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The fetish of Russia’s stability: an intelligent weapon against the West

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the nexus between repressive domestic rule and aggressive foreign policy. As long as Russia remains a dictatorship, it will pose an existential threat to the security order in Europe. It is, therefore, in the West’s interest to see a permanent dismantling of the current model of government in Russia. Putin’s departure from office will create a short-term window of opportunity for political change. Contrary to widespread fears, the end of this autocratic pseudo-stability may pave the way for sustainable peace in Europe.

March 24, 2023 - Maria Domańska - Analysis

Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts with awarded soldiers on the eve of the "Heroes of the Fatherland Day" in the Kremlin on December 8th 2022. Photo: Salma Bashir Motiwala / Shutterstock

Nexus between domestic and foreign policy in Russia

Russian decision-makers present the invasion of Ukraine as an alleged “defence” against NATO’s aggressive military expansion. However, it was not NATO but Moscow that sought to revise the security order in Europe. The Kremlin explicitly expressed its strategic goals vis-à-vis the West in its December 2021 ultimatums. First, Russia wanted to discredit and marginalise NATO and gain the right of veto in all questions regarding European security. Second, it strived for control over the so-called post-Soviet area as the zone of its privileged interests. The second goal was very much in line with the philosophy of the 1945 Yalta agreement.

However, there is much to suggest that the Russian leadership decided to invade Ukraine and wage a proxy war against NATO primarily for domestic political reasons. The aggression was intended as a “forward defence” against liberal democracy, which Russian state propaganda hints at as “Nazism”. The Kremlin saw the political empowerment of Ukrainian society as a potentially contagious example for Russians. The occupation of Ukraine was supposed to create a kind of strategic depth and protect Putin’s neo-totalitarian regime from a diffusion of “dangerous” values. International isolation was considered an acceptable price of aggression and an opportunity to cement the dictatorship’s position. As Putin is locked within the zero-sum game paradigm, the only “security guarantee” he would be satisfied with is the unravelling of NATO and the EU as pillars of the western community, which is based on shared democratic values and interests.

Therefore, the only way to avoid severe political and economic turbulence in Europe in the future is to address the primary source of existential threats to the security order. We need a change of political leadership in Russia and a sustainable dismantling of the autocratic form of governance, which is deprived of checks and balances. In the Russian political system, a narrow group can make decisions that are crucial to international security beyond any control of the broader elite and society. The West’s long-term goal should be to bring decision-making processes in the Kremlin into compliance with international law and prevent any future armed aggressions. To achieve this goal and make the system fail-safe, we need to see the Russian government subjected to scrutiny by domestic actors: groups of influence in the political establishment and the public.

The vicious cycle of Russia’s authoritarian path dependence may only be broken if Russians experience the unequivocal failure of Putinism as a neo-imperial political project. As this project is based mainly on the potential to destabilise international order, the West must focus on reducing Russia’s potential for harm to an absolute minimum and use all available instruments to attain this goal. It should pursue more severe and efficient economic sanctions and secure the military victory of Ukraine. Russia has always played above its potential, while the West tends to shy away from investing its vast political, economic and social resources in long-term security strategy.

Suppose Russia – a nuclear power – is not punished for unleashing the bloodiest war in Europe since 1945. In that case, we will witness disastrous consequences for global security and the political-economic order for decades to come. The lessons China will learn from this conflict will encourage it to pursue its own revanchist ambitions. Global nuclear proliferation is likely to occur as the foundations of international law will be severely damaged for a long time.

It is, therefore, in our interest that Putin loses legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public and the ruling elite before the 2024 presidential election. It means that Ukraine must win the war in 2023. It is also essential to swiftly rebuild Ukraine and turn it into a robust and stable democracy, as well as a well-functioning market economy, within the EU and NATO. These achievements would send Russia and other belligerent regimes a clear message that war is a counterproductive foreign policy tool.

As long as Putin remains in power, the liberalisation of the political system is out of the question. However, it is possible to prepare the ground for Russia’s future transformation. Although the Kremlin has suppressed the last remnants of pluralism and opposition, the majority of the elite and the public are increasingly aware that Putinism has led the country to a dead end.

A post-Putin window of opportunity

Putin’s departure from office will not automatically lead to significant changes in the political system, although a new leadership may seek a better international image. So far, Russian authoritarianism has been easily reproduced because of its deep foundations: the patrimonial notion of the state as the personal property of the leader, and the logic of patron-client relations as the main factor in the organisation of socio-political interactions. Moreover, comparative studies have shown that personalist regimes like Russia are least likely to shift from dictatorship to democracy successfully. With Putin’s exit, however, a window of opportunity will briefly open. The trauma of war and its negative economic and social consequences will likely create a demand for change among the political-business elite and society. It would be essential to tap into this fertile ground for political-economic reforms.

