July 14, 2016

After Putin: Russia in 2018

Published by Vox_Veritas

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has served as the President of Russia from 2000-2008 and then again from 2012 to the present. In the past, term limits in Russia have been set for 4 years. However, in late 2008 term limits were extended to 6 years, though Dmitry Medvedev, the recently elected President of Russia at the time, only served a 4-year term. Given this, the next Russian Presidential Election is scheduled for 2018.

At the time of publication there do not appear to be any strong candidates in the Russian opposition to run against Putin. Vladimir Putin is firmly entrenched as the national leader, and he has ruthlessly eliminated his critics. On February 27 2015 Boris Nemtsov, an activist protesting against of the Russian military involvement in Ukraine, was murdered. On October 7 2006 Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian human rights activist and a critic of Putin, was murdered. On November 23 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, another critic of Putin who had fled Russia and taken asylum in the UK, died mysteriously of radiation poisoning. It has been widely alleged that the Putin regime was behind their deaths. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin’s leading critic, has been forced to live overseas in order to maintain the freedom to protest against Putin’s regime and his assassination could happen any day. Garry Kasparov’s efforts to launch a campaign against Putin have failed to gain lasting momentum, finally fizzling out around 2008.

Liberal reformers appear to pose no threat to Putin’s regime at the moment. Furthermore, liberal reformers are not as popular in Russia as one might think. According to one poll conducted in early 2013, 85% of Russians were strongly against the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and 87% were opposed to the idea of regularly holding gay pride events in their cities. According to this same poll, support for same-sex marriage had actually declined by 9% since three years prior to this poll. On June 29 2013 federal laws were passed banning the distribution of “gay propaganda” to minors. Furthermore, in contrast to Western ideas of democracy and national leaders having constitutional limits, there is a deeply rooted nostalgia in Russia for strong leaders, including the murderous Josef Stalin. According to one poll taken in early 2016, 34% of Russians believe that “leading the Soviet people to victory in the Second World War was such a great achievement that it outweighed the Soviet dictator’s vices and mistakes.” Additionally, according to the poll 20% of Russians believe that “Josef Stalin was a wise leader who made the Soviet Union a powerful and prosperous nation.” According to a 2011 poll, only 42% of Russians approve of their country’s transition from communism to capitalism (given the oligarchy which now dominates the Russian economy this shouldn’t be too surprising), and only 50% of Russians approve of the transition from a single party state to a multi-party state.

So if Russia will not see liberal reform, then that more or less leaves the country with three options. First, the current Russian establishment, the United Russia party which is led by President Vladimir Putin. Second, a return to the old communist regime (or at least a government led by the communist party). Third, a nationalist/ultranationalist government.

One thing which you must understand is that while the communists and the nationalists are significant political forces within Russia, neither group nor both groups together have been able to overtake Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party since the year 2000. In the 2000 Russian Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin won by 53.4% of the popular vote. In the 2004 Russian Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin won by 71.9% of the popular vote. In the 2008 Russian Presidential Election, Dmitry Medvedev won by 71.2% of the popular vote. And in the 2012 Russian Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin won by 63.6% of the popular vote.

The reason for this is relatively simple: under Putin and the establishment, Russia has been pretty well off. Under Putin, Russia was brought out of the dire economic straits which were the 1990s decade. In 1989 (while still part of the Soviet Union), Russia had a GDP of 506.5 billion dollars. By 1999, that had decreased to 195.906 billion dollars. Under Putin, the situation reversed drastically. By 2013 Russia had a GDP of 2.231 trillion dollars. That is, the Russian economy grew 10 times in size within 14 years. Whatever the cause of this, regardless of whether or not this was even Putin’s doing, it’s hard to argue with that kind of smashing success. In the eyes of the Russian people, strongman Putin stopped the economic freefall that weak leader Boris Yeltsin failed to halt and he restored the Russian economy to its glory days.

However, Putin seems to be reaching the limits of what he can do for the Russian economy. From 2013 to 2015 the Russian GDP shrunk by about 900 billion dollars. Though economic growth is reported to return in 2017, the Russian people probably don’t think of Putin as the same economic miracle worker as they once did.

Arguably more important than the economy, however, is foreign policy. In continental Europe (not counting the Nordics) there is a “wall” of NATO member states to the west of Ukraine and Belarus. These states include Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. All of the states comprising this wall were at one point members of the Warsaw Pact, an alliance which stood in opposition to NATO. After the communist Eastern Bloc fell, NATO began an eastward expansion into the former Warsaw Pact. Into that region which was once the undisputed Russian sphere of influence.

