Op-Ed: Vladimir Putin has turned Russia into an unapologetic autocracy. What’s his end game?
Russia’s behavior under Vladimir Putin is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and the Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, chemical weapons and indiscriminate barrel bombing condoned. In Britain, one political assassination and another attempted. Throughout Europe, support of radical right-wing parties and organizations. In Britain again, propagandistic engagement during referendums on Scottish independence and “Brexit.” In America and Europe, systematic disruption of elections by social media and other manipulations.
Putin last week was inaugurated for a fourth six-year term as president in a hall where czars once were crowned. How to account for a super-power wreaking such havoc?
Under Putin, the Kremlin is now unmistakably a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000–2008) when, for a while, there was hope in the West that he might be cleaning up corruption and dragging Russia toward a semblance of rule of law.
What instead happened was a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated; some were imprisoned. Many escaped abroad. This didn’t eliminate corruption, but rather narrowed it to a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control.
Any hope of democratization was dashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that barely bothers disguising itself as democratic. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. Putin’s administration is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, no effective judiciary, no effective press.
It can be tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are, in fact, pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas.
Russia is now an autocratic system that barely bothers disguising itself as democratic.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Western eyes saw a communist dictatorship collapse. But Russian eyes saw something else: a loss of empire. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” was not the end of communism but of empire.
His response has been to start rebuilding it. His agenda of ideas is meant to drive that purpose and secure his position in history as the czar who set the job in motion.
The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The geographic empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of transitory national borders. The Ukraine cannot be independent and European, for instance, because that is simply not what it is; it is Eurasian and inescapably a part of spiritual Russia.
The second component of the ideology: Russia has enemies, including the European Union, America, liberalism and democracy. That worldview was confirmed, as seen from Moscow, by Western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Former communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev had accepted German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastward. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations, including Poland and the Baltic republics, were brought into NATO. The European embrace of the Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Americans and Europeans will never afford Russia respect or treat it as an equal partner in collaboration, or so the thinking goes in Moscow.
From these ideas come the convictions that Russia, as the Eurasian empire of virtue, has something to fight for and the right to choose the means. Indeed, because it has enemies, Russia has no choice but to fight.
Still, Putin has a dilemma: He is big in ambition but small in power. The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and public health. So it must fight with consistently dirty means. As historian Timothy Snyder writes in his just-published book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” the “essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”
At the fall of the Soviet Union, the West expected Russia to become a compliant collaborator. What has emerged is an aggressive competitor.
Stein Ringen, a visiting professor of political economy at King’s College London, writes on democracy at ThatsDemocracy.com. His most recent book is “The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century.”
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