The Putin Reset


By Richard Weitz

In a year of significant elections worldwide (the US, Germany, France to name a few), the Russian election started the ball rolling.  Not unexpectedly, Vladimir Putin won the election and we are waiting to learn what Putinism 2.0 in the new global context will look like.

A preliminary look at answering this question was provided by Hudson Institute.  The Insitute held a well-attended public panel on March 6th.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political scientist and Hudson Visiting Fellow, opened the discussion by chastising the State Department for issuing a written statement congratulating the Russian people and saying the United States “looks forward to working with the President-elect after the results are certified and he is sworn in.”

Perhaps Putin has a different concept of reset than Washington does?

Not only did the State Department avoid criticism of Vladimir Putin’s return to power; the statement said it was encouraged by the election turnout and by the public protests of those “exercising their constitutional right to free assembly and expressing their views peacefully about the political and electoral processes.”

While noting concerns about “the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources, and procedural irregularities on election day,” the statement welcomed pledges by the authorities to increase transparency in future elections and restore the popular direct election of regional governors, who are currently appointed by the Kremlin. The number of foreign and domestic election observers invited to monitor the voting, the statement added, was “a sign that Russian society seeks to participate in the improvement of Russia’s democratic institutions.”

Piontkovsky sarcastically thanked the State Department for issuing this congratulations precisely at the moment when the police were beating and arresting Putin’s friends, who were demonstrating peacefully in Moscow.

Piontkovsky, who has written several articles and books about Vladimir Putin, has said he was now writing a new chapter of Putin’s history that could be called, “The Beginning of the End.”

According to Piontkovsky, what happened on March 4 was not an election; it was the final stage of “special operation” that has been conducted in Russia for years.

The first stage was excluding candidates who could offer real substantive opposition to Putin’s policies. Putin hand picked and orchestrated his nominal opponents to assure his reappointment. He allocated himself round-the-clock media coverage. And Putin skipped public debates with his opponents to avoid giving the appearance of getting down to his level.

The genuine opposition participated in this game only with one purpose: to demonstrate once again the illegitimacy of this regime by highlighting the scale of falsification during so-called “elections.” Such tactics were very successful in last December’s parliamentary elections. Since then, the Internet has seen a burst of indignation among people who have not participated in political activity before.

In December, January, and February, Russia saw unprecedented demonstrations of more that 100,000 people demanding Putin’s dismissal. In Piontkovsky’s view, the recent presidential ballot was also marked by massive fraud. This rigged election is illegitimate, and so, for Piontkovsky and his colleagues, Putin’s power is illegitimate.

Putin first defined “Putinism” twelve years ago, during Putin’s first presidential campaign in 2000. That article defined “Putinism” as the “highest and final stage of criminal capitalism in Russia.”

There is a lot of talk in the West and in Russia now about corruption in Russian economic and political system.

But for Piontkovsky, using “corruption” for what is happening in Russia today is a misleading and inadequate term because classical definitions of corruption suppose two subjects–a businessman giving bribe to state official. But in Russia today these two subjects are merged.

Every Russian leader, beginning with Putin and including practically all members of his government, are enormously wealthy businessmen, billionaires running their own financial empires.

Alluding to Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, Piontkovsky said of Putinism: “Never in the history of human conflict have so few robbed so many of so much.” For Piontkovsky, this reality explains why Putinism cannot be reformed.

For Putin to change this domestic system, it is necessary to imprison not five, but 20 or 25 of his rich former colleagues and, most importantly, to imprison himself, which won’t happen.

Piontkovsky believes that even the so-called “system liberals” associated with the Boris Yeltsin presidency of the 1990s are reluctant to allow Putin to leave office since, while they dislike him, they fear that genuine societal empowerment would result in their being punished for their economic crimes under Yeltsin.

According to Piontkovsky, Putin made clear in his very emotional victory speech on March 4 that Putin considered his victory as being one over the United States.

He was almost in tears about our victory over “them”—the “them” referred not his four opponents, but to the United States.

