Professor Graeme Herd, Director of the Plymouth University School of Government, argues that at present, Putin harnesses paranoia and patriotism in the service of power; the question is not if but when this project fails.
President Putin has unified the Russian nation around a negative agenda centred on resentment against Russia’s diminished status, a revanchist return to empire and cultural loathing against predatory and pluralist open societies, bent on regime change in Russia. A combination of improvisation, opportunism, fear and calculation accounts for a clear and enduring shift from legal-rational to historical and charismatic legitimation of political authority in Russia.
Putin celebrated the return of Crimea to Russia in terms of righting historical injustice, and as the restoration of “historical Russian lands”. The themes of defending the Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”) and sustaining Novorossiya soon followed – with ominous signs that more expansionism could be in the offing. In August, Putin remarked that Kazakhstan premier Nursultanov Nazarbayev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state” and that an “overwhelming majority of Kazakhstan’s citizens seek the development of relations with Russia, we see it and know it.” By December 2014 the cult of the past was further underscored when Putin in a nation-wide televised address stated: “Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
As a consequence a further radicalisation rather than stabilization of Russian foreign and security policy to become more anti-Western is likely. According to President Putin, if Ukraine had not been a bone of contention between Russia and the West, then the West “would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, affect our country in some way, or even take advantage of it…. Just as it did not work for Hitler with his people-hating ideas, who set out to destroy Russia and push us back beyond the Urals. Everyone should remember how it ended.” This prospect has forced a rapid rethink of how the West engages Russia.
Explaining Legitimation Shifts
How to account for the shift and its consequences? First, Russia’s self-understanding of global geostrategic trends provides a clue. Russia believes itself ‘on the right side of history’, as opposed to the West ‘swimming against the tide of history’. At the Valdai Club President Putin argued the West, in particular the US, was decadent, dysfunctional and destabilizes global security. In a new multipolar system new rules would need to apply. Here the principles of ‘parity, equality and reciprocity’ would replace current US practice based on ‘supremacy, exceptionalism and domination’.
Second, oil-backed import consumption-led economic growth and ‘soft authoritarian’ governance system under President Medvedev (2008-12) failed. An anti-western foreign policy characterised by tough rhetoric, sanctions and counter-sanctions, provides the impetus for a new top-down state-led structural development plan with import substitution its engine: “The so-called sanctions and foreign restrictions are an incentive for a more efficient and faster movement towards our goals.” This project orders the next phase of Russia’s historical development. It promotes a Russian-led integrationist Eurasia Economic Union through constraining ‘Near Abroad’ political transformations (‘the bear will not even bother to ask permission’); accelerates Gazprom’s pivot to Asian energy markets; stimulates Russia’s domestic food production (‘now growing at between 6% and 10%’); advances the goal of ‘technological sovereignty’; and crushes internal dissent – an attack on Putin is now an attack on Russia. Russia’s imperial history, ethnicity and identity – the cult of the past – are now tools in the service of power.
Third, the nature of Russia’s ‘securitocracy’ bears examination. Though Putin assumed power in 2000 through a non-charismatic route – he was selected from within the system – he now emerges primarily as a leader with a national mission, the only individual able to protect and safeguard a patriotic electorate and so regenerate the nation against ‘national traitors’, ‘foreign agents, ‘5th’ and ‘6th columnists’, as well as external ‘fascists’, ‘colour-revolutions’, ‘encirclement’ etc. As Vyacheslav V. Volodin, a presidential deputy chief of staff, stated in October 2014: “If there’s Putin – there’s Russia, if there’s no Putin – there’s no Russia.”
Russia’s closed elite is young, cynical, dynastic, rich (110 billionaires control 35% of Russian GDP, the equivalent of $420 billion), and pragmatic. It supports the shift to traditional-charismatic legitimation as were the corporatist nationalist state to reform, power continuity would not be possible. The rule of law is politicised, the bureaucracy (sistema) corrupted and politics hobbled by patronage and personal loyalty ties to the president. Legal-rational legitimation is a fiction: the ‘No Putin, no Russia’ mantra accurately if inadvertently reflects a Russian reality.
Anti-fragility: ‘Armour is ready; winter is coming’?
‘Fragile’ is the quality of things vulnerable to volatility, variability, stress and disorder whereas, by contrast, ‘anti-fragile’ is the capacity to prosper in the context of randomness and uncertainty. Putin’s attempt to construct an anti-fragile state (an anti-Western foreign policy invites further disorder and escalation) is informed by the knowledge that his regime is vulnerable to tranquillity.
