By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, March 16, 2015 — A panel of Russian scholars and journalists, moderated by UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman, attempted to make sense of contemporary Russian politics at an event hosted by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies on March 5. The event was generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is funding the participants (together with additional Russian and U.S. experts) to write a book on the subject.
The panel painted a grim picture of Russia’s present and future, arguing that the Putin regime was unable to change course due to the very logic that currently drives its actions: one that sees Russia as a “besieged fortress,” identifies Putin’s rule with stability and dissent as treasonous, and uses external military action to buttress Putin’s popularity and hold on power. The speakers considered the country’s future highly uncertain, given Russia’s lack of alternative political leaders, institutions or mass media outlets, together with its unaccountable security apparatus and weak regional elites.
Panel speakers included Maria Lipman, columnist for The Washington Post, former scholar-in-residence at the Society and Regions Program of the Moscow Carnegie Center and editor of its journal Pro and Contra; Andrei Soldatov, investigative journalist and co-author, with Irina Borogan, of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (Perseus, 2010), and co-founder and editor of Agentura.ru, an information hub on Russian security services; Nikolai Petrov, professor of applied political science and comparative politics at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, and an expert on Russian regional politics; Kirill Rogov, senior research fellow at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, political commentator and a founder of the online periodical polit.ru; and Maxim Trudolyubov, opinion page editor of Vedomosti and columnist for the International New York Times.
Putin shifts course in 2012
“There was a major shift in 2012: the nature of the regime changed, the nature of Russian society changed, and it can be argued that the president himself changed,” said Maria Lipman.
Three key factors prompted this shift, she said: the economic slowdown, which threatened Putin’s political bargain with the populace; the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 (perceived as an “abuse” of Russia’s abstention from the vote on the U.N. resolution); and a decline in Putin’s approval ratings from 80 to 60 percent. The latter, she continued, played out in the mass political protests that took place in Russia in late 2011 and early 2012 (i.e., just before Putin’s election to a third presidential term and again right before his inauguration).
Kirill Rogov noted that the economic slowdown began in 2011, but its impact was masked for several years by high oil prices. Putin, he added, used the wealth it acquired through exports in 2010–14 to effect a massive redistribution of wealth from the market to the state sector in those years, raising salaries in the government sector by approximately 9 percent a year.
After assuming office in (May) 2012, said Lipman, Putin moved quickly to suppress political opposition, enacted a stream of anti-liberal legislation and adopted a social conservatism that intruded into people’s private lives, touching on such matters as faith, sex, the family and education. This trend was then exacerbated in 2014 by the political crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
“In a matter of one year [2014), we had quite significant, drastic changes in almost all spheres of life,” added Lipman. Most striking, the national television networks “were turned in to ruthless propaganda machines generating an atmosphere of intolerance, aggression and xenophobia,” she said. By the end of the year, Russia had become a “besieged fortress” in which loyalty to the commander-in-chief was paramount.
Rogov said the propaganda campaign had succeeded in suppressing all alternative views of reality, replacing the previous popular complaints about corruption with complaints about Ukrainian fascists, the United States and the West in general. It also succeeded, he continued, in bringing a group of people into active political participation who had previously been indifferent to politics, while silencing those who had previously been active and disagreed with the Kremlin line.
Over the course of 2014, people critical of Putin and his government began to be portrayed as a “fifth column,” or national traitors, creating an atmosphere that unleashed all kinds of vigilante groups and violence. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, for example, had been accused of precisely these things in the months before he was murdered (February 27, 2015), an event that Lipman called “monstrous and terrifying.”
Nikolai Petrov characterized the vigilante violence unleashed in Russia as the “Chechenization of Russian politics.” There are arms everywhere, he observed, with Chechen, Russian and all other kind of bandits, including the Russians who have gone to fight in Ukraine. The use of ruthless power and suppression in Chechnya to ensure uncontested authoritarian power, he implied, could become a model for all of Russia.
The way in which Putin and his circle view reality differs from the way in which the panelists — and the West — view it, observed Trudolyubov. The annexation of Crimea and the beginning of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine showed that “we were watching one situation [and] they were acting in a very different one,” he said. “They were on the defensive.” In their view, he explained, Ukraine was already in the process of being conquered and divided by a West hungry for new territories and new resources.
Andrei Soldatov concurred, arguing that the staff of the Federal Security Service (Russian acronym, FSB)* responsible for gathering intelligence in Ukraine shared a mentality of fear with Putin and his administration. The security agency utterly failed in its intelligence-gathering mission in Ukraine “because they never trusted or believed in any kind of grassroots movement. Of course, they found the logical enemy: the CIA,” he remarked.
The regime’s defensive mentality has produced a foreign policy that is unpredictable and dangerous, with Putin abandoning strategy for tactics, said Soldatov. This mentality has created an asymmetry between the West and Russia, observed Trudolyubov. Europe and the West do not feel that they are at war with Russia and are not increasing their military budgets, whereas Putin and his regime do feel that they are at war. Accordingly, they are implementing military reforms, investing in new weaponry and ensuring a constant flow of weapons, training and manpower to Ukraine.
