Russia has reverted to a condition comparable to that which led in the end to the fall of the USSR. Today’s Kremlin, like its Soviet predecessor, has proved unable adequately to address the linked questions of how to secure beneficial relationships with the outside world, responsible governance, and stable economic and social development. “Putin’s Russia is ruled by an opaque and shifting power structure centered on the Kremlin. It is now devoid of authoritative institutions beyond that framework that would enable Russia to develop into a fully functional or accountable state.”1 Can this change?
It is not of course a given that Putin will last in office until 2024, or that he will give controlling way to some form of succession regime thereafter if he does. Russia’s present fears are focused on that unknown and unpredictable post-Putin future. Foreign actors and powers will also be guided over the next few years by what they suppose may or may not happen in that same uncertain future.
Yesterday’s Kremlinologists have been criticized for their failure to forewarn the outside world of the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. Later critics always have the advantage of hindsight over their predecessors. Trying to look into the future nevertheless remains a necessary exercise. The risk of such attempts relying too much on extrapolating from what is seen to be the present norm is to be guarded against. There was in the 1980s a general understanding in the West, and certainly within the USSR, that Brezhnev’s rule had run its course by the time of his death. But very few expected radical systemic change in the then-predictable future.2 It was generally supposed that Andropov as Brezhnev’s successor would somehow reinvigorate the Soviet system.3 Gorbachev’s advent after Andropov’s early passing and the death of the hapless Chernenko rightly signaled some new possibilities, but not at first the wider implications of the new General Secretary’s burgeoning belief that fundamental reforms were necessary: “We cannot go on like this.”
Putin’s reading of what happened as Gorbachev tried to liberalize Brezhnev’s “real socialism” is that the folly of the latter’s attempt led in and of itself to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Empire. The assumption behind this belief is that the Soviet system, including its Yalta counterpart, was in principle sustainable, and should have been sustained. It is not now possible to prove beyond question that the manifold problems facing the Kremlin in the early 1980s, not least the parlous state of the Soviet economy, meant that the eventual collapse of the USSR was inevitable. It is however beyond doubt that Gorbachev’s efforts to reform its structures and relationship with the outside world in the way that he and his contemporary directors of events struggled to do led to disintegration at the time and in the way that it did. By the time Gorbachev gave way to Yeltsin, Russia itself was dangerously divided between those who would restore central control along traditional lines if they could, and those who believed that deeper changes based on Western models were essential. One could argue that what Yeltsin did was to provide a temporary but needed corrective to the tensions that had been building up in the USSR before Gorbachev as well as during his time, but that, as President, Yeltsin was unable, or maybe also too tired or too unconvinced, to establish a viable start to a solid transition towards a functioning law-based democracy. Putin’s mission was from the beginning to re-establish “order,” with the recipe of a centralized KGB/FSB as its mandatory magic ingredient. Maintaining such order is still his central purpose, within Russia and beyond it.
Present Perceptions in Russia
Putinist authoritarian rule has thereby returned Russia to the dilemma confronting the Soviet Union at the end of the Brezhnev era: whether it can rethink or reformulate its fundamental purposes without unleashing forces that its rulers cannot control. Putin’s Kremlin has in consequence become increasingly determined to centralize decision making and to preserve its hold on power. Rethinking Russia’s options as to its international relations, system of governance, and economic and social policies has thereby over time become more difficult and more risky than it once might have been. The objective case for changes may by 2024 or later have become more pressing, but also harder to achieve. The fact that there are parallels to be drawn between now and the immediate post-Brezhnev period does not mean that another Time of Troubles4 is inevitable as the uncertainties inherent in the transition from Putin’s rule to some form of succession government take deeper hold, but there are suggestive parallels to be drawn nonetheless. The prevailing assumption in the West is still that Putin’s successor will be drawn from within the group around him, that he/she/they will be cut from much the same cloth, and that significant change is therefore improbable. In Russia itself no one knows whether there is a peaceable way out from Russia’s present international isolation and internal stagnation.