The new leadership will automatically be weaker and more vulnerable to pressure than the current one. Its pursuit of external legitimacy and a broad base of support at home may lead to two qualitative shifts: a softening of aggressive foreign policy in return for sanctions relief and liberalisation of the neo-totalitarian domestic policy. While democratisation will be unrealistic in the foreseeable future, it would be relatively easy to introduce pluralism into the Russian political system at an early stage of political transformation.

Before the new leadership consolidates its power, the West’s priority should be to expand the window of opportunity for reform as much as possible and keep it from shutting again for decades. The West should only recognise the new leadership once it abolishes the repressive laws that prevent political competition, releases all political prisoners and organises free elections under international scrutiny. Another wave of sanctions should follow if the new government continues to violate human rights. Their cost for the West will be negligible as, by that time, we will have decoupled from previously critical supplies of Russian raw materials. In the longer term, western leaders should urge the Russian authorities to build an institutional framework to safeguard the continued transformation. The longer the central authorities are deterred from relapsing into authoritarian practices, the greater the chance that society will learn to prevent another Putin-style ruler from coming to power.

The details of the West’s strategy, based on cautiously employed carrots and sticks, need to be discussed in the coming years. However, policy changes will only be possible with a prior revision of our thinking about Russia. This is because it is often based on fears and false premises stoked by Kremlin-sponsored propaganda.

Western fears as part of Putin’s game

The West is self-restraining regarding its military aid for Ukraine, fearing possible war escalation due to Putin’s nuclear blackmail. However, as recent years have shown, Moscow does not need pretexts to use escalation as one of its primary tools of “negotiations”. It views intimidation and blackmail as mechanisms of reflexive control over western governments. The Kremlin invented the so-called “NATO threat” to justify Putin’s neo-imperial aggression. At the same time, Russia fears possible armed conflict with NATO: every time the West demonstrated its firm and consolidated approach against Moscow’s threats, those threats proved empty. One example is western arms deliveries for Ukraine, which continue uninterrupted despite Russia’s multiple warnings to blow up the convoys. This leads us to the conclusion that we are in danger of escalation when Moscow perceives us as weak (like before February 24th 2022) and not when we show strength and solidarity with Ukraine.

Western experts and politicians are concerned that in the event of a Russian military defeat in Ukraine, possible political turmoil could lead to “someone worse than Putin” coming to power. However, it would be hard to find “someone worse” among Russia’s key political-military players, given that Putin has unleashed a war of aggression in the middle of Europe, turned Russia into a rogue state based on violence and lawlessness, and resorted to nuclear blackmail to remain unpunished for his actions. After Putin’s departure, compromise figures will likely take up the baton and seek to calm the situation rather than escalate it further. The usual bugbears: Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya and the head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are tools of Putin rather than political actors in their own right. They may try to influence the power games with their private armies. Still, they will not be able to win the support of the broader political-economic establishment, including the law enforcement bodies and secret services. The primary concern for the West in the event of an uncontrolled transition in Russia would be nuclear weapons safety. They must be put in reliable hands – which they are not under Putin’s rule.

There also prevails a fatalistic belief that the demise of autocracy would lead to the state’s collapse and the serious destabilisation of Eurasia. However, a broad spectrum of options lies between dictatorship and dangerous chaos. To discard them a priori is to play Putin’s game. This game is based on the dogma that Russia can exist only as long as it is ruled with an iron fist. That has led many western leaders into a pitfall: they kept striking “pragmatic” deals with the aggressive regime, at the expense of our security and that of our neighbours. We have been paying the price for this manipulation since February 24th 2022, and Ukraine – since 2014.

The fear that possible instability related to political changes, elite struggles or the adverse economic effects of reforms could lead to a wave of ethnic separatism and the collapse of Russian statehood is not very well founded. None of the Russian regions inhabited by ethnic minorities have the potential to secede. They face one or multiple barriers to successful separatist tendencies: the lack of legitimate elites representing regional interests, an insufficient economic base, heavy financial dependence on the federal budget, a lack of borders with other countries, or an absence of a dominant non-Russian ethnos with a solid historical, cultural and linguistic identity. The palpable anti-Moscow sentiment in many regions reflects opposition to the excessive powers and ambitions of the federal bureaucracy rather than separatist sentiments. Also, negative memories of the collapse of the USSR still work against radical sentiment.

