The prospect of a relatively stable outcome to Putin’s anticipated next term depends on the way that Russia’s central authorities manage their relationship with the country’s wider society over the course of 2018-2024. The Putin regime has made enforcing domestic discipline its main priority and thereby limited its options. The “Vertical of Power” is ill fashioned and has become corroded, making the implementation of fresh or imaginative new policies at the Kremlin’s behest, if any of significance were unexpectedly proposed, extremely difficult.
The prelude to the presidential elections on March 18 next year still has its foggy patches. It is not yet an absolute certainty that Putin will once again run, just highly probable. Installing a pliable substitute as he did in 2008 would mean Putin’s next chance to return to the Kremlin would be in 2024, when he will be 72. It would, besides, be risky to play the same con twice. One Medvedev interlude was enough. There are no indications to date that a genuine successor to Putin from within the present governing cabal has been selected. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that a Putin victory next year will make the 2018-2024 term his last, and the questions of who might succeed him and what policies would then be followed increasingly urgent—always provided, of course, that some further way to violate the spirit of Russia’s constitution is not invented in the meantime to make Putin the equivalent of President for life. And even then the question of who or what might eventually succeed him would disturb both Russia’s ruling group and the country’s wider society as old age took its inevitable course.
Putin and his colleagues need three things to buttress their legitimacy from the outset of a further term, particularly one with a built-in end point: a credible turnout next March; a convincing victory over a credible opponent; and a credible program of government to carry them through at least the first years of their rule. All three are problematic. Turnout at recent local elections in September was low, even remarkably low, by the design of the authorities in the hope that their nominees would win without fuss or even public notice. That gave an opening to organized opposition groups at the municipal level, who made their mark in Moscow and outside it. The local and federal authorities got what they needed higher up the federal scales, but overall the result nonetheless gave a modest boost to non-systemic players. Low voter turnout at the presidential level would be damaging but not surprising given the present assumption that the result, Putin’s return, looks boringly predictable—and fixable too.
A real contest between Putin (or any regime nominee if it came to that) and a substantial opponent would bolster voter turnout, and perhaps in the event of victory reinforce Putin’s vulnerable charisma. Like it or not, however, the only possibility for that opposition role in sight is the anti-corruption publicist Alexei Navalny, who has proven he has drawing power in the regions as well as in Moscow, and an organized following. Putin will, if he bothers to campaign at all, no doubt promise yet again to fight corruption. But Navalny has active form in this field, and Putin does not. Navalny also has the advantage that Putin once had of being a fresh figure. For now at least, the ruling authorities appear reluctant to definitively stop Navalny from running, presumably in part because that would undermine the legitimacy of both the presidential elections and Putin’s position after them. Navalny’s supporters are nevertheless under physical attack, and potential sympathizers have been warned off attending rallies. Navalny’s dubious 2016 and 2017 convictions for fraud and embezzlement could still be used to ban him from campaigning. But if Navalny is locked out altogether the vote on March 18 will be a Groundhog Day event, not a real endorsement of Russia’s existing ruler—particularly, of course, if there have been street protests beforehand.
Putin’s real problem is that, after so long in power, and after the decision in 2012 to rely on repression inside Russia and on its parallel—a threatening foreign policy—he has nothing new to offer the Russian public.
The presently expected tenor of Putin’s last term is therefore seen to be one of “neo-stagnation,”1 at least for openers, enlivened by Great Power posturing. That seems plausible. The draft budget for the next three-year period looks a bit different from that for the current one, but in practice maintains the existing emphasis on security expenditure at the cost of, for example, social services, health, education, or infrastructure. Modest GDP growth is predicted. There have been changes at Governor and secondary ministerial levels designed, it must be supposed, to have qualified new figures in place for the next term. The new appointees lack local roots and have yet to distinguish themselves for a capacity for personal initiative. The implication is that the Kremlin’s aim is to enhance central control over the regions, not to develop a more effective federal system. There is nothing so far to suggest that the top level will be readjusted anytime soon.