Ideology, popularity and tactics in Putin’s calculus
Nationalism of all kinds is on the rise in Russia, said Lipman, particularly a nationalism that argues “might makes right,” to which the young generation appears to be responding positively. It is a large factor in Putin’s current “ideology,” which she described as a mixture of real belief and cynicism.
Several panelists emphasized that many themes of this ideology — protection of Russian speakers outside of Russia, the need to overcome the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s collapse and restore Russia as a great power, the dominance of the state over society, resentment of the projection of U.S. power around the world, and Russia as the bearer of “truth” not recognized in the West — were expressed by Putin early in his career, particularly in a political manifesto that he published in 1999. Petrov argued, however, that Putin’s predilections had not made Russia’s current confrontation with the West inevitable, saying his policies might have followed a very different path had events in Ukraine not unfolded as they did.
The speakers agreed that Putin is consciously dependent on high popularity ratings to justify his monopoly on power. Although the Russian president’s current approval rating is estimated at 80 percent and higher, Rogov cautioned against accepting this figure at face value in light of the country’s propaganda-saturated environment.
Support for Putin, he continued, follows patterns connected with good economic performance and national consolidation (or “the small victorious war effect”), respectively. “The Russian president,” said Rogov, “has achieved the extremely high approval rating of 80 percent four times: at the beginning of 2000, just before he was elected president the first time [soon after launching the second Chechen war]; at the end of 2003 [when Russia’s economy was growing rapidly]; in 2008, during the war in Abkhazia, Georgia; and at present.” The notable change is that today’s “besieged fortress” model enables Putin to retain high approval ratings in spite of a worsening economic situation, he observed.
Petrov noted that although Putin was re-elected in 2012, his political legitimacy did not increase. In fact, he immediately faced large popular protests. At the same time, he added, the economy had stopped growing. That left the oligarchic regime the choice of becoming more open and competitive at the expense of losing both its political and economic monopoly, or retaining its political monopoly at the expense of the economy by building a fence around Russia.
Most panelists doubted that the Putin regime had either the appetite or capacity for additional “quick military victories” to maintain its legitimacy. Petrov argued that Russia’s hard power was limited; Trudolyubov, that the regime already had its hands full. In the latter’s view, Putin’s actions over the last year and half have been dictated solely by political survival. Nevertheless, as audience member and political scientist Joshua Tucker pointed out, the precedent exists (i.e., using military action to boost Putin’s popularity) and the Russian president is well aware that it has worked before.
Institutional considerations and the future
The panelists pointed out a number of institutional and political considerations that will affect Russia’s future. Rogov, for example, claimed that current events in Russia denoted the beginning of the post–post-communist era, which he predicted would continue for a decade. In this period, the political legitimacy of the regimes that were consolidated in the post-Soviet republics in the 1990s will be challenged due to their common unresolved problems. Top among those problems are widespread corruption and failure to implement the rule of law. In Rogov’s view, this period actually began with the protests for fair elections in Russia in 2011 and continued with the Maidan Square protests in Ukraine in 2013–14.
The efficacy and controllability of the FSB, the primary security agency of Russia, represents a crucial institutional problem in the country. Internally, the agency is experiencing a significant generational problem within its ranks, said Soldatov, with mid-level staff unable to obtain promotions. Putin appointed key allies from his KGB days in St. Petersburg to the agency’s top posts and there they remain — too young to retire. In addition, Soldatov argued that despite the substantial money and power showered on the agency by the Russian president, individual FSB generals had no way of building clientele networks because they do not directly control economic resources, even though many agents have been posted to Russian corporations and state agencies.
Externally, said Soldatov, the FSB has become a “completely impenetrable box” over which the Russian government and Russian society have no control; the agency lacks parliamentary and/or prosecutorial oversight, as well as independent media scrutiny. The utility and efficiency of the now massive FSB is, moreover, questionable. Not only has it failed to gather accurate information (e.g., about the Ukrainian protests), it has been absent from the security response to the Moscow protests of 2011–12 and the operation to annex Crimea. (The government’s Investigative Committee took the lead in the former, and military intelligence, in the latter.)
If the FSB has been hollowed out under Putin, so too has regional government, although the latter remains under control of the center. “Regional political elites are extremely weak due to 15 years of negative selection,” said Petrov, noting that the quality of management in general had also declined in Russia. The country is now over-centralized and falling oil prices will create opportunity for greater regionalization, but Petrov doubted the capability of regional leaders to rise to the challenge of real governance.
Petrov compared the Putin regime to an airplane in a tailspin that is headed for an inevitable crash. The only thing the Russian president can do is to control the speed at which the plane hits the ground, he said. The plane could crash, meaning the regime collapses and an entirely new regime appears (perhaps via force in a “Chechenization” model). Alternatively, the plane could collapse in mid-air, meaning the political elite replaces Putin as leader (which Petrov deemed unlikely); or external influence, such as the relaxation of sanctions by Europe, could allow the plane to exit the tailspin and the Putin regime to survive.
*The FSB is the institutional descendant of the KGB.
All photos by Peggy McInerny
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