World

Russia: Six more years of Vladimir Putin’s global play

By J Brooks Spector 26 March 2018

In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s latest crushing electoral victory, J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to come to grips with the ideas that motivate the Russian president’s thinking about Russia’s destiny, and what this may mean for the rest of us.

In a result that should have surprised absolutely, positively, nobody on Planet Earth, Russian President Vladimir Putin overwhelmingly won re-election as his country’s president – for his fourth term of office. (One could – or really should – also count his term as prime minister under Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s closest collaborator at the time, as yet another term of office, organised to get around Russian constitutional provisions precluding more than two consecutive terms of office for a Russian head of government. The constitution does not, however, prevent more than two terms of office – if they are separated by someone else’s time at the big desk.) Looking ahead, there will be an increasing plurality of Russians who will have only known about their nation’s politics through the lens of Vladimir Putin as president.

In the end, Putin won this election with some 76% of the votes cast, from among an effective turnout of 67% of eligible voters. Among a divided opposition, his nearest competitor, communist Pavel Grudin, gained around 12% and the remaining candidates divided up the final 12%. (Navalny had urged a boycott of the election and there are some indications that younger, urban, educated voters took heed.)

Those candidates comprised a group of largely unknown figures; the one standout opposition figure, Alexi Navalny, had been disqualified from running by virtue of a felony conviction that he and his followers – as well as many external observers – saw as a trumped-up subsequent conviction designed to keep him away from the electorate. And, of course, Boris Nemtsov, the country’s leading dissident politician, had been assassinated in 2015 – in a still-unsolved shooting that took place a short distance from the Kremlin – and was not in the running either.

It is now impossible to imagine a Russia in which millions of young people and their supporters would peaceably rally across the nation to protest government inaction on the Russian equivalent of gun control. Consider, by contrast, what happened to Russians such as the “Pussy Riot” musicians and their demonstrating sympathisers a few years back, during the 2011 election.

In describing Navalny, the BBC wrote,

He has called Mr Putin’s party a place of ‘crooks and thieves’, accused the president’s system of ‘sucking the blood out of Russia’ and vowed to destroy the ‘feudal state’ being built. He has led nationwide protests against the authorities. But he has not been able to fulfil what is, perhaps, his biggest dream: challenge Mr Putin in the ballot box….”

His political rise began a decade ago, the BBC added, “when he started blogging about alleged malpractice and corruption at some of Russia’s big state-controlled corporations”.

One of Navalny’s tactics has been to purchase shares in major oil companies, banks and ministries, and then to ask awkward questions about suspicious holes in state finances related to those corporations. Further, he had made effective use of social media to deliver his message, even as the president and the nation’s media refused to even mention him, at least until his bid to be a presidential candidate had been thwarted.

However, even if Navalny had been on the ballot and had been able to campaign freely, and if national media had been allowed to report on his campaign and had given him airtime to speak to voters – most political observers believe Putin would still have won in a blowout. (Such an outcome in an all-out fight could have caused near-apoplectic envy on the part of Donald Trump, given his admiration for Vladimir Putin.)

Given reports of ballot stuffing and related tactics, the US president had been warned by aides not to be so effusive, thereby splitting from American allies in the midst of the current contretemps over the poisoning of a former Russian double-agent now living quietly in Salisbury, UK. But Trump went his own way and dangled the idea of a summit as well during his call.

As The Washington Post reported on this conversation,

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election – including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating ‘DO NOT CONGRATULATE’, according to officials familiar with the call. Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.”

Putin’s latest victory was not entirely the kind of politics he would have been familiar with earlier in his life as a young KGB officer. Back then, there would have been the usual outcome reporting of 102% of ballots cast in favour of the party’s candidate, and the turnout figures would likely have included everyone in the nation at the right age or older, save for those actually lying on operating tables or locked inside prisons.

Still, in contrast to Vladimir Putin’s predecessors, Putin had earned public support and respect for his leadership nous. A significant derived from accomplishments in domestic economic reform, his expansive stances internationally against potential opponents, and a personal demeanour Arnold Schwarzenegger would have called being a “real manly man” – being photographed on horseback sans a shirt, fishing, hunting and other testosterone-heavy habits, and squiring around a former ballet dancer.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union during Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule and the subsequent disorder of the new Russian state with Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s doses of discipline and reconstruction have fallen on very fertile ground for many. Additionally, Putin – drawing on the revenue from oil and natural gas exports in the great fuels price run-up and commodity boom that coincided with his initial tenure in office – could push expansive economic pro-growth policies and income for many Russians grew. More recently, with Western sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, air has gone out of the economy.