Three self-sustaining dynamics underpin ‘anti-fragilism’ at work. First, the greater economic weakness in Russia the more assertive and anti-Western set of foreign and security policies. In practical terms we can expect an escalation in ‘nuclear diplomacy’: as cash gets scarce and budgets are squeezed, Putin will be under pressure to justify the political utility of high nuclear expenditure. Strategic nuclear bombers based in Crimea, anyone?
Second, with the state controlling all five major TV stations in Russia, propaganda ensures that the lower levels of external trust translate into higher levels of internal, albeit negative, mobilization. The logic here being to maintain support Putin needs to find an enemy, then declare a war – and Russia has run out of credible internal scapegoats.
Third, local military-political imperatives in ‘Novorossiya’ drive the shift. If Russia ‘is not moving, it is losing’ – a frozen status quo is not in Russia’s interest. The classic security dilemma is at work: the stronger Ukrainian forces the weaker Russian. For Novorossiya (Donetsk and Lugansk) to make any political-military sense, Russian forces will move on Kharkiv, the capital of east Ukraine and to hold Crimea Russia needs a land bridge through Mariupol. Rather than a ‘charm offensive’ in Western capitals, Russia will escalate conflict in Ukraine’s east. According to General Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander: “My strategic team believes … that these forces will go in to make this [the patchwork of Russia-controlled territories] a more contiguous, more whole and capable pocket of land in order to then hold onto it long-term”.
Paradoxical Policy Context:
Leading western players are currently rethinking policy responses to Russia – Germany actively ‘remapping relations’ with its erstwhile modernization strategic partner. ‘Do no harm’ should be the first. Breaking the de facto arms embargo on Ukraine through, for example, providing US javelin systems capable of knocking out Russian armour would only strengthen Putin’s regime, not weaken it.
In the short term, maintain NATO solidarity is critical as political will is the prerequisite of action. Russia accusations against NATO, paradoxically, consolidate the alliance. After listening to how Western EU and NATO member states back a fascist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv and train mercenaries to kill civilians in the east (where Russian forces do not operate), even default pro-Russian NATO Ambassadors are aghast.
NATO contingency planning around a cyber-attacks and a ‘Donbass scenario’ in Narva in NE Estonia or Daugavpils in Latgale, eastern Latvia, are ongoing. What does a frightened local policeman do when facing an armed Russian Special Forces officer in civilian clothes? NATO needs a comprehensive reform of its security apparatus, in particular how police cooperate with the military, Interior with the Ministry of Defence, if it is to counter fourth generation warfare provocations. This winter Russia will continue to test NATO’s operational capacity in the Baltic region to respond, using escalation here to distract from advances on Kharkiv and Mariupol. Russia’s goal is not to hold Baltic territory but ‘Findlandise’ Baltic foreign and security policies.
The EU will review energy policy towards Russia and as the US becomes energy independent and LNG terminals in Louisiana begin to export gas to Europe, a shift from Gazprom will prove critical to Russia’s income and so foreign policy.
Over the longer term speaking truth to power is vital. Countering the legal and political claims made by Russia to justify interventions in Ukraine provides the basis for a diplomatic counter-offensive, capitalising on the desire of Russia’s neighbours not to become caught as pawns between Russia and the West. Russian language broadcasting to Russia and its neighbours and countering the influence of Russia’s external propaganda would prove effective.
Underlying Regime Fragility: Fear and Insecurity
The window of opportunity for Russia is closing. Putin’s Valdai critique of shortcomings in the global system was powerful but no alternative to the liberal capitalist-democratic network the US-leads has been proposed. BRICS are divided by economic asymmetries and corruption and view events in Ukraine as a regional squabble not a new East-West new or second Cold War conflict. China in particular is determined to have its own relationship with the US without Russia as mediator.
Russia’s cash reserves fund (“$270bn of hard cash that is accessible and usable without massive cuts elsewhere”) run out in 18 months, sooner if oil prices fall further. Russia’s budget 2015-217 is predicated on $110 pb – as of 9 December 2015 oil traded at $65 pb. It faces a full blown currency crisis (the rouble having devalued almost 50% since June), the possibility of further sanctions, and with it higher geopolitical risk and shrinking investor confidence. Internal domestic support is fickle. Euphoria is hard to maintain. Loyalty is conditional. Financial sector elites may baulk at the threats implicit within the super-presidentialism run-amok logic of ‘No Putin, no Russia’.
More worrying than what happens if Putin succeeds (unregulated competition and “ein volk, ein Reich; ein Fuhrer”?) is the answer to the question: ‘what happens if Putin fails’? Ultimately, the policy challenge is to craft a set of responses that positively channel Russia’s power and patriotism without reinforcing Putin’s paranoia – gesture politics won’t do it.