Stephen Blank sees big problems on the horizon for Russia.
A student of Russian history and an expert on its current affairs, he sees signs of pending collapse from one of the world’s major powers.
The Russian economy is in free fall.
The Russian army has invaded Ukraine.
And the Russian state is turning on all of its bright religious and nationalist neon signs for domestic propaganda.
Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former professor of national security at the US Army War College, says this is precisely the confluence of events that preceded the breakup of the Soviet Union and the execution of Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar.
“This reincarnation, if you want to call it that, of this phenomenon of ‘official nationality’ indicates the same kind of structural pathologies we’ve seen in previous regimes,” Blanks says. “The nature of the Russian government, with Putin at the top, clients, patrons, corruption, all this, is exactly reminiscent of the end of communism and the end of czardom.”
In a speech at the Savannah Council on World Affairs, Blank calls Vladimir Putin’s Russia a “patrimonial kleptocracy” that doesn’t have any answers for how to solve its internal financial problems.
“The only answer is police measures,” Blank says. “And police measures can’t make an economy run on time.”
The immediate subject of Blank’s speech was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In late February 2014, the world watched as Russian forces moved into Crimea after Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled the country.
Those events led to economic sanctions, which combined with the falling price of oil, has seriously hobbled Russia’s economy.
Blank put the invasion in its historic context, calling Ukraine a colony of the Russian psyche.
“As far as Russians are concerned, Ukrainians are Russians,” he says. “They are not a separate people. They may have a different language, a somewhat different culture and tradition, they may be religiously bifurcated, some being Roman Catholics, some being Russian Orthodox. But they are essentially Russians.”
Blank says this sense of defending “anything Russian, anywhere” made the military’s invasion legal under Russian law.
“The Russian army has the right to go into these countries at the behest of the president, who doesn’t have to go to the parliament, just can decide to order them in, if he feels their honor and dignity are being abused,” Blank says. “In other words, if Mr. Putin feels that the Russian émigrés in Brighton Beach, New York, are being abused… I could call in to him and say, ‘Bring in the troops to Brooklyn.’”
But perhaps Blank’s most startling notion was the idea that Russia had started planning the invasion many years ago.
He points to publicly-available documents and reports that show the timeline of events leading to the Ukraine crisis actually began about five years ago and ran right through the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“It is not an improvisation,” Blank says. “It is not something that was panic-strickenly decided on the night of February 23rd, although obviously [Putin] was very moved by Yanukovich’s flight. But it was the materialization of a plan long developed for precisely for this kind of contingency.”
Blank says US national interests are threatened anytime militaries cross international borders and heads of state violate international treaties with impunity.
And he suggests that the best way that Americans can start a conversation about how to respond to aggression starts with calling the offense and the offender by what they are.
“If we are to begin to understand the way the world works, it is best, not that we resort to equivocations and hide behind facades and not say things as they are, but rather, if we are to understand what the world is, we have to tell the truth,” Blank says.
Blank’s speech at the Coastal Georgia Center was 36 minutes long.
But I’m also including the 30-minute question-and-answer session in this podcast.
I think you’ll find Mr. Blank’s remarks sobering and informative.