Some Brezhnevite/Putinist Parallels in External Relations
The Soviet Union had an official ideology to chart its future direction, together with an endlessly repeated set of words meant to imbue that doctrine in its citizens. It had lost both its meaning and its past potential for creativity as the Brezhnev era reached its end. It nevertheless continued to provide the framework within which the Soviet government and Soviet citizens were obliged to work, and to pretend to respect. It set the parameters of the Soviet Union’s relations with the West and determined the nature of its grip on the Warsaw Pact countries. It is small wonder that once this ideological bondage was loosened, other ideas both foreign and domestic were set free and argued over vigorously—all the more so for having been suppressed for so long. Putin has no compelling view as to what new domestic policies he can or should offer his public. That has made the myth of defending a besieged Fortress Russia an essential buttress for his regime.
Restoring Russia’s Great Power status, which the Kremlin sees as Russia’s primary national interest, has considerable emotive power. Russia is understood within its present borders as inheriting and remaining to be the responsible inheritor of the whole of Soviet history. “Terrible things happened, but we built a great and powerful country, so the price was justified” is a fair summary of a widespread attitude, with less and less attention being given to horrors Russians prefer to forget. Stalin is now presented as a great hero of Russia, and the victory of 1945 elaborated into a festival of combined self-worship and defiance on a still greater scale than it was in Brezhnev’s time. The whole fits into a story of Russia’s “gathering of the lands”5 over the centuries, coupled with memories of the resulting structures collapsing, most recently in 1991. It also feeds into, and nurtures, the Russian obsession with the United States as its natural counterpart but also as its inveterate enemy and/or sometimes injuriously dismissive rival. Today’s Fortress Russia has its roots in yesterday’s Soviet Union, whose leaders also believed themselves to be under constant U.S. threat.
The Kremlin’s proclaimed aim of establishing a sphere of special interest around Russia is, too, based on a wish in some form to re-establish a remembered Soviet past. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev’s rule was threatened by Czechoslovakia’s and later Poland’s attempts to set out differing political models from the Soviet norm, with implications in both cases for the cohesion of the Soviet bloc as well as potential repercussions in the USSR itself. Czechoslovakia was quashed. Gradual change in Hungary was less of a threat, and Romania could be more or less ignored. But Poland, like Ukraine today, was a different matter. Putinist authoritarian Russia can now never establish the internationally recognized and reliably secure sphere of interest around itself that it desires without forcing Ukraine into obedience. It would take more than possible spineless acquiescence by the United States and its allies to achieve that; Ukrainians too would have to endorse it and remain tolerably content with it over time.
There are parallels, lastly, to be drawn in this general area between Russia’s military buildup today and the long and exhausting Soviet armament program which went before it. Russia’s Armed Forces were pretty much ignored in Yeltsin’s time. It was then generally accepted that there was no military threat from the West, despite NATO enlargement. That perception began to shift during Yeltsin’s last four years, with NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia giving a particular stimulus to Russian nationalist feeling. Russia’s striking economic growth between 2000 and 2008, coupled with Putin’s success in concentrating power in the Kremlin, stoked the belief that Russia had risen from its knees and was therefore entitled, even bound by destiny, to compel others like, for instance, Georgia to obey. The Russian 2014 seizure of Crimea in response to the fall of then-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who had appeared to the Kremlin to be their key to Russia’s long term control over Ukraine, was a defining moment. The resulting hasty logic of might is right, and of military rivalry with the United States, which dominates Putin’s thinking, has pointed to increased military spending, to a greater role for the military in Russia’s political decision-making, and to a widening range of aggressive policies. Their fruits have not been as beneficial to the Kremlin either in terms of international rewards or lasting domestic profit as expected or hoped for.
An End to Confrontation?
President Putin himself determines Russian external policies and is seen to do so more immediately than he does in managing or arbitrating his country’s domestic choices. It might in principle be to a successor’s profit therefore to carve out a different role as a new and independent leader by looking for ways, however difficult, to ease Russia’s relationships with the West. That would be welcome in principle to the Russian people. The euphoria over the seizure of Crimea in 2014 has faded. The Russian adventure in eastern Ukraine has brought scant reward. It is not obvious how either of these conditions will change over the next four or five years. The cost of repairing the destruction in Ukraine that the Russians have delivered cannot comfortably be met by Russia itself, and it is at present unlikely that the Western powers will agree to pay for it, not least without a Russian retreat from the areas it has invaded. Repairing the destruction of Syria and protecting Assad over the years will be expensive too. As Brezhnev found, in his case in Afghanistan, getting into a military operation to preserve or promote a valued regime in difficulty is far easier than getting out of it.
