The Putin Legacy: What is Next for Russia?

By Robbin Laird

Putin is in his last term as President of Russia after an incredible and even improbable run, which began nationally when the ailing Yeltsin appointed him Prime Minister on August 9, 1999.

Putin then has gone to redefine Russia in the post-Cold War period, and shaped a comprehensive narrative which one might call making Russia Great Again.

And in re-shaping Russia in his authoritarian image, Putin has shaped a narrative which is rooted in Russia being the victim of the West, led by the United States, and in returning to its roots to become a key authoritarian Eur-Asian power.

Putin both contributed to and has been abetted by the rise of 21st century authoritarianism.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese becoming members of the World Trade Organization, globalization and democratization seemed to evolving hand in hand.

But rather than globalization leading to democratization, it has been shaped significantly by the 21st century authoritarian powers who have used that process to enhance their ability to operate within and without against the key powers driving the liberal democratic order.

Each approach has been different, whether the narrative is Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, and other less prominent players.

As Putin has shaped his narrative of how Russia could return to great power status and then shaping his approach with his closest mates, opportunities which have presented themselves along the way have been useful venues in which to reshape global geo-politics. The Georgian War, the Chechen Wars, the seizure of Crimea and other events have been used by the Judo master to shape a rise of Russia to greatness, at least as Putin and many Russians see it.

But contained within Putinism are the seeds of its own destruction.

Although a nationalist, Putin is cautious.

But will his successor be as cautious is he, or will he shape a more directly aggressive approach to the West?

Alternatively, will his successor recognize the weaknesses of Russia and seek to seek to work with those states and societies in the West which would help Russia out of its economic dilemmas in return for well what exactly?

Could a successor emerge with a much bigger version of Russia and its future, and use adventures like Syria to shape European and GCC efforts to work together to reshape the Middle East, why the United States is embroiled in its cold Civil War?

Will the Russian relationship with China turn conflictual as the Chinese turn to dominating Siberia and the Far East?

Put in other terms, Putin has provided a transition from the turbulent, post-Cold years, which were considerably more democratic than now but also pushed many Russians into poverty.

Putin used the early 21t century and its rise in energy prices as a way to pay for the revival of Russia and in the throes of so doing built out his narrative. Putin is a geopolitical actor, in every sense of the word.

A key element of the narrative built by Putin has been to highlight great moments in Russian history around which authoritarian leaders have made Russia a powerful global actor and one to be respected.  In this narrative build, nothing plays a greater role than remembering World War II or what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.  The way this has been done though is the problem or the challenge for Russia’s future.

There is no doubt that the citizens of the Soviet Union suffered mightily from World War II or fought heroically against the Nazis.  That part Putin remembers and highlights.

But what gets lost is an equally important point – how the mistakes made by an authoritarian leader can lead to the destruction of his people.

What gets lost in the Russian memory about World War II was Stalin’s key role in making it happen in the first place. His role in both allowing the rise of Hitler and then focusing Hitler’s interest on attacking the Soviet Union are very clear.

Stalin blocked the German communists and socialists from working together which certainly enhanced the ability of the Nazis to come to power.

Of course, the war starts because of the pact between Hitler and Stalin dividing Poland.

And just as significant, Stalin destroyed the officer class in the Soviet Union and then decided to fight Finland in what became known as the Winter War. The Soviets got their clocks cleaned and only by bringing back some of the older officer corps did the Soviets finally defeat Finland.

And the result in terms of Hitler’s perceptions?

The Soviet’s poor performance in the Winter War led Hitler to believe that Stalin’s military could be quickly defeated if attacked. He attempted to put this to the test when German forces launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

The Russian tradition contains many examples of the negative side of authoritarianism for the Russian people but one is not likely to find that either in “Leni” Oliver Stone’s interviews with Putin nor in the Putin narrative as well.

University of Virginia professor Allen Lynch has provided a very insightful look at the Russian future, moving forward from the Putin legacy. In his article entitled “What Russia Will Be?” the author provides four scenarios for the future of Putin’s Russia.

Lynch starts by identifying the key elements of what one might call the Putin system.

The Russian system that Putin has built and consolidated is based on the following key elements….:

The public administration—including the electoral machinery and national broadcast media—has been captured by the Putin network and converted into an extension of executive preference. Elections have thus become highly managed affairs with the appearance of popular legitimacy but a minimal chance that the government might change hands through such means.

When Putin took over, first as Prime Minister in August 1999 and then as President on January 1, 2000, the “Russian Federation,” such as it was, resembled at best a confederation rather than a unitary state or even a federation. Since then, Putin has systematically reduced the capacity of “federal” units (including those defined by ethnicity) to escape monitoring from Moscow.

This began in 2000 with the appointment of seven supra-regional viceroys (most from the military or intelligence services) reporting directly to Putin and includes most recently, in summer 2017, the reduction of Tatarstan’s administrative autonomy. Russia today more nearly resembles a unitary state than the “federation” that remains in its official name: There are no irrevocable sovereignties under Putin’s rule.

