Andrew Wood
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits Kalevala woodworking plant on April 28, 2014 in Pertozavodsk, Karelia region, Russia. Hennadiy Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, is in a critical condition after being shot by unknown gunmen amid continuing unrest in URussia's President Vladimir Putin visits Kalevala woodworking plant on April 28, 2014 in Pertozavodsk, Karelia region, Russia. Hennadiy Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, is in a critical condition after being shot by unknown gunmen amid continuing unrest in Ukraine. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

President Putin’s rule was running into trouble before his Crimean adventure. His seizure of that territory has put it even more firmly on a path that leads to destruction.

The Economic Blind Alley

Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy may for some look impressive in the short term. But it does nothing to improve Russia’s troubling economic prospects. Running Crimea will be a cost to a Russian budget already under strain. Western sanctions may so far seem quite mild but have played into pre-existing Russian fears for the country’s future. Hence the increased capital flight and the shocks to investment that have happened over the past weeks.

The way that Putin has tried to force Ukraine to his will has rammed home the lesson – already implicit in the policies he pursued after his return to the Kremlin in 2012 – that he favours autarchy over fruitful interaction with the developed world. The hold that he and his closest collaborators have over the country and its economy has been tightened. That way lies impoverishment.

It is right to say ‘Putin’, not for instance ‘the Kremlin’ or ‘the Russian government’, because it is Putin who has driven Russian policy, seemingly, so far as Ukraine has been concerned, in part, out of personal anger. By doing so, as well as by rejecting economic reform and master-minding the repression of dissent, Putin has further entrenched a long-standing and damaging process whereby what should be autonomous constitutional bodies have been drained of independent meaning.

That has very much included the government headed – if that is now the right word – by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The unanimous vote of the Council of the Federation giving Putin carte blanche for the use of force against Ukraine was a clear and servile abdication of responsibility.

Putin is not all powerful. He is not a dictator. But nothing of any weight can now be pursued without his clear approval in advance. That is a recipe for flattery from his courtiers, the avoidance of difficult choices and over-insurance in executing his presumed wishes by those answerable to him. Fear of getting it wrong and ambition are poor bedfellows. The effect on Putin over the past many years can only be dangerous.

There were those who hoped that the gestures made by the Kremlin to lighten the pre-Olympic atmosphere, and the success of the Games themselves, might signal a wider movement towards more flexible policies and governance. The non-systemic opposition had after all been cowed.

Russia’s fury at the collapse of its hopes for Ukraine made it obvious that these hopes were delusory. It was instantly clear that internal control would be reinforced, not relaxed, that domestic critics would be vilified and that ‘the West’ would more than ever be Putin’s favourite, and despised, enemy. It is legitimate to speculate what combination of fear, in-grown beliefs and hasty calculation led to Putin choosing this path, and not the path of watchful accommodation, but it is clear that in choosing it, he has now made retreat impossible.

It follows that Putin has nowhere safe to go if he leaves the Kremlin. So he won’t, if he can prevent it, in 2018 or even 2024.

Putin and the Russian People

Crimea was for years a fringe cause for the great majority of the Russian people. Putin’s focus was on Ukraine as a whole, that country being essential to his overall ambition of restoring, as he would see it, Russia’s right to be a great power. Few Russians beyond the foreign policy establishment in Moscow cared much about that either. Nor would many have felt as insulted or threatened as Putin and his immediate circle seemed to be by the 2004 Orange Revolution or, at first at least, by the Maidan protests in the closing weeks of 2013. On the contrary, what some of the ruling group feared was that groups of Russians might become infected by the example of protestors in Ukraine acting with such determination against Yanukovich − given the uncomfortable parallels between his rule and theirs − and between Maidan and the unrest in Russia of 2011–12.

It was clear enough what drove Putin, but what made the major part of the Russian people cheer his assault on Ukraine? The sheer weight of Russian propaganda had its effect. So too did the swift and painless conquest of Crimea, and the helplessness of the West in responding – a West that the Russians have been increasingly persuaded over the years is their cheating enemy, a West whose relative success has somehow to be denied, including by a Russian claim to superior if undefined values.

Here was Russia off her knees, triumphant. Here too was a Russia recovering her Soviet inheritance, strengthened in celebrating the justice of that by decades of willed refusal to examine the realities of what Lenin and Stalin did to their subjects. Such factors fed patriotic fervour in the population, leaving those with doubts in a minority once the unbelievable happened, and Yanukovich fled. But there was more to it than that. There was also temporary release from the doubt and fear that had begun to plague Russia as to its future.

The trouble with this nationalist drug is that it cannot last without repeated doses. And even if Moscow treats Ukraine with more brutality, the Kremlin will never now rule Ukraine in ease or comfort. Attempts to enforce the principal Kremlin objective of fraternal unity across the former Soviet space are futile. The effect of trying has already been to inject a lasting poison into Russia’s relationship with all other countries sharing that Soviet background. 

Requiem

No one would suggest that the countries of the West have always acted wisely or for the best in their relationships with Russia over the past three decades. But in the end it is Russian actors who have restored much of the Soviet past that so many, Russians as well as others, had hoped they would rise above. And it is Russians who will have to find a new way towards just, answerable government instead. 

That will be all the more challenging as the glasnost which was a foundation stone of the Gorbachev liberation has been attacked, indeed almost destroyed. If the rulers of Russia choose to hole themselves up in the Kremlin there can never be a constructive dialogue with those they govern. 

Suppressing dissent within a society that has grown alienated from its ruling group cannot for long be balanced by an ever more determined search for enemies, internal or external. Putin will be called to account. How and when is beyond present knowing.

Change from within the ruling group becomes all the more difficult as the threat or use of force against perceived enemies at home as well as abroad takes hold. On the contrary, it imprisons the leadership, the ‘national leader’ not least. 

It is already right to mourn what Russia might have become, to grieve for its present trajectory and to fear for its future.

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