It may of course be that the Western powers will come over time to be reconciled to what Putin and his colleagues have done in Ukraine, as they did quickly enough in 2008 after Russia invaded Georgia. There are those in the West who are inclined to acknowledge Russia’s right to behave as it wishes towards lesser powers, Ukraine among them. Putinist policies are directed towards the division of the West, the confusion of its publics, and the intimidation of its citizens, with this goal in mind. There is no present sign of a will in the West to outspend Russia militarily in such a way as decisively to reduce Moscow’s military advantages in its immediate neighborhood. Russia’s security spending is substantial, and burdensome, but not yet of an order like that which preyed on the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is widely supposed to be able to speak truth to Putin, has argued consistently that the much increased expenditure of recent years on the Russian armed forces makes the country’s satisfactory economic growth impossible. Kudrin went further in mid October by publicly arguing for an effort to improve Russia’s relationship with the West so that sanctions could be eased, and thereby giving the 4 percent growth rate Putin has declared to be his aim for his 2018-24 term of office a chance of success. There is no sign that Putin has listened. There are, on the contrary, indications that he may be upping the ante over Ukraine and that he hopes to revive Russian engagement in Afghanistan in competition with the United States and other Western powers.
If Russia’s relations with the West remain tense, as seems probable at least until 2024, Putin’s immediate successors will very likely feel compelled to continue his anti-Western policies, at least at first. That will all the more be the case if he/she/they succeed Putin from within his present coterie. Such successors would after all have already subscribed to his Great Power ambitions, and the rivalry with the United States which necessarily goes with them. It would take time for any succession, whether in effect a simulacrum of the present regime or something fresher, with potential for change, to develop the independent authority to rethink its approach to international affairs and its view of Russia’s fundamental international interests. Gorbachev in his time was unable to rethink the foreign policies of the USSR, and its relationship with Reagan’s United States in particular, immediately on his accession to power. But as it became clearer to him and his close advisers that the confrontation with the West that he had inherited was incompatible with the changes in the Soviet Union he needed to explore, he began to look for ways to deal with the Soviet military burden he had also inherited.6 While the dilemma confronting the present Kremlin is not yet so sharp as the one its leaders faced in the early 1980s, it remains the case that the longer confrontation with the West, and the United States in particular, may last, the more difficult it will become for Russia’s rulers to address the country’s domestic problems. Failure to do so would be dangerous.
State Structures Then and Now
Russia’s governing structures differ significantly from those inherited by Gorbachev. On the face of it, the “vertical of power” built up during the Putin years should enable his successors—or of course he himself if he were so minded—to take decisive and innovative action to address shortcomings in the country’s economic and social fortunes, as well as its foreign policies. Putin is however hemmed in by his past choices, as in time are “strong men” in general. It is an open question whether his eventual successors will, once bedded in, be better placed to act, or whether on the contrary Russia’s top-down governing structures are already too hollowed out to make that as practicable as it may intuitively sound.
