What is the myth?
There is a persistent belief in the West that its relations with Russia after President Vladimir Putin (eventually) leaves power will necessarily improve, at a minimum returning to their pre-Putin or early-Putin level – in other words, to the way they were before or during his first presidential term in 2000–04. This assumption is wrong and is sustained by at least two errors. One is the belief that the downturn in the relationship between Russia and the Western powers under Putin was an anomaly rather than a new norm. The other is the implicit understanding that Russia is capable, given its political conditions and human resources today, of developing the institutions and democratic culture required to move away from its current authoritarian model. There are reasons why both of these statements must be challenged.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Western politicians and most of the Western media are in thrall to this kind of illusion. Every wave of protests in Russia brings anticipation of Putin’s imminent departure and the arrival of a ‘happy ever after’, or at least an improvement of some sort. Putin invariably is seen as the proverbial bad guy: either in his personal capacity; or as the embodiment of a Soviet generation and former member of the KGB and FSB security agencies.
The failure of attempts by individual Western politicians to achieve a breakthrough in the relationship with Russia – be it Barack Obama with the US ‘reset’, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande or Boris Johnson – has resulted in the opinion (not without evidence, it must be said) that progress cannot be achieved ‘under Putin’. For many politicians, this is the easiest and most comfortable explanation for their failure to respond more effectively to Russia.
Such a narrative is susceptible to amplification by the significant populist element in modern-day politics in Western countries. This can create a self-reinforcing dynamic in which politicized exploitation of a stereotype negatively shapes public opinion towards the Putin regime. In turn, political positions and policy towards Russia become hostage to this populist view and are all but obliged to echo it, entrenching the myth yet further. The phenomenon is especially noticeable in the US.
Why is it wrong?
Illusions about the supposed impermanence of the disruptive foreign policy that has prevailed under Putin are based on wishful thinking about the prospects for change in Russia’s political culture. First of all, Putin and his anti-Western rhetoric remain popular in Russia precisely because he expresses a view widely held domestically (and reinforced by ceaseless anti-Western propaganda). Anti-Western sentiment, though by no means universal, has been inflamed by Putin and has taken a firm hold in the hearts and minds of many Russian citizens – including, depending on the particular topic in question, among young people.
This is not going to change after Putin’s departure, in part because Russian society also suffers from a post-imperial syndrome characterized by a state of deep resentment towards the West, which to Russian eyes neither allows the country to remain a superpower nor has provided it with a decent place within the international system. Even in the best-case scenario for Western observers, in which a pro-Western leader comes to power in Russia, any drive for a radical improvement in the relationship with the West will face considerable inertia.
Second, any chances for a post-Putin Russia to build a viable democratic political system are lower now than they were in the 1990s. Although nearly two generations of Russians have grown up since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have done so largely under Putin and tend to be more pro-Soviet than anti-Soviet in their worldview. For many years, the country’s elections have been far from free and fair, and any remaining chances for meaningful democracy are rapidly evaporating. Long gone, too, is any semblance of legitimate and independent local government. Apart from a limited number of civil institutions either accepted or tolerated by the Kremlin, Russia’s civil society is non-existent and therefore has no experience or track record. This begs the question of how realistic it is to expect the emergence of advanced democratic institutions after Putin leaves office, when there are currently no foundations to speak of. In the early 1990s, a hunger for democracy compensated for the absence of institutions and expertise, and there was a clarity among the general public about which democratic models were to be adopted and a willingness to see the process through. Today, that hunger has been replaced by disappointment with the results of the attempted democratization, and with the political models themselves.
The trouble with believing that what comes after Putin must be better than Putin is that it implicitly influences the majority of forecasts about Russia, thereby sustaining inertia in the West as politicians await an improvement that may never materialize.