Putin and his colleagues benefit from the lack of obvious alternatives to them, together with a popular and understandable fear of a change to unknown figures or policies at the head of a country taught to believe itself to be under outside threat. While there have been signs of discontent among urban voters, and of the ruling group’s relying more than they might wish on older rural voters, they nevertheless have the support of a domestic constituency made up in reliable part of a significant number of state dependents. The narrative of a Russia regaining its rightful place in the world despite the hostility of the West, and the United States in particular, retains some force. So too does the reality of a West grappling with serious problems.
“Neo-stagnation” is, however, a condition more likely to lead to Russia’s further degradation than to the preservation of the status quo that Putin and his associates wish to enforce over the next six years or more. Putin missed his chance in 2012 for desirable but troublesome economic change which if implemented might have helped his country to escape its dependence on petrodollars as the main prop for the system built up since 2000. The dollar stream has weakened since then, while the political, economic, and social prices of diversification have become steeper. Putin has added the burden of increased military spending, Crimea, and Donbas. The approximately 65 percent of the Russian economy in state hands is unlikely to be transferred elsewhere between now and 2024. Nor for that matter are the remaining parts of the economy deemed to be privately held likely to be freed in practice from subservience to the state. None of this would form a promising background to the prospects for the next six years or beyond. Russia no longer has the extensive reserves that enabled it to survive the last global financial crisis in spite of the heavy blows it had to endure. If Western sanctions were lifted, Russia would still be exposed, and would be so even if the Russian state were equipped with an honest and effective management system.
Authoritarian or totalitarian governments suffer from a common paradox. It is in principle clear who is in charge, but it is rarely clear who has decided what in each particular case. Putin is generally supposed to act more like a CEO than a dictator, but no one knows for certain whom he consults among his apparently closest colleagues. When Sechin (Rosneft) decided to frame Ulyukaev (then-Minister of Economic Development in the government headed by Prime Minister and former President Medvedev) for corruption in connection with a dispute with Yevtushenkov (Sistema) over possession of the oil group Bashneft, and then to go after Sistema too, did he consult Putin? Was it Putin brooding alone who decided to seize Crimea? What was Putin’s real reaction to the news that Nemtsov had been successfully assassinated? Or Politkovskaya or Litvinenko?
The real authority in the political system is held to be the FSB. Its spirit of searching out and combatting internal and external enemies is indeed both omnipresent and omnivorous. But who exactly runs its varied and often competing components is an open question. The logic of its present and prospective operations points to greater activity than as of now, on a system of competitive autodrive. Its relationship with other security organs such as the National Guard, which is directly answerable to Putin through his former personal bodyguard, Zolotov, and the Ministry of the Interior’s forces appears ill defined. The varied groups of regime tolerated vigilantes or the quasi-independent forces answerable to Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya are further parts of a shifting, amoeba-like security system in which the central authorities have compromised their exclusive right to the use of violence. The Russian Orthodox Church is of course well staffed by FSB personnel, and zealous to extend its control over Russian life, including by deniable force as need be. The Armed Forces are a rising component of the system as a whole. The government headed by Prime Minister Medvedev has no authority in security matters, and no power to curb the corruption that increasingly infects that sphere—or in practice much ability to change either the corroding rule of understandings as opposed to clear legal accountability in the wider economy or to affect its essential structure. Nor does the government seem able greatly to affect the amount of effort or resources devoted to social, health, or environmental needs. Its task is to manage within shifting and increasingly repressive parameters set by others.
It is not surprising in these circumstances that the prevailing mood is one of deep uncertainty as to what the future holds for Russia. Putin’s basic offering is fundamentally empty—the realization of Russia’s special destiny, one based on its special values. None can say what these are, or how they differ from universal values. At least Brezhnev could refer, if somewhat unconvincingly, to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism at a time when there were party structures, however drained of inner spirit, to provide for the future ongoing government of the Soviet Union. The current regime demands obedience to shifting criteria resting on a steadily narrowing public and even regime-controlled information space. “Extremism” is an accusation that can be addressed to anyone, humble or well known, on any pretext. Periodic dismissals and even arrests of regime-appointed regional governors, for instance, typically on charges of corruption—true or not—is intended to remind others occupying what should be trusted and responsible positions in the federal structures that demonstrable obedience to the Kremlin and its continuing assurance of top level protection are essential to their future well being. Doing nothing and saying nothing are already prudent choices for all Russian citizens.
