Putin’s Russia

By the time you are reading this it will be election day in Russia … no need to worry, there will be no excitement: Vladimir Putin will win the presidential race.

That being decided, before the votes are counted, Gregory Feifer, writing in Foreign Affairs, looks at the near term future of Putin’s Russia. He deals, first, with an apparent Russian thirst for “homemade,” Russian products and ideas, and then says that “It [the effort to cobble together a new identity from a pastiche of clashing symbols from tsarist as well as Soviet history] was an early indication that rather than successfully reform, Russia would eventually take its place at the vanguard of right-wing authoritarianism. With Moscow’s malign global influence now quickly mounting, revisiting the circumstances of how that path began helps clarify the nature of the Kremlin’s threat to the liberal international order. Russian President Vladimir Putin is all but certain to be reelected to a new six-year term on March 18, and how he will act in the years to come will have much to do with how he came to power.

By way of background, Mr Feifer explains that “Back at the height of then President Boris Yeltsin’s 1990s, signs were still growing that the country’s new market economy had possibly turned a corner, boosting hopes for social stability and Russia’s integration into the international community of democracies. Then came the financial crisis of 1998, which brought the reform era to an abrupt end. The political watershed triggered a grass-roots rejection of the West. It exploded on the streets of Moscow, ostensibly in response to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999, when rowdy crowds protesting in front of the American embassy released their bottled-up anger in the form of eggs, paint, and other projectiles hurled at the building’s thick yellow walls. Putin, then the little-known head of the Federal Security Service, was doubtless paying close attention … [but, then] … Tapped to be prime minister that summer, Putin immediately set about leveraging his surprise appointment by playing on Russians’ deep envy of the West, their sense of betrayal over a promised prosperity that never materialized, and their growing nostalgia for the Soviet superpower past. Putin offered Russians a third way: authoritarianism with personal freedoms (although some restrictions later reappeared), nationalism without political ideology. The unending, uncertain slog toward the West was soon abandoned with the simple assertion that Russian civilization had its own, different path (a short jump from today’s claims that those ways are better) … [and] … Moscow’s propaganda machine and support for various Western right-wing nationalists have helped reshape global affairs since Putin assumed office. But in the Kremlin’s conception of the world and politics, and in many other ways, Russia remains stuck in 1999—informed by the anti-Western sensibilities that brought him to power nearly two decades ago.

I think that they key words we must always keep top of mind when discussing Putin’s Russia are: rejection, envy, betrayal, nostalgia and authoritarianism. This is never too far off base …


… it isn’t a problem that Putin might see himself as a new Stalin, it is that Russians are nostalgic for the days when, under Stalin, Russia (the old USSR) was a global superpower that the West had to treat with respect and even fear. Putin remembers the “fall” in the 1990s and he is determined to correct what he perceives to be a rejection of Russia rightful position in the world order and even a betrayal by the US led West.

In a country where the future is said to be clear—it’s the past that’s unpredictable, according to the old saying,” Gregory Feifer explains, “whose version of history you’re talking about matters greatly. For Americans considering past Russian blunders, the Soviet Union typically looms largest. Russians tend to think of the 1990s, however, when deprivation seemed for many even worse because it was also personally humiliating. It’s one thing if you have no choice but to queue for toilet paper along with everyone else. It’s quite another if your neighbor goes out for sushi when you’re stuck home eating boiled potatoes … [and] … The belief that it was Putin who brought about economic recovery and reined in the chaos of the 1990s enabled him to get away with murder. But it’s often overlooked these days that the economy was already reviving when Putin took over, paradoxically thanks to the 1998 crisis and the massive inflation it triggered. Newly competitive owing to the weak ruble, some of the country’s emerging domestic producers began booming. When oil and gas prices, the economy’s main drivers, also started to rise, there was no looking back—but that had little or nothing to do with Putin’s involvement.

The key, it seems to me, is that the Russians, enough to matter, have a highly illiberal, even anti-liberal world view which means that they are likely to be happy yo agree that authoritarianism is the answer to Russia’s political needs. Having prospered in a “top down” system, Mr Feifer says that “Putin has continued to use that top-down system to maintain his grip on power in the years since and is now modifying it to suit the times. Recently, he has begun to replace his crony circle’s now mega-rich stakeholders with weak young bureaucrats who owe their loyalty solely to him. The hope is that they will help preserve his highly personalized system of rule, the only one they know.” There is something familiar here if we look at what may be happening in Washington and what, arguably, has happened in Ottawa. The “teams” around leaders, even leaders of very limited intellect, can be very powerful in their own right and they will work to enhance their leader’s power and prestige because he is the source of their power and prestige.

