Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has announced he will be running for re-election next March. He has no serious challenger. Another six-year term lies ahead. None of this is a surprise, but it raises the question of where Russia is heading, and how to deal with it.
Before 1991, hardly anyone would have predicted the demise of the Soviet Union. Today, almost no one ventures to predict the end of Putinism. The widespread assumption among western officials and experts — and in Russia itself — is that Putin can hang on for a long time yet. He has fanned the flames of militarist nationalism, both to consolidate his domestic power and to enhance Russia’s clout in the world. It has worked well so far. Can it last?
Binary, contradictory narratives about Russia are nothing new. A Russian journalist had once asked former president Boris Yeltsin how well he thought Russia was doing. “Good!” he shouted. When the journalist suggested he give a longer answer, Yeltsin thundered: “Not good!” The anecdote was shared at a Chatham House conference last week in Berlin shortly after Putin’s announcement. In the discussions, two diverging narratives emerged.
American, European and Russian experts are increasingly asking whether Russia can go on for much longer as a confrontational and revisionist power seeking revenge for its humiliation when the Cold War ended. Most said it would.
Putin has left himself no other choice, goes that logic. After massive street protests in 2011-12, he needed to find new political legitimacy. The 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, as the result of a popular uprising, handed Putin just that opportunity: Western hesitation in Syria had convinced him that the United States would stomach the annexation of Crimea, rather than respond to it.
Russia is today at war, in Syria and in Ukraine, and that’s the new normal — not a passing phase. Russian society has embraced aggressive nationalism and anti-western sentiment. Russia has no interest in resolving conflict situations and sees the use of force as a key instrument to achieve foreign policy goals. Russia’s gross domestic product may be the size of Italy’s, and it has failed to diversify its economy, but Putin compensates by raising Russia’s international prestige. He diverts attention from Russia’s domestic weaknesses by capitalising on western weaknesses — now made worse by the Donald Trump presidency in US. Putin is in good shape. He’ll be around for a long time.
The opposite, minority, view holds that none of this is sustainable. Putin has been in power (as president or prime minister) for as long as Leonid Brezhnev, who ran the Soviet Union into its strategic dead end. By the end of his next term, Putin will be 71. Even without changing the constitution, it is conceivable he might still be running for president in 2030, when he’ll be 77 (after an interim period similar to the handpicked Dmitry Medvedev presidency of 2008-12).
Russians have experienced gerontocracy before. It didn’t end well at all. Putin is faced with a succession problem in a petro-state where the economy is stagnating, just as it was in the Brezhnev era. As in the late 1980s, global oil prices are low and likely to remain so. With that, the pie will get smaller for Russia’s oligarchic class. Infighting among the ruling elite is on display, with the trial of a former minister for bribery.
A brain drain deprives Russia of many young talents, who are emigrating in droves. Russia is set to decline. A resurgent China breathes heavily down its neck. Putin’s plans for a “Eurasian Union” are an empty shell. Bombastic nationalism will exhaust itself. Putinism is set to run its course.
How to deal with Russia? Answers hinge on which of the two narratives one chooses to prefer. If Putinism is set to last in its current form, containing Russia is essential. Western alliances must ensure all options for a successful Russian war in Europe are entirely closed off — it would be folly to hope Russian aggressiveness dissipates soon. Indeed, Moscow believes it stands to benefit from the weakening of the UN-based international order. That has been at the heart of its policies in Europe and in the Middle East.
If, on the other hand, Putinism is slowly entering its final throes, then preparing for important changes in Russia makes sense. If anyone had prepared for the collapse of the Soviet system, mistakes might have been avoided: Offering post-Soviet Russia the equivalent of a Marshall plan would have prevented its slide towards authoritarianism.
For its modernisation and stability, Russia will have no other choice but to turn to Europe, says that theory. When that time comes, Russia should be offered a package of rapprochement with the West, with stringent conditions attached, including complete troop withdrawal from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
In the first scenario, Putin is just the face of a Russian power system, not its full embodiment. That system could one day replace him without fundamentally reforming itself. To obsess about Putin is a trap. It misses the deeper, durable course that Russia has embarked upon. Russians may dream of western living standards, but they neither have any real interest in democracy nor in cooperation with Europe.
The second scenario — the end of Putinism — would produce political ruptures in Russia that western democracies would do well to anticipate. Russians feel much closer to Europeans than they do to the Chinese. They want to live in a “normal” society, not one caught up in Orwellian paranoia, with widespread corruption.
The first view seems by far the most realistic. The second is where a degree of hope can be found. Putin made his announcement last week in an interesting place: The city of Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorki, where Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, lived in internal exile after Brezhnev had him arrested in 1980 for protesting the Soviet war in Afghanistan. A decade later, transformations that no one could ever have thought possible suddenly erupted in Russia.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a Guardian columnist.