Longer term, this reliance on petroleum and natural gas may well become an increasingly risky bet for the future, as the world begins to pivot to electrics and other new technologies to substitute for petroleum dependency. Or as The Economist noted, in contrast to most other oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia “appears to be even blinder to the prospect of the energy transition. It has given short shrift to renewables. Beyond oil and gas, most of its attention is on nuclear energy”.

In response to Putin’s economic policies, especially in places like St Petersburg and Moscow and other larger urban areas, the growth in wealth and individual prosperity has been real, even if much of it is concentrated in the hands of those oligarchs who had gained control of natural resources in the collapse of state socialism. These oligarchs have managed to move much of their wealth abroad to London real estate or football clubs (or weakly monitored banks in places like Cyprus). These people have frequently been the financial backers of Putin to help ensure that their charmed circumstances continue.

Given Putin’s victory, given his personal history and the ideas that he holds dear, analysts are trying to understand what the Putin era means, going forward. As a young KGB officer assigned to the old East Germany, he had witnessed the utter collapse of the old regime – and then the growing disorder and disintegration of the Soviet Union itself when he was reassigned to Moscow, leaving hard lessons about what unrestricted citizen action produced. (He would see this again during the 2011 election cycle as large protests and demonstrations against his rule filled the streets. As a result, Putin has famously said that the breakup of the Soviet empire had been the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

In 1990, once he was back in the Soviet Union as it was about to become Russia and the other republics, and now retired from the KGB, Putin entered local government and within a decade he was president of Russia. Immediately after his return from Germany, he took an administrative position at the University of Leningrad and after the fall of communism in 1991, he became an adviser to liberal politician Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak became mayor of Leningrad the same year, Putin became his head of external relations, and, by 1994, deputy mayor.

After Sobchak’s electoral defeat in 1996, Putin moved to Moscow and became deputy head of management in Boris Yeltsin’s increasingly chaotic administration. Putin quickly became head of the new Federal Security Service, the reconstituted KGB, as well as head of Yeltsin’s Security Council.

In August 1999, Yeltsin dismissed his then-prime minister and promoted Putin to replace him. When Yeltsin resigned later in that year, Putin became acting president and then, in March 2000, was elected to his first term of office as president. In his first two terms of office, he had publicly espoused support for the global “war on terror” – including Russia’s own internal campaign in Chechnya – although he had opposed the 2003 war in Iraq. After that Medvedev interregnum in which Putin was prime minister and – effectively – Svengali to Medvedev, Putin was re-elected in 2013 to his third, now-six year, term.

It was in that period that US-Russian relations began to take significant strain, flowing in part from growing Russian engagement in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad (ostensibly in the fight against Daesh/ISIS/IS); then the forcible annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine; Russian support of irregular forces in the eastern reaches of that nation with manpower and weaponry; along with support for the shadowy Trans-Dniestr regime that had broken away from nearby Moldova, among other issues.

In the run-up to this latest Russian election, in his annual address to the Russian Parliament, Putin had bragged about a whole range of new generation (presumably not yet operational) weaponry that would make Nato’s defences “completely worthless”, including low-flying nuclear-capable cruise missiles with “unlimited” range and another weapon that travelled at hypersonic speed beyond the capabilities of anti-missile missiles. These announcements came along with a video animation of an attack on the US on a jumbo-tron, as Putin delivered his speech. These planned weapons do seem to herald the birth of a new arms race between the two nations, however.

Russia analysts are now watching closely to see who will begin to emerge from the shadows as claimants to be Putin’s successor, and how they are comporting themselves, unless he, like Xi Jinping in China, chooses to abolish term limits entirely.

Contemplating the rising population of younger professionals sometimes dubbed Gorbachev’s grandchildren, The Economist argues in a special section on Putin’s Russia that at least some of the nation’s future leaders:

… are part of a new generation of Russian elite who share the European values declared by Mr Gorbachev around the time of their birth and are traumatised by their reversal 30 years later. A significant and vocal group, they are imbued with a sense of entitlement and have the potential and desire to complete Russia’s aborted transition to a ‘normal’ country. Whether they get a chance to do so depends on many factors, including their determination and the resistance of the system embodied by Mr Putin’s rule.

