Letter From the Editors

The ’70s and ’80s are back. And not just on the runways of Paris and Milan, but along the stretches of the Republic of Sudan, the post-Soviet space, and Moscow. The latest trend envisages not only ditsy prints and shoulder pads (plenty of those, too), but a return to the glory days of the Soviet Empire’s middle age.

Take, for instance, Moscow’s recent announcement that it is working on a deal with Khartoum to open “a material and technical supply facility” in Sudan. According to military expert Viktor Murakhovsky, “a base on the Red Sea will give Russia control over the route via the Suez Canal, which accounts for about 10% of the world’s sea trade.” Pavel Felgengauer takes this a step further, saying that Russia’s naval base land rush is an attempt to regain the military global presence the Soviet Union had – which included bases in Yemen, Ethiopia and Vietnam, to name a few. According to the expert, “This is precisely why the Syrian campaign was launched – to deploy a powerful naval base in Tartus, along with an equally powerful Aerospace Forces base in Hmeimim.” Fighting extremists was just a smoke screen, he says.

Not everyone agrees that Russia is trying to march forward into the past. While many are left wondering why Moscow didn’t do more to aid its supposed military ally, Armenia, early in the conflict, Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin says that Moscow’s approach to its former playground has changed. According to him, the Kremlin long ceased its Soviet reconquista, and is now focused on more pragmatic, ad hoc alliances. “Russia has discovered that it doesn’t have allies who would stand by it in its hour of need, but it has also found out that it doesn’t really need allies to defend itself against adversaries.” Its new loneliness, Trenin says, is “a chance to start looking after its own interests and needs, something it neglected in the past in the name of an ideological mission.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Simon Saradzhyan. A case in point is Moscow offering support to embattled Belarussian ally Aleksandr Lukashenko, while at the same time completely ignoring similar events in Kyrgyzstan. Why? In Minsk, Moscow feared that “Europe’s last dictator” would be replaced with a pro-Western regime. But in Kyrgyzstan, “there was no threat to the aforementioned Russian vital interest: The winner of the latest Kyrgyz revolution is as pro-Russian as his predecessor.”

Moscow’s psychological trauma from the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to color domestic politics, as well. This week, the State Duma continued to move along a bill that would either fully or partly restrict access to sites that violate “fundamental human rights and freedoms.” The bill aims to curtail what it deems as unfriendly steps by tech giants like YouTube and Google. According to RBC, in July 2020, “YouTube disabled the account of the Tsargrad channel, owned by businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, who is under US sanctions.” It also removed popular Russian TV host’s Vladimir Solovyov’s channel from its trending section – something that the Russian authorities also saw as politically motivated.

Ideological battles did not end there. After the Duma’s Communist Party faction voiced its objections to a bill to grant former Russian presidents lifelong immunity, United Russia Deputy and Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin accused them of “trampling” on Russian institutions. “This is how the disintegration of the country begins,” Volodin raged, alluding to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The RFCP still voted against the bill. But then again, Communists were never ones to chase fashion trends. And while chasing the ghosts of its lost empire may be in vogue, Pavel Felgengauer warns that this is precisely what made “the global Soviet bubble burst with a bang.” Putin’s own “Autumn of the Patriarch” may prove more costly than it’s worth.