Gorbachev started his search for improvement with an organized party with effective power across the Soviet Union, and in significant degree beyond it. He was accountable to the Politburo, and beyond that to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He had therefore to persuade these bodies of the need for the changes he wanted to pursue. The CPSU did not stay the course with him, but nonetheless was the instrument which determined the start of structural change in the USSR as a whole. It was the CPSU which drew up the nomenklatura, the list of those eligible for office and/or promotion in Brezhnev’s time. These persons were also well placed in Gorbachev’s time especially in the earlier years of his rule. As the Soviet Union disintegrated into its present component parts, the nomenklatura migrated into various branches of the evolving systems of government, political, and economic decision-making, international affairs, and law enforcement agencies. They took inherited Soviet habits of mind along with them, reinvigorated by enrichment in many cases. The CPSU lost its power to direct their ambitions as they did so, and as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Russia no longer has a comparable structured capacity to discipline its wider executive apparatus or to reach an argued and considered political consensus as to its future orientation. Both Yeltsin and Putin have attempted building party structures in Russia over the past quarter of a century, aiming in principle at a two-party system for the Duma (Parliament), with one in government and the other in opposition. This has, not surprisingly, been a complete failure. Its latest incarnation has its “opposition” component, A Just Russia, fading to nothing, and the “government” party, (United Russia) headed by Prime Minister Medvedev, leaching blood. The Communists and the Liberal Democrats are represented in today’s Duma but have neither the wish nor the ability to direct national policy. Putin is arguably an authoritarian ruler, but he has nothing comparable for instance to what China’s Xi Jinping can manipulate in the shape of the Chinese Communist Party to determine, change, or reinvent policy. His successor(s) will be no better placed.
Russia’s governing structures have become predominantly staffed and directed by law-enforcement and security agencies (siloviki). The KGB was never in overall political charge in Brezhnev’s time, or even Andropov’s. It occupied a much reduced place under Yeltsin. But the FSB is in its various guises now at the undisciplined heart of government under Putin, expressed in a variety of security organs under differing acronyms and troubled by internal rivalries.7 The link between the Russian security organs and Putin’s preoccupation with Russian nationalism is an essential element in that dominance, a preoccupation naturally shared with Russia’s military organizations. The siloviki, broadly defined, also have parallel interests in the opportunities for enrichment opened up to them by their role. Those interests extend to cooperation with organized crime groups and working with illegitimate but tolerated vigilante forces.8
Siloviki will have their say in determining whoever or whatever succeeds Putin. There may well be divisions among them but it would take a stubborn courage to suppose that any of their leaders might perhaps favor liberalizing reform in urging their probably competing choices. The desirability of replacing the present system of personalized rule based on understandings rather than one based on clear and binding laws if a smooth transition toward better governance is to be achieved in or after 2024 is surely evident in principle. But the present system suits those now in power. To begin to change it would require not just the constant and long term endeavor of a committed new set of political leaders able to force the siloviki to submit to their will, but also a major and, again, long term effort to reconstruct Russia’s court and penitential systems, together with the laws that are supposed to govern their conduct. Nothing of that nature is in prospect, nor is any apparent thought being given to the wider but daunting possibility of improving and cleansing the operations of Russia’s bureaucracy as a whole.
Economic and Political Reforms?
The economic position of the USSR in 1985 was dire, and the one Yeltsin inherited in Russia by 1992 was disastrous. Putin had better fortune when he became President in 2000, and used it to settle Russia’s debts, to improve its fiscal structures and policies, and to fund a rewarding growth in living standards in his country. The global economic crisis beginning in 2008, and the subsequent fall in hydrocarbon prices led however to a considerable change in Russia, and to the widespread perception that the country needed a more diversified economy, one less dependent on oil, gas, and other natural resources. The connection between that and government based on clear and binding laws independently and accountably administered was widely understood. But the need for politically charged reforms was neither stated nor explicitly implied in the recommendations for action to improve Russia’s performance by 2020 issued after officially endorsed expert committees had met before the presidential elections predictably returned Putin to the Kremlin in 2012. Putin rejected the reforms recommended, opting instead for greater state control and silencing debate.
Putin’s successors, absent a change of direction over the next few years, will inherit a Russia weakened by an economy and society troubled in the meantime by low growth, secured in place by the politically determined structures imposed upon it. The Russian shorthand for that is neo-stagnation, a conscious echo of the term used to characterize the Brezhnev era. Putin has recognized the popular desire for better attention to be given to social necessities like education health and infrastructure. The problems of federal regions short of the resources they need have been forced on his attention, including by the failure of the accustomed “administrative measures” to ensure the return to office of the Kremlin’s choices in recent elections. He and the government that answers to his dictates, headed by Prime Minister (and ex-President) Medvedev, look for partial and temporary solutions to these sorts of problem, but have shown neither sign nor will of preparing or considering changes in the debilitating system which governs the pattern of Russia’s future development. It is not reasonable to expect that a major part of the economy remaining in corrupted state hands or under state direction will under present conditions deliver radically improved performance.