Third, in order for this ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ to emerge, the country will need a new professional cadre of elite bureaucrats and policymakers, along with the resources for their rapid mobilization. The conditions needed to achieve this are not present in today’s Russia, and it will therefore take a long time to develop and establish new elites from scratch. This is a far cry from the Russia of the perestroika era under Mikhail Gorbachev, when new elites clamouring for change were emerging from within the old system. A recent policy brief on ‘post-Putin diplomats’, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), serves as a good illustration of this point.
What is its impact on policy?
The trouble with believing that what comes after Putin must be better than Putin is that it implicitly influences the majority of forecasts about Russia, thereby sustaining inertia in the West as politicians await an improvement that may never materialize. Most mass media outlets in the West follow their politicians’ line, rehashing this popular and palatable misconception instead of challenging it and shaping public opinion to ensure that views on Russia’s prospects are better informed and more realistic.
The mistaken belief that Putin is an anomaly is also preventing the West from facing the uncomfortable truth that its problems with Russia will not disappear overnight once a new leadership ultimately takes power. This has potentially negative implications for both proactive and defensive Western policies towards Russia. For example, pushing for a quick win in terms of political change could be counterproductive, not only because it would require reforming the whole system (rather just replacing the person heading it) but also because any precipitous or premature changes could lead to instability. A fast-track approach would also likely struggle to engage with Russian civil society via educational initiatives and practical support. With electoral systems, for example, reform of technical structures needs to go hand in hand with the laborious task of changing the political culture of voters.
Finally, adherence to the myth that Russia after Putin will inevitably be an improvement (by Western criteria) on the current regime carries the obvious risk of disappointment and consequent policy overreaction. When illusions collide with reality, this can create a toxic media and political atmosphere in which policymakers and the general public are more susceptible to extreme proposals and unfounded assertions about Russia’s strategic intentions – thus removing the foundations needed for the development of credible policy.
What would good policy look like?
The Western powers need to develop long-term strategies that serve their wider national interests, rather than focusing on Putin or any other individual. These strategies should be built on extensive research into the contemporary Russian political system and civil society, examining the challenges in each area and the prospects for addressing them. Specific tactical steps must be joined up and built into a long-term strategy, as the West’s current positions arguably lack clarity, consistency or flexibility. To begin with, it would be useful to analyse the mistakes that have lately been made by all sides, and to conduct an audit of existing approaches to building relations, retaining only those that can achieve positive results, while also developing more effective ones.
A clear strategy, based on general principles but also necessarily country-specific, would support more active and productive engagement both with public opinion in Western countries and with actors in Russia. Implementation of each step in the strategy should be constantly monitored for cost versus benefit. Current affairs in Russia must also be constantly monitored and analysed for their implications for the country’s future political development.
In formulating policy towards Russia and engaging with Russian interlocutors, Western diplomats should distinguish between the regime, the state and the country.
The strategy should be multifaceted and multi-vectored. The usual containment, engagement and isolation policies, in whichever combination, are not enough. Western powers should not close the door to possible cooperation with Russia (either during Putin’s rule or post-Putin) on urgent issues, such as the Arctic, the Middle East, COVID-19 and climate change. In consultations and discussion of problems, attention both to results and process is important, to allow effective responses to rapid changes in circumstances.
In formulating policy towards Russia and engaging with Russian interlocutors, Western diplomats should also distinguish between the regime, the state and the country. When engaging with the Putin regime, the logical approach should be to minimize contacts with actors at the heart of the regime and to avoid particular political or dialogue formats that might contribute to its legitimation. In contrast, bilateral contacts at the expert level, and with civil activists and ordinary citizens, should be intensified. Western and Russian expert and political groups must strive to establish tighter connections.
Finally, it is important to break the pattern in which, in any dialogue with the West, Russia’s position is represented by Kremlin appointees, as for example in the St Petersburg Dialogue. Russia has national interests that legitimately need to be formulated, articulated and taken into account, but these are not the same as the specific interests of the Putin regime. The more that Western powers proceed from this principle as they develop their policies, the more chances there are that Russia after Putin will be a more normal country on the world stage than it has been under Putin.