Putin’s campaign was full of insults concerning the United States, presenting Washington as a fundamental evil power that was trying to destroy Russia and Russians’ unique spirituality.

Piontkovsky’s impression was that Putin sincerely believed this—and that this belief was some kind of psychological defense for his staying in power for so long and by any means.

Nonetheless, the Putin team was now completely isolated from the country’s real elites, from its creative people, young professionals, and the informed population. The results of elections show that Putin has already irreversibly lost Moscow and Petersburg, but also all Russia’s big cities, as well as all its young and educated people. Piontkovsky foresaw a long battle, but he considered the end of Putinism the only way of saving Russia from kleptocracy and from systemic degradation.

Leon Aron, Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the depth of Russia’s crisis was evident in three developments.

The regime barred all pro-democracy opposition candidates from running.

The three federal television channels, where over 90 of Russians get there news, were completely monopolized by pro-Putin propaganda.

And the votes were counted by the same Central Electoral Commission that, under the Kremlin’s control, had clearly falsified the results of the parliamentary election only three months before.

In Aron’s view, far from enhancing the Putin regime’s legitimacy, this “election” will diminish it further in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population.

Millions of Russians have told the pollsters that they were ready to participate in public protests. Even if only one in ten does so, Aron stresses that considerably fewer people than that have started revolutions.

And it is the politically influential young, professional, and middle class Russians who are the most alienated. They were children when the Soviet Union collapsed. They consider it a bizarre anachronism for a great and proud European nation like Russia to have someone in power for 24 years, six years longer than former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev

Aron believed that Russia had the potential to repeat the dynamics of post-authoritarian democratic modernization seen in many other countries when, after they achieve a period of exceptionally good economic performance, a hugely expanded middle class is no longer content to enjoy prosperity alone and wants to have political liberty and a say in governing their countries.

In Aron’s view, Russia faces growing economic, social, demographic, and ethnic problems are impossible to solve within the rigid confines of its neo-authoritarian “sovereign democracy.” Aron saw the most graphic manifestation of this in Russia’s pervasive corruption, which he deems the worst in Russia’s history. He believed corruption was reaching a level sufficient to paralyze key economic and social institutions, especially in the courts and the economy, but also in education and healthcare.

In Aron’s view, the regime’s fatal deficiency is moral.

The key legitimizing slogan of Putinism  — “We’re better off than in the 1990s” — is eroding almost daily. The concept of “sovereign democracy” offends the dignity of these young men and women for whom the proverbial “chaos of the 1990s” is at best a distant rumor. They compare themselves not to their (mostly) post-Soviet parents — and even less so to their (mostly) Soviet grandparents — but to their contemporaries in prosperous and democratic countries in Europe and the United States.

In Aron’s words, Putin’s political opposition should be seen as a civil rights movement. Its objectives are not so much political as moral. In addition to “Down with Putin,” their slogans are “Don’t lie to us! Don’t steal from us! Listen to us! Don’t step on us!”

In other words, they are after moral renewal and equality before the law. They want to end their de-facto disenfranchisement and seek vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. They reject violence in principle. Like other civil rights movements, they are led by the middle class, which seeks the dignity of democratic citizenship.

In conclusion, Aron argues that, for this regime, the fact that these protests are actually a civil rights movement is both good news and bad news – just as they were for other governments confronted by civil rights movements.

The good news for the Kremlin is that civil rights movements are notoriously disorganized, are very slow to crystallize politically, and are very slow to produce a leadership structure.

The bad news–very bad Aron stresses–is that these movements establish no time limits to achieving their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience to persevere as long as necessary.

Glen Howard, President of the Jamestown Foundation, saw the Russia-U.S. relationship as stagnating for the remainder of the year until the Kremlin knew who would occupy the White House in January 2013.

If reelected, the Obama administration will face the problem that its Russia Reset policy was premised on Medvedev’s continuing to represent the new face of an enlightened modernizing Russia. To make matters worse, the United States will be dealing with a badly wounded Putin who does not have the domestic consensus he wants and who will be plagued by continuing domestic challenges to his rule, which compromise his legitimacy.

