Putin Rides the Tide
Putin looks like he will continue to ride the tide he has set into motion for the time being. But amidst his tactical successes we can already see the signs of a looming strategic defeat.
Let’s begin with two broad brushstrokes: First, imagine, if you will, a country whose political establishment and society can’t stop talking about a neighboring country. This country obsesses over teaching its neighbor how to live and angrily punishes it for its disobedience. Moreover, this country and its media are fixated on this neighbor, even to the exclusion of domestic developments. What could we say about such a country? That it has lost its way. That it doesn’t have a feel for its own sense of identity. I’m speaking, of course, about Russia, whose television personalities, politicians, and pundits can’t stop talking about Ukraine and show not the slightest interest in anything happening in Russia itself. Everyone is looking at Ukraine, and Ukraine is the key trigger of Russian emotions, anger, frustration, and longing to demonstrate might and resolve.
Second, regarding the national “round tables” in Ukraine that Kiev is trying to host under OSCE auspices in order to resolve its political crisis: Kiev is right not to want to legitimize the separatists by dealing with them. However, the Western governments have been pretty evasive on the issue of who should talk to whom. If the West supports the “federalization” concept endorsed by the separatists, then it would mean the end of Ukraine in its current geographical format.
Putin looks like he will continue to ride the tide he has set into motion for the time being. But amidst his tactical successes we can already see the signs of a looming strategic defeat: The very idea of prolonging one’s rule by attempting to hold one’s country and the world in the past, after all, is in itself a kind of defeat.
So much for the broad brushstrokes. Now let’s add a few finer brushstrokes, step back, and give our landscape a chance to come into view.
- The Kremlin’s efforts to root Russian identity and patriotism in shows of force and in seminal historical events like the victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) has prompted a continuous search for enemies. Russia has embarked on a path of perpetual war (or at least perpetual confrontation) with those who refuse to accept this identity—whether those enemies are to be found beyond Russia’s borders or within them. Cooperative gestures by other nations will not change this paradigm; it can only be undone when those who set it in motion relinquish power.
- While the results of this “war/patriotic” consolidation of Russian society have been impressive thus far, the recent history of such efforts (the second Chechen War of 1999 and the Russia-Georgia war of 2008) suggests that this gambit will only work for a time. Eventually, the numbing effects of mass military psychosis begin to wear off. And if recent polls are any indication, they may be wearing off quickly this time: For example, in March 2014, 59 percent of Russians were ready to shoulder the financial burden that would come with the annexation of Crimea, and 19 percent were not. In April, these figures were 46 percent and 30 percent, respectively. In March, 49 percent of Russians supported the annexation of the southeastern Ukraine, while 12 percent did not; in April only 25 percent were in favor of the annexation, and 30 percent opposed it. The Kremlin cannot plunge Russia into a permanent state of military consolidation; this would only be possible if Russia were a totalitarian state. But Russia cannot become such a state anymore.
- The elites are still behind Putin. But the comprador segment of the elite, which is integrated into the West, is already unhappy. It is feeling the pinch of the sanctions and of the West’s growing hostility. Pragmatists within the ranks of the elite have begun to doubt whether Putin can successfully protect their interests. But the elites will voice their doubts and misgivings openly only if the people take to the streets.
- The militarization of the Russian budget (military expenditures have increased 80 percent in the past four years) translates into cuts in health care, education, and regional spending (health care spending is down 25 percent, educational expenditures were reduced by 30 percent, and the regions lost 40 percent of their funding). In other words, the regime has decided to degrade Russia’s human capital for the sake of new militarization. This is bound to increase public discontent, but we don’t know when the tide of discontent will come, nor do we know which segments will rise with it.
- Having embarked on its witch-hunt, the Kremlin has fostered an atmosphere of hostility and aggression inside Russia. So far, the aggression has been channeled against the small segment of opposition to the regime. But sooner or later the regime itself will become the target of this aggression; Russians don’t like their rulers. Even Putin’s supporters are growing tired of his rule; more than 50 percent of respondents in one poll indicated that they don’t want him in the Kremlin after 2018.
- The Kremlin’s rejection of modernization in favor of a return to the traditional status quo means that those who want change can no longer hold out any hopes that it will come from the top. The only option left is revolution. And when it comes to revolutions, Russia can hardly count on it being one of the Velvet variety, especially given the elevated level of aggression in the country today.
- By awakening Russia’s traditional electorate, the Kremlin has narrowed its own room for maneuver. From now on, the electorate will see any attempt at cooperation with the West as a betrayal. Any attempt at partnership will be branded by this electorate as a betrayal of the national interest. Thus Putin himself may soon become too moderate for the base he has groomed and for the new “angry wolves” he has allowed to emerge within the political class.
- Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he is planning to extend his rule indefinitely. But by disallowing peaceful electoral regime change and political competition, he is actually increasing the likelihood of a coup, which will make his eventual exit from power more dramatic—for both himself and Russia.
- Any attempt to meld the Eurasian idea (the creation of a galaxy of statelets in orbit around Russia) and the idea of protecting Russian speakers everywhere will inevitably undermine the Eurasian Union. It is no coincidence that both Lukashenko and Nazarbayev have tried to avoid supporting the annexation of Crimea. Moscow will have to pay to preserve the Eurasian Union, and doing this will not guarantee its members’ loyalty. Besides, how much will Moscow be able to pay if it soon faces its own budgetary constraints?
- Instead of blocking Ukraine’s turn to Europe, Russia has only accelerated the coalescing of a Ukrainian national identity and the distancing of most of the country from Russia. It’s now clear that Kiev can no longer be kept in the “grey zone”—even if that’s also the outcome Europe wants.
- The mercenary forces that the Russian regime has used to support its special operations in Ukrainian territory are a new and significant variable. These former military personnel, special service operatives, and Cossacks are armed, and they may create problems for law enforcement inside Russia when they return home.
- Russia’s militarization and its return to the use of 20th-century geopolitical instruments will inevitably serve as a pretext or spur for other countries to militarize, including those in the West. Russia cannot win this new arms race; as with the Soviet Union, it will only accelerate Russia’s decay.
- China is certainly going to make use of the Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine. The question is how. Will Beijing, too, be tempted to follow Moscow’s example and stage its own regional or global crusade?