In the long term,” Gregory Feifer predicts, “there are many reasons to doubt the sustainability of Putin’s kleptocracy, which has isolated the country, eviscerated its institutions, and robbed its natural resources economy. For now, however, Putin’s 1999 agenda continues to inform the Kremlin’s inner logic. At the top of the list is the inexorable tightening of his grip on power, legitimized by finessing his image as national leader, fighter pilot, bare-chested equestrian, and the kind of father figure communism compelled Soviets to idolize. That was an existential imperative after his appointment as Yeltsin’s chosen heir, a political neophyte with no power base, ridiculed as a last-gasp bid to keep the clamoring opposition from power … [but] … As with most of his behavior since taking office, Putin’s use of violence and threats in cultivating a strongman image has been remarkably consistent. Even before he became president, he rallied support by launching a second war in Chechnya as the brand-new prime minister in 1999, his tough-guy persona a salve for a humiliated population. The first war had ended in failure in 1996 after Chechen rebels ground down the government’s poorly trained, ill-equipped, and often drunken troops. Back then, when Russia was seen as powerless even to put down rebellion inside its own borders, most predicted a giant folly, underestimating Putin’s unflinching willingness to slaughter civilians … [and] … His resolve was surely boosted by a telling incident just before he took office, when a symbolic contingent of Russian troops serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia—part of the Western effort to engage Moscow—responded to NATO’s campaign against Serbia by abandoning their posts and racing to seize the airport in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. That resonated with the ordinary Russians back home expressing newfound solidarity with their fellow Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans. Although the soldiers depended for food on the British forces they blocked from the complex, most Russians applauded the gambit as a bold victory over a Western military alliance they now saw as an adversary. Months later, the war in Chechnya provided another signal that Moscow would no longer bend to foreign disapproval.

Mr Feifer concludes that we are in for more of the same until Putin leaves office: “The president’s highly personalized system of rule makes prospects for its survival after his exit unlikely. But with no apparent cracks in public support for now, and with the Kremlin finely tuned to the slightest criticism, Putinism may well last until that moment or an external shock brings it down. Putin’s direct control of the security apparatus also makes any foreseeable change highly unlikely, while prospects for a Kremlin coup or other unforeseen crisis appear equally dim. Dealing with Moscow will therefore require more long-term strategic thinking and larger investments in democracy building and aid to civil society in Russia’s neighbors. But ultimately, the West’s answer to Putinism must be based on the understanding that although the stakes have risen since 1999, the Russian president’s logic remains the same.

I remain convinced that we, the US led West, did betray Russia in the 1990s when we expanded NATO into the East. That, I believe, was a strategic blunder of the highest order:


It doesn’t matter what was or wasn’t written down or even insinuated; the fact ~ and I assert that it is a fact ~ is that most Russian officials believed that there was an implicit (at least) promise that NATO would not expand as it did in 1999, and 2004. Did all those Russians suffer from a case of mass hysteria? Were the translations of all those meetings flawed? No … the fact is that we, the US led West, at least implied that Eastern Europe, the former Warsaw Pact states, would be a buffer between nuclear armed NATO and nuclear armed Russia. Then we reneged or, in Russian minds we betrayed Russia and, specifically, rejected Russia as a “partner for peace” in the world. That rejection and betrayal, real or imagined, coupled with Russia’s economic problems produced a sense of unhealthy envy of the West which, has, slowly, soured into enmity. 

In that case NATO membership mattered more to Russia than did EU membership. Russia could have, would have lived with, even benefitted from Eastern European states joining the EU but NATO is, and always was, a military alliance against Russia; to bring e.g. Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic into NATO was a strategically unnecessary and diplomatically unwarranted slap in the face.

So, I have no doubt that Putin will win today’s election, handily, and he will use his strengthened position to make further strategic  opportunistic and adventurous forays into the world as he tries to unsettle Western vital interests. He will not, as he has not, confine himself to Eastern Europe. He wants Russia to be a global superpower, again, and he will spend,  most likely unwisely, to try to achieve that goal … but it is a chimera. There will be three main-qimg-590262972e4badb30234a884eee7e422global superpowers in 2050: America, China and India. It is very possible that, under mostly Chinese pressure, Russia will, before 2050, split into two or three or even more parts … Russia, from the Urals to the Pacific or, at least from the Yenisei River to the Pacific is Asian and it is not clear to me that Russia can sustain its sovereignty over the region as China, and others, stir up nationalistic tensions amongst e.g the Altai, Buryat, Tuvinian, Yakut, and Siberian Tatar ethnic groups ~ all of which are minorities in their various homelands. But ethnic Russians have been fleeing Siberia and now some towns are seeing a rise in “aboriginal,” Asian populations.

But power predictions, even for something as near as 2050 are dangerous. Remember that just 175 years ago China lay, essentially supine, at the feet of the “foreign powers,” including Russia and America, that were led by Britain. Britain looked like its power could never decline … but it did. China came back and Russia can come back, too, just not in one generation. Putin’s big challenge is to keep Russia together and on some kind of track … it’s a big enough challenge for anyone.

But I expect Putin to be undeterred in his short term quest to enhance Russian power and influence in the world, and his own power in Russia, by whatever means he can manage. He is cunning ~ not with the famous low cunning of the Russian peasant but, rather, with the cold, calculated cunning of the power hungry technocrat. His antics will be problematic for the world, as they are, today, for America, Britain and the rest of us.

He poses more than one threat to Canada, too … about which more, tomorrow.


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