The new generation define themselves by their difference from their ‘fathers’ as well as some similarities with their ‘grandfathers’. Gorbachev’s grandchildren recognise in each other a dissatisfaction with the aggression, degradation and lies that underpin Mr Putin’s rule. He presides over the sort of power structure that Douglass North, an American political economist, has called the ‘natural state’. In this, rents are created by limiting access to economic and political resources, and the limits are enforced by ‘specialists in violence’. In Russia these are the siloviki of the assorted security and police forces, serving the system as they did in Soviet times.

That system is not about to crumble. But the rise of a new generation – especially one which, through quirks of demography, is large (see chart) – matters in Russia. ‘Every new group coming to power has always declared a break with the previous one,’ wrote Yuri Levada, a prominent Russian academic, ‘blaming it for every possible sin. A demonstrable rejection of predecessors has been the main way for leaders of a new generation to establish themselves in power, regardless of whether they carried on or changed the means and style of governance.’ “

And as for the wellsprings of Vladimir Putin’s thinking about Russia and the world, it is useful to look at the kinds of things he reads and thinks about to gain some clarity on his Weltanschauung. Several years ago, in Daily Maverick, we had first looked at this question, quoting from Putin’s own interview with Outdoor Life magazine. As he had told readers,

I have always loved and avidly read the novels of Jack London, Jules Verne and Ernest Hemingway. The characters depicted in their books, who are brave and resourceful people embarking on exciting adventures, definitely shaped my inner self and nourished my love for the outdoors.”

In what may be key to his character, Putin said he found 19th century writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s fable about a fish that hides beneath stones convincing:

One can truly enjoy his or her life only while experiencing it, and it is inevitably related to a certain level of risk.”

Moreover, in an article under his own name, Putin explained his love for Russian history, especially heroism during World War II. As he wrote,

I am glad to describe some of the books about World War II that are especially meaningful to me…. The memory of World War II, its terrible images, and its tragic times will always be imprinted in the reminiscences of its eyewitnesses – in their letters, stories, and memoirs. Turning to them gives us much to ponder.” His reading list encompasses a whole host of Russian authors not always familiar to Western readers such as Konstantin Simonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Boris Vasil’ev and Konstantin Vorob’ev. The man seems not into chick lit, SF, or graphic novels.

The New York Times’ Burkean columnist, David Brooks, has also explored Putin’s reading habits, observing Putin’s favourite philosophers favour melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions, such as Ivan Illyin who had offered the possible look into Putin’s political goals, writing,

We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness.”

(Interestingly, Illyin died in exile in Switerland, estranged from the Soviet Union’s leaders.)

Brooks summarised his understanding of one of Putin’s philosophical heroes, writing,

Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage….”

For Putin, a writer like Illyin provides the epic vision both for Russia’s global role as well as the explanation that Russia is a besieged fortress surrounded by those who wish her ill.

In offering guidance for Western policymakers and leaders, Brooks argues that in confronting Russia, “we may not be dealing with a ‘normal’ regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks… [Instead] The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and has now found an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host.”

If this is what motivates Vladimir Putin’s world view, compare that for a moment to what we now know of Donald Trump’s staple diet of Fox News TV, his love of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1950s pop-religious best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, Trump’s own volumes of easy nostrums for business negotiations – or his planted appearances in the social scandal pages of The New York Post. Putin’s core ideas are much more powerful than Trump’s ever-mutating, transactional foreign and economic policy – especially since the Trumpian world view increasingly eschews the philosophical value of freedom and liberty as global exemplars and as a guide to understanding America.

In a time where Putin’s Russia seems increasingly “in your face” towards the West and that much more energetic in pursuing its objectives on many issues regardless of Western views on the matter, it will be crucial for Westerners to understand what makes Vladimir Putin tick. That is, at least until “Gorbachev’s grandchildren” can finally make their move to elbow Putin and his securocrats out of the way and then – just possibly – re-position Russia as one more so-called “normal nation”. DM

Photo: Presidential candidate, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to supporters during a rally at Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 18 March 2018. EPA-EFE/Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL

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