When the full details of his constitutional reforms were unveiled, many rushed to judgement, saying that this proved Vladimir Putin planned to rule until 2036. Honestly, the thought that in 2020, Putin had already planned his next sixteen years – until he was 83 – seemed something of a stretch. Rather, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Putin move, giving himself options which, closer to the event, he could chose between.
In any case, judging by his actions (and inactions) this year, if anything Putin is getting less concerned about the long-term, less cautious and consensual in his methods, less strategic in pretty much every way. Physically active and carefully-cossetted, there is no reason why the man would not live until 2036; it’s harder to see his system lasting as long.
System vs man
To some, what is currently underway is a comprehensive transformation of the political system, but it is questionable whether that is really what we are seeing. Talk of a “more powerful presidency” fail to recognise the extent to which in practice the boss can already get whatever he wants adopted as policy. The very real problems associated with actually turning policy into practice, whether in his National Projects or digitisation of the economy, are not about a lack of legal power but practical authority, expertise, and resources.
Furthermore, there are clear contradictions tearing at the apparent new system even before it is in place, especially over regional power. New powers allowing the Kremlin and its regional proxies increased control over local officials and similar moves that appear to be steps towards further centralisation sit uncomfortably with the implicit message of Prime Minister Mishustin’s recent outreach to the Russian Far East, as well as the way the COVID-19 response was quickly kicked into the hands of local officials.
Yes, there have been some striking changes in tone and detail this year, from the decision either to attempt to kill Alexei Navalny, or at least to cover-up and implicitly approve the attack, through to the clumsy handling of the constitutional reforms. To a large extent, as I discuss in my latest podcast, these should be seen not so much as reflecting a change in system, so much as a change in the instructions being given to this system.
In other words, its about people, not process – and one person in particular.
Whatever happened to Vladimir Putin?
Back at the beginning of 2014, when the Sochi Winter Olympics were about to open, and there was no inkling that the “polite people” were about to be unleashed on Crimea, I was speaking with a European ambassador in Moscow who ruled out any major response to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine: “He is too cautious to get involved. He understands the long terms costs too well.” I confess I agreed, and we were both wrong. We had been caught out by what could be called, a tad pretentiously, a paradigm shift in how Putin saw the world. In hindsight, it is clear that he saw the Maidan not as a Ukrainian rising but a Western act of gibridnaya voina, “hybrid war,” part of a plan to marginalise and maybe even emasculate Russia. We had not appreciated that Putin was now at (political) war, and so had a wholly different calculus.
Nonetheless, Putin remained cautious, aware that by almost all measures, Russia was weaker than the Western alliance and that his people were, for all the drum-beating propaganda to which they were exposed, not interested in a geopolitical crusade (the enthusiasm for the Crimean annexation was a one-off). He was also cautious and even quite consensual at home, seeking to create a coalition in support of his policies, and avoid over-taxing the patience of his people.
He remained frugal with his financial resources (the defence budget essentially stayed flat or even shrank after 2015), and also with his political ones. While never willing to deal with the rot of corruption at the very top of his system, he did permit a more serious campaign against graft further down the hierarchy, and he was genuinely committed to the social and infrastructure developments embodied within his National Projects. There also remained room for civil society (so long as it concentrated on local and specific issues and did not challenge the state directly), independent journalism, and even Alexei Navalny’s overt political opposition.
In 2020, all that seemed to change.
Putin 2020. Not such a good vintage
The obvious example is the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. He has been arrested, assaulted, sued, splashed with zelenka dye (and almost lost sight in one eye) and poisoned, but not in any case with an apparent intent to kill. The use of a novichok-type agent in the recent attack essentially precludes this from being simply a threat (it is too difficult to guarantee a dose would hurt but not kill), and the recent claim by the German authorities that it was a hitherto-unknown, slower-acting but more dangerous variety makes it almost impossible that this was not done without direct access to one of the Russian security agencies’ poison laboratories. And that, in turn, makes it less likely that this might have been done by one of the big beasts of the system rather than at the Kremlin’s direct behest.
Again, my initial assumption was that this was less likely to be directly ordered by the Kremlin (not least given the confused response), but it may well turn out to be that instead it marked another shift in Putin’s paradigm. Whether because of the whispers in his ears by cronies and advisers even more paranoid and ruthless than he, whether because of concerns about the general dissatisfaction within the country (according to the Levada Centre’s polls, only 31% of voters would back United Russia), the autocrat who once made such a memorable distinction between enemies and traitors – one you fight and hope to reach terms with; the other can only be eliminated – seems to have gone feral.
And the same approach, of just ignoring alternative opinions and dynamiting all obstacles in his path, whatever else may be hit in the blast, seems to be more general. He looks like a man in a hurry rather than one playing the long game.
Burning bridges while still on them
By supporting Lukashenko, he may well have given the old dictator a year or two more in power, but regardless of how any eventual succession is organised, he has ensured that a population which once saw the Russians as their cousins and natural partners will instead regard them as occupiers-by-proxy. The current popular revolt is not Belarus’s Maidan – but Putin has pretty much guaranteed that the country will now have a similar reorientation towards the West, and conceivably by 2024, let alone 2036.
At home, the needlessly-rushed and blatantly-rigged vote on constitutional reforms delegitimated a poll which the Kremlin could have quite legitimately won, even if not with the kind of super-majority Putin obviously wanted. Yet it means that if the present local elections are also fiddled, as seems highly likely, then the damage to the system’s legitimacy and credibility will be all the greater.
And with it, the sense in the country that their interests are not being taken seriously. In Khabarovsk and in Bashkortostan, this has led to major protests, but the conditions which led to them are hardly unusual. Across the country, Moscow is seen as a hostile power, and the varyagi, the “Varangians”, loyal officials “parachuted” into key positions are increasingly resented.
None of these are new problems. None of them are especially hard to understand. Yet none of these issues are being adequately addressed. Even if Navalny never returns to active politics, his movement will probably not go away and, more to the point, the reasons for its existence are ever-more salient. Even if the National Projects do bear fruit – and their deadline has already been pushed back by six years – then this will not magically relegitimate the regime at the eleventh hour.
Of course, we don’t know for sure what is happening inside the Kremlin black box. Conceivably, Putin has decided that pandemic-shadowed 2020 is “taking out the trash” year, a chance to get all the bad stuff he might want to do out of the way in one go, and then concentrate on regaining his authority. This is unlikely, though, and if it is the case, also likely a foolish gamble, especially with genuinely-important State Duma elections coming up next year.
It is more likely that Putin is succumbing to the same problem as most authoritarians over time, becoming a caricature of himself. Older, less flexible, more dependent on a shrinking circle of yes-men, more detached from his own country, the temptation is to rely more on force and fiat, while his cronies take fullest advantage of his indulgence to enrich themselves and prosecute their private feuds.
Empires can coast a long time like this, relying on the loyal technocrats and administrators who do their best to keep the system working, regardless. But it also means they become increasingly brittle, vulnerable to the unexpected shock or challenge. In 1914, did anyone really think tsarism only had three more years? Meanwhile, serious longer-term threats, from the melting of the northern permafrost to the potential challenge from frenemy China, are largely going unaddressed.
Either way, this does not look like a leadership planning seriously for sixteen more years.