And now NATO’s moving beyond even this. At the beginning of the First World War, the Russian Empire’s territory included Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and much of modern Poland (there was also Central Asia, but that’s irrelevant here). The Soviet Union incorporated more or less the same territories as the Russian Empire did, with the exception of Finland and Poland (which was nonetheless part of the Warsaw Pact). In the eyes of the Russian people, these countries have been part of Russia until very recently, and at the very least they should be part of the Russian sphere of influence (if not eventually reunited with Russia). And yet three countries right on Russia’s periphery (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) joined NATO in 2004!

Still, the Baltic states only comprise a small border with Russia, and until recently NATO hasn’t deployed large number of troops to this region. But now NATO is sending troops to the Baltics, and NATO is also trying to expand its reach to other countries that border Russia. The way most Russians see it, NATO has already expanded into the countries which have been in the sphere of “Russian influence”. Now it’s expanding into countries which were for a very long time territories of Russia. Soon, they fear, every country bordering Russia outside of Central and East Asia will be part of NATO!

In what could be called the Putin/Medvedev Doctrine, the ruling regime has used military force to prevent any further countries bordering Russia from trying to join NATO or the European Union. In 2008 Russia fought a war with Georgia to prevent the tiny Caucasian country from joining NATO. In 2014 it intervened militarily in Ukraine in response to a pro-West revolution which overthrew the pro-Russia President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In short, Russia has used force in an attempt to keep NATO away from its borders and to keep whatever remains of the Russian sphere of influence within that said sphere.

In order to bolster support for said military interventions, the ruling regime has used patriotic propaganda to rally the country for war. Indeed, medals are given to those soldiers who participated in the Russian occupation of Crimea, and statues have been erected in Crimea to honour those “Little Green Men”.

However, this bolstering of nationalism is a two-edged sword. It is a weapon that Putin must wield very carefully. While helpful during military adventures and in boosting Putin’s approval ratings in the aftermath of said adventures, if nationalist fervour in Russia grows too strong it could pave the way for a charismatic nationalist candidate to defeat Putin in an election. It appears, unfortunately for Putin, that he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Nationalist fervour in Russia will grow if the right conditions are present. I will name some of those conditions:

First, a national enemy, a common foe for the country to rally behind. NATO’s eastward expansion provides such a foe.

Second, the belief that military force is the solution to the problem presented by this national enemy. Few Russians believe that their country could defeat the entirety of the NATO alliance. However, even to outside observers it is questionable whether NATO would really defend fringe member states such as the Baltics from Russia, a costly course of action which could spark a world war. To the major players in NATO (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, etc) the Baltics are fairly insignificant. Furthermore, were Georgia or Ukraine to join NATO there would be nothing to gain from defending those countries from Russia and risking a world war. All that it would take is for Russians to believe that military intervention in the Baltics (or Georgia or Ukraine) would successfully kick NATO out of the Baltics (or Georgia or Ukraine), and that NATO would not defend the Baltics (or Georgia or Ukraine). If NATO’s behaviour is seen as inconsistent (being both willing to bully Russia and unwilling to stand its ground if Russia fights back), then this will only encourage the Russian people. Furthermore, Putin’s foreign policy will be seen as inadequate and lacklustre.

Third, a charismatic nationalist candidate who could defeat Putin in a presidential election in 2018. Without such a person, Russia will continue its present (fairly moderate) foreign policy, even if nationalist fervour among the Russian people is aroused deeply. Like I said before, nationalist parties in Russia are part of the somewhat influential but ultimately impotent opposition to the ruling regime.

In my opinion (I am not an expert on Russia so this really is nothing more than my opinion), there will probably be a dark horse nationalist candidate running against Putin in 2018. In the forums awhile back I predicted that Igor Girkin (AKA “Igor Strelkov”) would probably be this figure, and I still believe this to be the case, though I have no evidence to back this up.

Whoever it may be if faith in Vladimir Putin wanes, if the Russian people continue to feel threatened by NATO and if this feeling only grows within the next 2 years, and if a nationalist dark horse candidate does indeed rise up to challenge incumbent president Putin in 2018, we could see the rise of a Russia which is not only willing but eager to challenge NATO in Eastern Europe and rebuild the Russian sphere of influence/Russian Empire by force. For those who wish for peace in this world, you can only hope that I am wrong.