What a difference a few months can make. Back in August, the mood in Moscow’s policy circles was subdued but still hopeful. They may not have known what the plan was, but I often encountered a belief that someone higher on the food chain must know what they were doing and that somewhere there must be a plan.
Returning to the city in January has been a painful epiphany. Physically little has changed in the city; the shops are no less stocked, public services work just as well, and the traffic jams up in the evening with the same familiar regularity. But the mindscape is very different. More and more I am encountering a growing realisation that there is no grand plan to turn Russia around and deal with its current troubles. The tactical successes are their own reward rather than steps towards a solution. Russia faces not the catastrophic collapse some of its more intemperate enemies are eagerly predicting, so much as a continued slide into disillusion and decay.
Here is the irony. Vladimir Putin makes no secret of his admiration for Yuri Andropov, the hard-nosed and clear-eyed ex-KGB chief who first began to try to reverse the stagnation of the Soviet state (and who was the midwife of the Gorbachev era). However, he is actually presiding over something that increasingly resembles the period zastoya, the ‘time of stagnation’ of the 1970s, when Andropov’s predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, allowed economic decline, military adventurism and public disillusion to build up to a level that proved beyond redemption.
Talk to the military types, and they are actually very satisfied with their performance in Syria. It is fair to say the West was surprised not just by the fact of the intervention but how smoothly the Russians have been able to continue to support government forces at a high “optempo”—the jargon for operational tempo, the capacity to keep blasting away. But at the same time, soldiers here are aware that there is no articulated exit strategy beyond an Assad victory (highly unlikely, even if the momentum at present is in Damascus’s favor) and that in war, something always goes wrong eventually. Perhaps a motorboat full of explosives will slam into a loaded munitions ship at Tartus, perhaps a misdirected artillery fire will decimate a Syrian unit, perhaps a truck bomb will ram the Russian embassy, but there will be something.
Then what? An ignominious retreat, like the US marines from Beirut in 1983? Unlikely. His macho credentials are amongst Putin’s last untarnished assets. A doubling down, leaving Russia over-committed in this volatile battlefield? Entirely possible, however much the soldiers know that the real answer is generally to stick to the plan—but they know full well no-one is listening to the professional military these days.
Many of the current cohort of colonels and generals populating the defence ministry and the general staff were callow lieutenants and captains in the Soviet Union’s messy, inconclusive and ill-conceived war in Afghanistan. They saw what the politicians thought would be the classic “victorious little war” drag into a 10-year purgatory, largely driven by over-reactions and over-optimisms in Moscow, not the realities in Kabul and Kandahar. It is certainly noticeable that Afghanistan is being raised much more often in conversation these days.
Talk to the economic types and their story is strikingly similar. There is considerable appreciation for the work people such as Central Bank of Russia chief Elvira Nabiullina are doing in coping with the day-to-day pressures of the situation. The devaluation of the ruble has been painful, but is not a freefall. Inflation is high, but coming under control. A slew of dodgy and fragile banks have had their licenses revoked. But this is the financial equivalent of bombing a rebel bunker outside Aleppo; it counts as action, it’s a tactical step forward, but it is hardly likely to end the war.
What, after all, is Putin’s long-term economic strategy? It is essentially to cross his fingers and hope the oil price rebounds significantly and as many of the systemic sanctions can be negotiated away as quickly as possible.
Admittedly, it is hard to reform in the midst of crisis, but addressing the hydrocarbon-fixated complacency, corruption and centralisation that marked most of the Putin era is an urgent necessity. Yet even the optimists in Moscow are finding it harder to make their case that there is any real programme. State financial support continues to go to those businesses close to the Kremlin, not so much a covert renationalisation of the private sector as a privatisation of state assets. The new round of privatisations look set to be so hedged around with constraints that they are unlikely to bring any real institutional reform, nor even much money. Instead they will probably prove just another way to reward those oligarchs best able to pander to the Kremlin.
For this is ultimately a political issue. Just as Russia has long mastered the theatre of fake politics, with Kremlin loyalists jostling with Kremlin-run opposition in an empty ritual, so too increasingly there is a fake administration. Ministers minister, advisers advise, spin doctors spin, decrees are decreed and memos are minuted. But what actually gets done in the long term, beyond coping with the day’s crises? Action for its own sake is not governance.
The warning signs are there. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s vicious antics reflect both his confidence that he can get away with, quite literally, murder but also his distinctive approach to the coming struggle over budget allocations to the regions. With 85% of Chechnya’s budget coming from Moscow, and a slew of vanity projects and corrupt cronies depending on that money, he is making his pitch. Other regions are hardly going to use the same bloodthirsty idiom, but they will also be struggling for a slice of that shrinking pie. Many will lose out, and so people in the provinces already facing deteriorating services will get more of the same. Regional elites—just as in the 1970s—will likely increasingly see Moscow as the problem, not the solution.
Meanwhile, this is Duma election year, and the Kremlin demands a good turnout and a healthy vote of approval. Yet the dominant United Russia bloc is so bereft of ideas that its platform is not to have a platform: “No promises, no ideas, just vote for us.” This is either the most honest election manifesto in history—we offer you nothing—or else a striking admission that without a big idea from the Kremlin, its loyal henchmen can offer no big ideas either, lest they inadvertently seem to be criticising their idol.
This is a vulnerability, as the historically inert Communists, whose leader Gennady Zyuganov has for almost two decades embraced the role of tame faux-oppositionist with lumpen enthusiasm, are sharpening their knives. Whether this is because of Zyuganov, and the other compromised leaders, or despite them, driven from the rank and file, the Communists are increasingly raising the issue of government incompetence and corruption – a message the country is ready to hear.
Of course, the Kremlin will not lose the elections; by hook or by crook (especially the latter), it will get the results it wants. But there is always a price; we are unlikely to see metropolitan middle-class protests like those following the 2011 Duma elections, but more likely a deepening of the cynicism, fuelling extremism and perhaps a growing tide of inchoate labour unrest. Increasingly ritualised appeals to past military glories and the evils of the West will soon enough lose what mobilisational power they have now.
In the 1970s, as oil prices tanked, defence expenditure proved unsupportable and investment-starved industries declined, Brezhnev was unable to bring about meaningful change because of institutional political constraints, but also because he had no ideas, was unwilling to challenge the interests of a corrupt elite, and feared change. Instead, he relied on saber-rattling abroad, propaganda and repression at home, and an industrial-strength dose of wishful thinking. Welcome to Putin’s new age of retro-Brezhnevism.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.