as president. Putin speaks often of others’ aggression – this from the man who annexed Crimea in 2014, has occupied by proxy the Donbas region since then, and in 2017 unleashed the destructive NotPetya malware upon critical Ukrainian infrastructure.

Ukraine was a part of what historian Timothy Snyder has called the “bloodlands” of World War Two, and also the place of Stalin’s enforced famine and execution of kulaks, known as the Holodomor, which killed millions in the early 1930s. “The victims of the famine died slowly, in humiliation and in agony,” Snyder has written. “Peasants made their way to cities, where they starved on the sidewalks. In the countryside, people ate grass and roots and worms. Women prostituted themselves for bread. Children in orphanages drank each others’ blood and ate their own excrement. Mothers asked children to eat their bodies when they died.” 

Before the invasion, Putin referred to a non-existent “genocide” but he avoids reference to the genocide that had occurred to Ukrainians under Stalin.

In a long speech last week, Putin also referred to Ukraine’s slow, benign attempt to raise the status of the Ukrainian language – a project begun almost 20 years ago. “People who identify as Russians and want to preserve their identity, language and culture are getting the signal that they are not wanted in Ukraine,” Putin said, wilfully ignoring that the Ukrainian leader’s first tongue is Russian, and that Russian speakers in Ukraine have vastly more freedom than his own people, who have been surveilled and arrested while protesting the war in Russia’s streets.


Is it a coincidence that Russia’s invasion coincides with a diminished and culturally cannibalistic America, a country that just ignobly ended its bloody, 20-year folly in Afghanistan? And at the same time that the British prime minister is mired in his own salvation? Political competency, consistency and decency matter, and past failures – such as the Iraq and Afghan wars – resonate well beyond what its authors can admit. For two decades Putin has sought to exploit, even accelerate, foreign division and weakness – but he hasn’t invented it.

The relative weakness of the United States also matters to Australia. For a long time, Australia has tethered its security to the US, as if its authority and influence was perfect and imperishable. It’s not, and America may have much further to fall. So what then? If Putin judged this to be the best time for his war, his invasion reminds us, painfully, of China’s desire to consume Taiwan. How might we help fortify Taiwan? Should we? Do we have a red line for this? And what should we make of the tighter embrace between Russia and China? The likes of Bob Carr and Paul Keating elide the malignance and grand ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party, and yet the rhetorical belligerence of our current government is not a strategy for anything except, perhaps, re-election.

These are grave times, in response to which I really only have questions and an ineffectual sense of foreboding, and so perhaps it’s best that I end on a faintly inspirational point. The Ukrainian president was a comedic actor, surprisingly (but emphatically) elected in 2019. And he flailed. Volodymyr Zelensky appointed mates to advise him, and seemed incapable of dissolving the entrenched corruption that he had campaigned against. Recently, he spoke in confusingly contradictory ways about the Russian threat. But, as I write, the imminent threat is that Russia consumes Kiev, and kills or captures the members of its government.

And Zelensky has stayed. He has stayed and offered updates, moral support and calls to arms. He has stayed even though staying might kill him. Ukrainians won’t forget that. And nor should we. 

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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