Putin’s successors, again assuming that there are no radical changes in the near future, will also need to consider just how disruptive structural economic reforms might prove to be. They would, if they were to be effective, necessarily include radical disciplining of the FSB and its related organs, cutting their numbers, revisiting the laws that underpin their power to sustain widespread corruption, and establishing an independent and trusted judicial system. Pursuing such objectives would take time and dedication by powerfully motivated forces. Making a start would be strongly resisted. If market-oriented reforms were, second, to prove effective at least in some initial degree the interests of those at the top of the pyramid would be compromised. The Russian people as a whole might not be sorry for that, but those relying on state supported loss-making or relatively unprofitable enterprises would suffer. There is, third, no political machinery in place or in present prospect to decide on what changes there should be, in what order, how a controlled process of change might be managed, or how the Russian people might have a persuasive long term program presented to them.
The Missing Dynamic
The present government of Russia is in extraordinarily few hands, even by comparison with its Soviet ancestor. Putin sits alone at the top. No one knows if he has close confidantes, as Gorbachev did—or Yeltsin for that matter, to a lesser extent. Both of them had wives they trusted, too, as well as close professional colleagues. Those working for Putin or dependent on him must to some extent at least temper their messages or recommendations to him to reflect what they suppose he wants or thinks. The effect on Putin himself can only be guessed at, but it must by now include a paradoxical combination of confidence in his right and ability to decide in the best interests of his country and a fear of his country betraying him in the end. He has until comparatively recently been able to punish others for mistakes or failures of policy that he has in fact previously endorsed. That armor has been weakened by the twin factors of continued poor economic results after the luxury of high and mounting oil and gas prices during his first two terms, and the waning public enthusiasm for his pursuit of international great power status. His decision to approve of the much resented increases in the age at which men and women should receive their pensions could not be blamed on the Medvedev government. Putin’s foreign policies have isolated Russia in pursuit of an aim—Great Power status—that cannot be defined or demonstratively achieved.
Those below Putin with effective power are equally few, as well as subject to ready dismissal or financial loss. The analytical game of describing individuals close to the Sun or far away from it in complex ellipses is popular enough, but there is no Politburo able or willing to consider what issues the regime should pursue in the longer term or what the right order of tackling them might be. Below that level a large number of those in federal or local power act with notable arrogance towards the population at large. It is scarcely surprising that the level of public trust in the Russian authorities is low and getting lower. Nor is it surprising that the striking gap between the wealth of the few and the vast bulk of the population is resented, particularly now that the incomes of the lower sort have diminished.
Those with ideas about structural reform once the Putin era has passed have slight ability to put them across. Vladimir Milov, a former Russian Minister of Energy, recently presented a Free Russia roadmap at Chatham House, setting out what a new Russia’s constitution and economy should be. He spoke as an accredited representative of Alexei Navalny, the well-known critic and a would be successor to Putin. He, like others, advocated transferring some powers of the President to the Duma, policy changes to address Russia’s faltering status in the global economy, increased spending on health and education, revision of the criminal code, and the restoration of free media. He believed that the demand for such changes, and for the reconciliation with the West that would necessarily accompany them, was now rising in Russia. What he could not say was how these changes would come about. He said Putin was, however, under mounting pressure to give way to public aspirations, and possible street unrest if it came to that, which might force him or another sooner or later to implement serious reforms.