The national political order is based on Putin’s charismatic authority rather than legal tradition or a reputation for institutional competence. Comparisons with imperial-era loyalty of peasants toward the Czar—“if only the Czar knew!”—are not far-fetched. An extreme example of Putin’s personalismo may be seen in the status of Chechnya, whose relations with the rest of Russia are mediated through a personal bond between Putin and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.

Putin’s presidential network has established direct or indirect control over half or more of the Russian economy, including most of the lucrative natural resource sectors. At the same time, the Russian economy remains stuck in the mold of a natural resource, rentier political economy, with declining long-term economic performance.

Putin has made sure that this political economy, even while deteriorating, is managed prudently. The bankruptcies of both the Soviet economy and the Russian economy after the collapse of oil prices in 1986 and 1998, respectively, have seared themselves into Putin’s political memory.

He ensured that Russia’s public coffers had sufficient revenues to survive the oil shocks of 2008 and 2014. Russia’s national debt as a percentage of GDP (12.6 percent in 2017, compared to an EU average of 81.6 percent for that year) is minimal in comparative terms, while Russia has maintained impressive trade surpluses over many years ($103 billion in 2016).

From this perspective, Putin’s Russia is no mere “mafia state”: Were it simply that, there would not have been available the public resources needed to survive the two massive financial shocks over the past ten years.

Such fiscal prudence has also allowed Putin to rebuild the Russian military in a manner that corresponds to Russia’s aspirations to be a regional power of consequence, as operations in Crimea (2014) and Syria (2015-present) have shown.31 Russia’s military, together with the Orthodox Church, the most trusted institution in the country, remains loyal supporters of Putin.

With a discredited liberal wing, the alternatives to Putin for the foreseeable future are all along the right-wing axis of xenophobia (especially against the West), chauvinism, and anti-Semitism (although Putin himself is no anti-Semite and has not encouraged it). Putin has exploited these forces to his benefit but he is not in thrall to them. Yet absent Putin, these would become the dynamic, populist forces in Russian politics.

Relatedly, all Russian elite clans, including those with access to organized armed force (regular military, border troops, police, intelligence, and Putin’s own personal praetorian guard of some 350,000 troops), acknowledge Putin’s indispensable, and possibly irreplaceable, role in the political economy.  After the 2008 war in Georgia, which revealed multiple shortcomings in the functioning of the Russian Army,

Putin oversaw a wholesale replacement of the armed forces’ upper echelons, leaving in place a leadership that is both more competent (as witnessed in the Crimean and Syrian operations) and beholden to Putin. As an intelligence professional, he has the trust of the militocracy as a whole; as an intelligence professional turned head of state, Putin also controls all of the personal files—and resulting kompromat—on the elites, and they know it. They thus serve, and enrich themselves, at his sufferance.

The first snapshot looking forward in the final years of the Putin leadership would be continued economic deterioration of Russia while avoiding economic collapse.

The second snapshot would be to see the centralizing efforts of Putin backfiring. Because regional flexibility has been undercut by Putin’s system of vertical integration, explosions in the periphery could have a rapid Russian system wide impact.

The third snapshot would further economic deterioration spiraling into economic bankruptcy.

The fourth snapshot was be see the return of the Westernizers a constant force bubbling under the surface in late 19th Century Russia, but remaining a force even in Putin’s Russia. And it should always be remembered that Putin’s kleptocaracy relies on the Western banking system and the rules’ based liberal order to protect their money abroad.

Lynch concludes that it is time to shape a Western perspective which understands that Russian authoritarianism of one form or another is most likely to stay and we need to sort out ways to cope with it as well as rethinking ways to shape Russian policies which are not going to be our own.

For example, the cost of holding the indefinite future of U.S.-Russia relations hostage to Crimea seems wildly excessive given the contingencies stretched out over time that could imperil both nations. Short of the headlong collapse of the Russian state—which would actually be a disaster for U.S. and global security—there is no plausible route to severing Crimea from Russia.

So why not consider a trade greased by the salve of a professional diplomacy: de facto U.S. acquiescence to the reintegration of Crimea into Russia in return for Russia’s leaving the rest of Ukraine alone, pending a suitable and achievable compromise over Ukraine’s geostrategic status and internal language and identity issues.

If Russian-Ukrainian relations remain a powder keg when Putin has left the scene, Americans may well come to regret that they passed on exploring an outcome that Putin could agree to.

Even if one disagrees with this specific policy issue, what Lynch has underscored is a key nature of dealing with the Russian challenge today.

How to deal with rise of 21st century authoritarianism in the context of Western disunity, which will not go away any time soon?

Can shaping states with clusters of defense or economic interests in the West giving real meaning to the European alliances, NATO and the EU, provide a better leverage point on the evolution of a Russia, whose regionalization might well be a better outcome for the West?

For the full Lynch article, see the following:

What Russia Will Be