Quo Vadis, Putin? An Answer in Five Points
Reflections on Putin and Russian domestic politics.
- The Kremlin’s erratic behavior is a sign that political factions around Putin may be in conflict with one another.
- Germany's “Russia-understanders” are in retreat, signaling mistrust of the Kremlin.
- Putin’s admission of support for the events in Crimea in 2014 creates a "fortress mentality" in Russia.
- The Russian population is less ready to suffer for some elusive foreign policy agenda than is usually assumed.
1. What did Putin’s sudden disappearance mean? What about the possibility of a coup d’etat?
Putin’s 10-day absence was ominous and atypical. It went along with news of seeming conflict or mis-coordination in the Kremlin; for instance, around the official narratives concerning the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and the prehistory of the annexation of Crimea (Putin and the Russian Ministry of Affairs provided different stories about Russia’s engagement in February-April, 2014).
In general, the Kremlin’s behavior is becoming more erratic by the month. That may not yet indicate a coup d’etat. Yet, it is a sign that various factions around Putin are not well-coordinated – or are even already in conflict with each other.
If nothing happens before 2018, that year will be crucial. Russia’s “selectorate” (i.e., the Moscow elite circles) will have to agree on putting Putin forward again, or somebody else, to become president (probably against the background of a withdrawal of the soccer world championship from Russia). Such an agreement among different groups in Moscow may be difficult to reach.
2. What is said in Germany now about Russia and Putin?
The Kremlin is now seen with increasing mistrust. The so-called “Russlandsversteher” (“Russia-understanders”) are in retreat. That is a deep change from the situation about two years ago when a cooperative approach to Russia was dominant.
Now the faction of pro-Putin commentators has shrunk to some obvious industry lobbyists and right- and left-wing radicals, as well as some retired politicians, especially from the Social Democratic Party. There are few active politicians with influence left who promote the earlier approach. Schroeder’s “New Ostpolitik” is over.
3. Putin gives evidence against himself in a potential international crime case in the film “Crimea: The Way Home.” Why did he do this? Is he not afraid of punishment?
My interpretation is that (a) Putin’s image in the West has suffered to a degree that to uphold the former implausible narrative of a local upheaval does not make sense any more, and (b) the Kremlin has decided to go on the offensive concerning its annexation narrative for domestic consumption.
By way of admitting that Russia stood behind the events in Crimea in the spring of 2014, the Kremlin is making the entire population of Russia a hostage of its foreign political adventurism. This strategy is designed to create a “fortress mentality” in Russia.
The trick seems to work. Sooner or later, Russia will also admit its military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, although the Kremlin will insist on merely having intervened into an already ongoing “civil war” in the Donbas.
4. Putin’s regime is pursuing a policy that seems to go against common sense. Is there any logic in it?
The logic of that behavior looks like imperialism, chauvinism, colonialism and revanchism – i.e. stories we know well from 19th- and 20th-century European history.
The deeper issue is: How can the current ruling circle in Moscow legitimate its power in times of economic recession and stagnating living-standards?
The new social contract that the Kremlin seems successfully to be proposing to Russians is: You will not live better, but you will again be a feared and important nation in world politics. This contract, however, only functions as long as the drop in living standards is not too steep.
Whereas before the “deal” was “No serious political participation, but bread,” the new “deal” is “No serious political participation, but bread and circuses.” Some “bread,” however, is still part of the deal. That is the pressure point which the West has to use.
5. Can new sanctions can help to stop Putin? If not, what can stop him?
The pressure potential of decisive Western sanctions is undervalued. Russia is (a) highly integrated into the world economy and (b) an industrially and infrastructurally underdeveloped petro-state. (I once told the Russian ambassador to Germany that his country is a “Potemkin village in an oil rush.” He was not amused.)
The Russian economy and budget are highly dependent on Western cooperation. The Russian population is less ready to suffer for some elusive foreign policy agenda than is usually assumed.
The currently high support of the Russian population for Putin is built on an understanding that the current living standards will remain largely in place. If that equation discontinues, the Russians’ support for Putin will decline.
It is a risky situation. I have explicitly warned about a possible World War III between the West and Russia, six years ago, in an article for The Globalist published in January 2009. However, the West should not be timid, even in view of that prospect.
To prevent further escalation, the EU needs to become more decisive and true to its own values regarding Russia. That will impress the Kremlin more than yet another round of toothless negotiations.