Putin presides over a system incapable of trust in its subjects, and therefore plagued by fears of what they might do if not strictly controlled. Yet the sheer size of Russia and the variety of nationalities within it make that difficult to achieve. Leaching autonomous authority from the federal regions may make the attempt look easier on first consideration, but is unlikely to prove of lasting positive effect. The same goes for forcing acquiescence in a single set of patriotic doctrines based on false history centered above all on the still-dominant Russian ethnic group. The constant FSB effort to establish total control over the internet and its users is indicative. State control over the greater part of the print media and practically the whole of broadcasting is not enough to ensure the lasting success of regime propaganda, however relentless. Recent viewing figures suggest that the state television channels are declining in their effect. Whereas at least 25 million Russians have watched Navalny’s exposure of Prime Minister Medvedev’s lavish lifestyle and changing sneakers, Putin’s last Direct Line question and answer session attracted only six million, and the nightly news programme Vremya has five million with an average age of 63.
The myth of Russia’s inherent right to be respected as a “Great Power” is an essential buttress to the Kremlin’s hold on power in Russia itself, and will remain as a justification of it in the Kremlin’s eyes, at least as long as Putin’s final constitutionally legitimated presidency may last. Great power status has general traction within Russia, and among ethnic Russians in particular. Waving the flag has its effect for the vast majority of Russians, as witness the surge of support for Putin following the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Putin and his acolytes have made an increasing effort over the years to build up the myth that Russia’s historic worth has been and can only be based on a procession of military victories, Stalin’s not least. This thread has been a major factor in Russia’s cultural degradation over this century, and its reneging on the European and Christian values that were essential to its finest achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The great power doctrine dangerously distorts Russia’s foreign policies and betrays its longer-term interests. Its overall effect has been to drive Russia away from its European—and by extension Transatlantic—bedrock. Like its domestic equivalent, the commitment to Russian values, it is empty of worthwhile intrinsic meaning, being in practice restricted to two crude ideas: first, that Russia has an inherent right to force its will on its neighbors, and ideally the whole of the former Yalta space; and second, that it is locked into a struggle with the West, and the United States in particular. The possibility of mutual trust and common advantage is not in the Kremlin’s DNA. Putin and his cabal are locked into the resulting narrative. Their understanding of Western or for that matter Ukrainian, Georgian, or even Belarussian or Kazakh interests or motivations is inadequate, to put it kindly. The regime’s self absorption is such that when Putin accused then-Secretary Hillary Clinton of provoking the 2011 street protests in Russia against fraud in the Duma elections, he really meant it. The same went for the accusation that it was the Americans who orchestrated the Maidan protests of 2013-14. It is a question from time to time how far we can tell when Putin knows he is in fact lying, as he so often does. But if so, it would not be much of a difference if in both of these cases he was merely laying the blame on others for unwelcome setbacks that he neither anticipated nor was able to consider realistically. In either case, he has built up a picture for himself and others of American aggression against him and his country which is demonstrably false, but demands counter-action.