A prickly Putin won’t have much patience for tolerating U.S. lessons on human rights. Bilateral cooperation regarding Afghanistan is impossible but progress toward joint ballistic missile defense is unlikely.

Howard stressed the extent of the demographic problems confronting Putin. The Russia that Putin controls in 2012 is different from the Russia of 1999. Russia will suffer a huge population drop in the next few decades. Russia will experience a 70 percent population decline that will see its population fall from 140 million to perhaps as low as 52 million by 2050. If Russia’s population falls below the 100 million mark, it may not be able to function as an industrialized country. By 2025, no ethnic Russians will be living in the North Caucasus. Russia’s Muslim population is estimated to grow to 20 million. Today, every Chechen has at least five children as they race to overcome the population losses from the wars of the 1990s. Russia is in the process of losing its multinational empire, which remains the foundation of its great power status.

In terms of grand strategy, Putin is a Soviet man with a dangerous Soviet nostalgia and mentality.

He shares with the Soviet grand strategists of 1921 the notion of “forward defense” revolving around geography; specifically, using Russia’s control of Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan to dominate Eurasia. From these three regions, Moscow can exercise great leverage for pursuing its aims of reintegrating the former Soviet Union.

In Howard’s assessment, the key challenges for the United States will remain in the Caucasus, which Putin sees as Russia’s gateway to the Near East and as a means to achieve other strategies.

Securing the Caucasus enables Moscow to isolate Central Asia by denying it overland access to Europe. Georgia is the key to this scheme. To quote Yeltsin’s former defense minister, Pavel Grachev, “he who controls Georgia controls the Black Sea.” Georgia remains an integral part of Russian aims and Putin’s won’t be satisfied until he has ousted Saakashvili from power and Finlandized Georgia or completely dismembered it.

Controlling Georgia enables Moscow to pressure Azerbaijan. It also allows Moscow to consolidate its counter-insurgency campaign in the North Caucasus. And controlling Georgia also seals off Central Asia, leaving the Central Asian states dependent on Moscow for transportation routes and protection against a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Putin’s disdain for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will surely tempt him to try to finish Georgia off, just as the Bolsheviks finished off the newly independent republic of Georgia in 1921.

According to Howard, the Russian government is playing up fears of a possible U.S. attack against Iran to intimidate Georgia and bring down the Saakashvili government, either overtly or covertly.

For example, Russia could demand the transit of its troops from South Ossetia to Russian bases in Armenia, using the specter or threat of a U.S.-Israeli conflict with Iran. The Russian-Armenian military grouping in the South Caucasus has been isolated. Its supplies are delivered only by air and through direct agreements with Armenia for gasoline, diesel fuel, and kerosene. Armenia purchases these products from Iran.

In addition, Moscow aspires to create a unified air defense corridor in the South Caucasus that stretches from Abkhazia, to Armenia, and to Azerbaijan, using the S-300 surface-to-air systems that Moscow is delivering to these countries, which invariably come with Soviet troops to operate them.

Moscow is playing on regional rivalries and arms racing by each state to pursue its own plans for heightening the specter of conflict – something it can greatly benefit from at a time when the United States and its NATO allies are using the South Caucasus air space to transport approximately 100,000 men per year through the “South Caucasus spur” of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).

This amounts to 25 percent of total NATO supplies going to Afghanistan. Moscow plans to launch the “Kavkaz-2012” exercises this September to include officers from the breakaway Georgian territories. The focus on surveillance, air defense and logistics suggests that Russia is tailoring the exercise to prepare for a U.S.-Israel-Iran war.

In conclusion, the three speakers agree that Russia’s March 4 presidential elections have posed yet another challenge for the legitimacy of the Putin system. The Kremlin is still recovering from last December’s fraud-ridden parliamentary elections, which triggered unprecedented protests in major Russian cities.

But the three speakers doubt that the new Kremlin team is capable of moving beyond “Putinism” anytime soon.

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