That Vladimir Putin was once hailed as a modernising President seems now like a bad joke. He has spent 15 years at the heart of Russian politics, including almost three full terms as President and two as Prime Minister. In this time he has gone from being seen as a man who the West could “do business with”, a man who spoke of freedom of the media, freedom of expression and public sector reform, to a President who has overseen a vast centralisation of power, state-control of the media, a thorough weakening of the opposition and an aggressive foreign policy. With so much media focus on ‘Putin’s Russia’, it is perhaps easy to assume that Russia’s recent antagonism towards its neighbours and the West would go with Putin. However, so deep are the country’s problems, that Putin may have sown the seeds of a conflict with the West that could outlast him and perhaps even consume a generation.
For someone who began his time in Presidential office with an agenda of bureaucratic and political reform designed to foster democracy at the grassroots level, the consolidation of state power at the centre has been remarkable. Russia’s democracy is not in good shape; this should worry the West. It seems that Russia simply does not have the institutions, political culture or indeed political will, to usher in a more liberal regime in the future. It is reported that the formal opposition in the form of parties Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and the Communists, suffer from a great degree of Kremlin control. And perhaps more significantly, figureheads of the opposition outside the Duma are often harassed, living abroad, imprisoned or, in the tragic case of Boris Nemtsov, killed. Indeed the only opposition that does seem to be flourishing are the nationalist hardliners encouraged by the annexation of Crimea. Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow-based Mercator think tank told Vocativ earlier this year that a post-Putin Russia would see an internal struggle within the Kremlin, with the nationalists, supported by the likes of Igor Strelkov (key figure in pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic), best placed to succeed. Evgeny Gontmakher for the Financial Times, cautiously looks forward to the time when Putin’s Kremlin elite “takes its ideological compass with it”. What follows it could be worse.
Intertwined with this centralised political system is an economy with significant weaknesses. Russia’s over-reliance on energy is a well-trodden argument. More than two-thirds of its exports are energy, partly responsible for the current tip towards recession, and making it constantly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. The value of the Rouble has collapsed in recent months, the investment climate is poor, its companies, many of which are state-owned, have $600 billion worth of debt which is likely to land the Kremlin with a substantial bill at a time when its revenues are down and its reserves depleted. What’s more, Putin has made any future reform very difficult. Years of cronyism has concentrated the country’s wealth in the hands of those politically powerful and close to Putin. Economist Leszek Balcerowicz spoke to EurActiv and highlighted the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was arrested in 2003 after allegedly politically-motivated fraud charges. The assets of his company, Yukos, were transferred to Rosneft – an oil company run by Oleg Sechin, a friend of Putin’s. So why does this matter to the West? The argument is this: A state whose economy is weakening, that only works for the very well-connected and extremely wealthy must look for other ways in which to legitimise its rule. In this case an aggressive, nationalistic, socially conservative identity, based on a reinterpretation of history, that, when borne out in foreign policy, puts Russia on a collision course with the West. If this economic weakness continues, as looks likely, this antagonism could outlast Putin.
What can be done?
A prolonged period of fraught relations between Russia and the West is not inevitable. But at present, the West is not doing enough.
The United States has had its head turned by a rising China, something that could dominate its foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Its military superiority is being challenged. Europe should get used to the idea of guaranteeing its own security, starting with the continent’s new leader, Germany, coming fully to terms with the idea of leadership and the responsibilities that come with that. This includes world-class armed forces; something it does not possess at the moment. But Germany cannot stand alone. Recent polls for Pew show a concerning reluctance amongst the populations of NATO countries, particularly Germany, to comply with NATO’s Article 5. Russia’s European neighbours with large Russian-speaking populations must know that NATO would be willing to come to their defence. Russia must know this too. The UK should unequivocally commit to the 2% GDP defence spending required by NATO and halt the sharp decline in military spending that looks likely under current budget plans. Arming pro-government forces in Ukraine should be an absolute last resort, but the option should remain on the table.
But defence will only do so much. The most pressing concern is Ukraine’s collapsing economy. A failed state on Russia’s doorstep would be its playground and could encourage future forays elsewhere. The EU and the IMF should lend whatever help it needs. Furthermore, Russia is well equipped to fight an effective ideational war with a population, for now at least, that is by and large buying behind the regime and the ideas it promotes. The West has not woken up sufficiently to this and it must start responding. Not with its own lies but by playing to its strengths: attractive values, cultural capital and a free and (mostly) balanced media. Professor Timothy Garton-Ash is right in highlighting the role that the BBC’s World Service should play. It is unlikely that the West will get any significant foothold in Russia’s internal media environment, but progress is beginning to be made in countering its narrative in its neighbourhood with initiatives like the EU’s new Russian language communication team. Effective use of the online space will be crucial.
Neither side will benefit from years of soured relations and the prospect of any kind of armed conflict is terrifying. Steps can be taken by the West to ease tensions but the longer it takes, the more likely we will see a fraught relationship for the foreseeable future. The most promising change must happen within Russia. If the liberal opposition can regain strength and capture the spirit of the 2011-2012 protests, then there may be a shift. In the meantime the world must hope that the nationalists don’t get there first.