Kirk Bennett’s September 25 essay, “Thinking Long-Term About Ukraine’s Defense,” provides a persuasive account of the needlessly counter-productive results of the Kremlin’s pursuit of its foreign policies by way of compulsion rather than persuasion and attraction. There are those in the West who admire Putin for what they see as swift and effective action in Syria, in a way that has outplayed the Americans. Others point to Russian intrusion into, for example, Central Europe, the Balkans, or Libya, in a similar spirit. But it is questionable first how long such “wins” may last, second what future others might be practicable or remotely sensible, and third how far they might fit in with any worthwhile vision of Russia’s national interests beyond one based on the premise of a Russian need somehow to re-establish itself as a competitor to the United States. The prospect for the next Putin term will nevertheless remain one of further interference, including cyber interference, in Transatlantic countries, sustained pressure on Russia’s neighbors, and propaganda warfare on its own people as well as beyond its borders. The degree and intensity of such efforts will naturally depend on changing circumstances, but the Kremlin is not, for now at least, looking for bankable or lasting agreements on, for example, security measures with NATO countries. Russia today is different in that regard from Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
The key unknown as 2024 approaches is how if at all Russian society reacts to the approaching end of the Putin regime in its present form. Foreign adventures appear to be declining in their appeal to the wider public as compensation for doubts about the Putin regime’s ability over the next half decade to reinvigorate and restructure Russia itself. There is a restless spirit abroad in many of the more consequential regional cities, as well as Moscow and St Petersburg, at the prospect of Putin’s returning again in 2018. It would be logical to suppose that this restless spirit will mount in the face of the continuing evolution of the effects of judicial, economic, social, educational, health, infrastructural, and environmental stagnation—or more accurately, degradation. These risks at present look more or less inescapable in the absence of decisive and radical new approaches. The present system appears unable to contemplate the transfers of responsibility to independent actors that would be necessary for such changes to begin to work, for fear of the consequences. Strains within the ruling cabal will mount if, as it may be supposed, such pressures grow, along with pressures within the federal structures. And as time passes “after Putin what?” will aggravate tensions within what may well be a narrowing group at the top. However disparate the FSB grouping might be as the decisive force within Russia now, its instinctive reaction will be to step up repression, not to seek wider and more generous approaches.
A good number of Russians fear that their country faces disaster, given such a scenario, possibly even before 2024 is up. Their premonitions are not lightly to be dismissed—as plenty of outsiders would be ready to do, perhaps on the supposition that they are based on a settled Russian tendency to expect the worst. Russia is however a country still traumatized by its Leninist and especially its Stalinist past, whose real story is too terrible for the majority of Russian citizens to face up to: It was a joint and destructive descent into hell, with nothing achieved remotely worth the price inflicted on all its citizens. That price was paid by ethnic Russians in particular, as the dominant people of the USSR. The Russians of Russia today have therefore a particular human need to deny the truth of what happened. That has been encouraged and indeed enforced during the Putin era, with Stalin by now made into the mythical deity who far-sightedly managed the USSR through to industrial and military victory. The FSB is presented as a worthy successor to the KGB and the latter’s even more murderous predecessors. Putin himself profits from the idea that he embodies Stalin’s accredited strengths.
It would be premature confidently to forecast what might be Russia’s outcome by 2024. The country has a long history of rule by force from the top. It would be foolish to translate one’s own instinctive and inherited suppositions of what constitutes good and effective rule on to a Moscow-centered Russia with its own troubled past. That said, my view remains that Russia is facing an approaching crisis, and that a smooth transition to a legitimate and lasting Putin clone successor is the least likely scenario in or even before 2024. My prejudices, nourished by the experience of living in Belgrade towards the end of Tito’s reign and from 1985 to 1989 in close contact with Milosevic and other leading Yugoslav politicians, persuade me to look seriously at the eventual possibility of Russia disintegrating under the pressures generated by the attempt to entrench personalized command of the country from the Kremlin alone. Someone with experience of Venezuela might see what has happened there under Chavez and now Maduro as a lesson for Russia too.
It is clear already that Russia has become a state governed by a diffuse police network subject not to the FSB’s obedient submission to a single and potentially changing ruling political authority but to a purpose shared with Putin and embodied by him in enforcing a generalized will to power over Russian society as a whole. That will to power is bequeathed by Soviet history. The FSB and those who work to its logic will not give it up.
I began my “Mirror of Justice” essay by referring to the experience of the prisoner Ildar Dadin as an example of the iniquity of Russia’s penitential system. The ongoing trial of Yuri Dimitriev on a fabricated charge of pedophilia attested by FSB hirelings as false “expert” witnesses gives a final instance of the state of Russia today. Dimitriev is a hero dedicated to the discovery of northern burial sites of the victims of Stalin’s crimes through the GULag, the identification of those thrown into them, and the comfort where possible of those still alive who care for them. It is encouraging that older and younger Russians have spoken up for Dimitriev. The FSB wants to silence him and the dead who need justice as well.
1A newly current term designed to recall the later Brezhnev years.