The missing dynamic in a possible and in principle desirable process of change is not however public unrest sufficient to force the Kremlin and whoever is in charge there to surrender, but to engender some form of dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. Without that, the results of change would be chaotic, and in the end imposed by the victors, if there were any. It would take time for instance for the party structures needed to make a reformed Duma work as the non-government opposition groups would like. It would take time for ways to re-establish free media and for them to develop, or for an adequate legal system to begin to emerge. The suffocation of the media, the persecution of “extremists,” and the suppression of debate in Russia today have made dialogue between Russia’s rulers and their associated predators on the one hand and the bulk of the population on the other close to impossible. That is arguably Putin’s greatest fault since he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012. The contrast with the lively, and often quarrelsome, debate during the times of Gorbachev and Yeltsin is telling. Russia needs a conversation with itself to find ways to change. Enforced silence is to divide and impoverish.9
Putin’s present term is constitutionally due to end in 2024, with elections to determine the next President concluding in March/April that year. Speculation as to possible changes ahead of that time has followed remarks by the President of the Constitutional Court as to the need to adjust some unspecified elements of Russia’s Constitution. Some have supposed that he may have been hinting at providing ways to enable Putin to remain in effective charge beyond 2024. That is in line with the proposition by analysts both Russian and non-Russian to the effect that Putin cannot safely step aside both for his own sake and for that of his closer associates.
There would however be dangers for Putin if he remained in effective power, let alone if he ran once more for the presidency in 2024. It would be difficult if either course were pursued to make it fully legitimate, and however assuredly his success in either capacity might be pushed through by “administrative means”, his essential message would be that no one else could manage to lead Russia. That message is losing its force already, except insofar as no other candidates are allowed to appear on the stage, making the choice look like Putin or chaos. If the polls are to be believed, Putin’s personal appeal has already been damaged. Putin in any case cannot be invulnerable to a universal law of life: Age can wither him, and comfort already stales his distinctly finite variety.10 Keeping him in power after 2024 could provoke protests reminiscent of those that shook Russia in 2011-12.
The need for some clarity about who or what will come after Putin will grow as time passes, and with it some indication of what that person’s or group’s11 intentions might perhaps be. There has been speculation for some time as to who from among the ranks of Putin’s present supporters the leading candidate might prove to be, it being taken for granted that no one outside that circle will be allowed to run. That guessing game is pretty much a waste of time for now. What is clear is that the threat Putin refuses to name, Navalny, will be ruled out as a candidate by all means possible. His attacks on the corruption that pervades Putinist Russia and the public appeal he has developed in consequence, while not decisive, is too considerable. Putin will in any case want to delay the choice of possible candidates as long as he can, which will mean that the eventual official candidate will not be given the opportunity to develop his/her own priorities, or to develop an adequate personal following, before acceding if all goes as planned to the presidency. In that case, different approaches to policy questions or to the future structure of government in Russia from those espoused by Putin will hardly be considered, running the risk for his successor of appearing to be no more than Putin writ small, and of lacking his/her own fresh program to offer. It is tempting to recall that change in the Soviet Union only came after the ineffective terms of Brezhnev’s immediate successors, Andropov and Chernenko.
It follows from the above account that Russia will not in the predictable future find a way to address the linked questions of how to secure beneficial relations with the outside world, responsible governance, and stable economic and social development. Those Russians who fear that a car crash is inevitable sooner or later, and possibly even before 2024, have a persuasive case to make. There are a number who judge that only such a catastrophe will enable Russia to escape from its present travails. If the fear of an imminent internal crisis while Putin is still in charge proves justified, its implications for the West could well prove troubling. That would also be the case if, as seems more plausible, the next Russian leadership proves unable to establish and legitimate its authority. Russia’s internal problems are not yet comparable to those that Gorbachev had to address, which included inter-ethnic tensions that were such a significant factor in the disintegration of the USSR. But the country’s domestic problems are nonetheless serious enough to demand answers, and for the Russian people to require them. None have been given them.
2Andrei Amalrik for instance wrote in 1970 that “if . . . one views the present ‘liberalization’ as the growing decrepitude of the regime rather than its regeneration, then the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy.” (“Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?”)
3Andropov’s deeply held belief that the United States and NATO as a whole were preparing a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union (see for instance Chapter 8 of Ben Macintyre’s newly published book about Gordievsky, The Spy and the Traitor) was not publicly known at the time. Andropov was not the new man that some supposed him to be as he took power in 1982. He has however been and still is a role model for Putin.
4The turbulent interregnum between the death of the last Russian Tsar of the Rurik Dynasty, Feodor Ivanovich, in 1598, and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613.
5Tsar Ivan III.
10Not even Cleopatra managed it.
11The probability that it will be “he” not “she” is of course extraordinarily high.