Fears of the emergence of a mass “Weimar syndrome” among the Russian public due to a possible “humiliating” defeat in Ukraine are not without foundation. This syndrome could emerge if Russians are not offered an attractive alternative to the imperial idea that has formed their collective identity so far. However, many seem to forget that this “Weimar syndrome” (the desire to retaliate for alleged injustices) is already there and actually shaped the war’s social base. While the genuine source of humiliation for Russian citizens is the autocratic model of rule, the Kremlin has successfully demonised the West in Russians’ eyes. The public’s susceptibility to the imperial discourse largely stems from the fact that historical propaganda, great-power rhetoric and geopolitical revanchism have served for decades as compensation for the political disempowerment of citizens, economic hardships and the lack of a vision for the future.

The real risks for Russia’s neighbourhood lie elsewhere. They arise directly from Putin’s pseudo-stability based on repression, mass indoctrination and the top-down criminalisation of the state. We are witnessing a dangerous “outsourcing” of the state’s monopoly on the use of force into the hands of the illegal Wagner Group. The widespread experience of violence will remain a serious social problem in the long term: violence as the primary regulator of state-society relations has become an essential element of collective identity. The mass influx of weapons and traumatised war veterans from Ukraine will only exacerbate this challenge. Russians have also been severely poisoned by Kremlin-sponsored propaganda that spreads genocidal hate speech. They question the basic facts related to the war and the very existence of objective truth. None of these ills can be cured under a “stable” autocracy. The more time passes and the more Russia closes itself off from the outside world, the longer these ills will fester and clear the way for another war.

By fetishising Russia’s stability, we disregard the fact that Russia had never been as stable as it was in January 2022. The crackdown on democratic opposition and civil society in 2021 was a necessary pre-condition for launching armed aggression against Ukraine. Since February 2022, Russia has also repeatedly declared that it is at war with the West. The Kremlin rulers do not conceal their strategic goal vis-à-vis the transatlantic community, which is to sow political chaos in Europe and the US, leading to the rise of radical populism and violence and the erosion of the rule of law. Moscow only retreats when confronted with military force, and it often treats negotiations as a smokescreen for further aggression. The weakening of the Russian central government due to political and economic turmoil would at least limit its potential for hostile external action – be it another invasion into a neighbour’s territory or sponsoring far-right coup plots (or other types of subversive activities) in the West. Understandably, it is difficult for those influenced by the western liberal-democratic culture of dialogue to accept this reality and react accordingly. Nevertheless, we cannot make the danger disappear by simply ignoring it.

The Russian Federation needs to federalise

A genuine federalisation would be the most effective way to eliminate aggressive wars from Russia’s foreign policy toolkit. Not another “iron fist rule”, but the decentralisation of political power and financial resources would make the system more predictable and law-abiding. With time, the development of non-violent mechanisms for articulating and resolving conflicts may produce the seeds for a culture of dialogue. The empowerment of local and regional populations, including ethnic minorities, may become an effective vaccine against the resurgence of Russian imperial revanchism. In the long term, building a sense of co-ownership of the state among the public would help to discredit the present model of government-society relations, where the only form of individual empowerment is an imagined participation in the imperial greatness of the state. So far, the West has utterly ignored Russia’s ethnic and cultural diversity, thus manifesting a colonialist mindset (which was also present in relation to Ukraine, taking the form of the “Russia first” policy).

Several factors will mitigate the adverse effects of turbulent political and economic transition. Even though most of the Russian economy is state controlled, it largely follows market economy principles. Small and medium-sized enterprises have proven relatively resilient to shocks produced by predatory state capitalism. At the federal and regional levels, there is a sufficient number of qualified bureaucrats to implement the reform plans drawn up long ago by leading experts. Moreover, Russia has significant intellectual resources abroad. The sooner the opportunity for transformation presents itself, the greater the chance that emigrants will return and that the brain drain, which intensified in 2022, can be partially reversed. Another underestimated resource is civil society, which is currently rebuilding its organisational framework in exile.

While Russian society is a product of authoritarian rule, and a large part of the public declares its support for the “special military operation”, this support is far from enthusiastic. What prevails is the quest for rational survival strategies under a highly repressive regime amid mass indoctrination and growing poverty. Although these nuances do not make much difference at present, as a passive society is playing into Putin’s hands, the same patterns of rational adaptation may soothe turbulent political change in the future. 

What will a post-Putin Russia look like? Much depends on the West’s determination to influence political events. The only alternative would be a long-term and costly military deterrence that may have adverse consequences for our own political systems. While the West cannot intervene in Russia’s domestic affairs, it cannot simply do nothing. Its passive attitude will only contribute to keeping Russia in the vicious cycle of authoritarian path dependence and make the catchphrase “Russia cannot be changed” a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maria Domańska PhD is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

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