The fragile facade of Vladimir Putin’s Russia
High carbon steel is strong but brittle, super tough but susceptible to shattering under sudden impact. Mild or mild steel is ductile, prone to bending but less likely to break. The two metals are a useful metaphor for the contrasting properties of democratic and authoritarian governments.
The rich democracies of the world have become distorted in recent times. A look at the Republican Party’s voter suppression initiatives shows that America still carries the distortions of Donald Trump’s presidency. In Europe, the populists have launched a myriad of assaults on pluralist values and norms. And yet, distorted as they may have been, the institutions of democracy have shown themselves to be flexible enough to withstand the blows.
As for the autocrats, Vladimir Poutine remains in the Kremlin; The Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan still occupies his palace which looks like Versailles in Ankara; and in Beijing, the all-but-name Emperor Xi Jinping has become increasingly confrontational in his drive to dismantle the international order designed by the West. But then it is the nature of their rule that the autocrats are all-powerful until they are rendered powerless.
A British diplomat once told me about his apprenticeship in the Soviet office of the Foreign Office. It was the early 1980s and the Soviet Union seemed to be at the height of its military might. Seen from the west, the Soviet system of state economic planning was unsustainable. On the other hand, the unchallenged working hypothesis was that it would last forever. The same conflicting expectations often describe Putin’s Western view of Russia.
This month the Russian government released its update National security strategy. Anyone who has shown a fleeting interest in the Kremlin worldview will know the general direction. Nationalist autocrats need enemies abroad to justify political repression at home, and the Russian president has long found his in the west.
Thus, a besieged Russia was surrounded by a hostile United States and its NATO allies. Enemy forces – some of which, including the United States, are now officially referred to as “hostile states” – are moving their armies closer to the national border. Washington deploys its international financial might against Moscow. Western economic sanctions are an integral part of this multifaceted attack on the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia.
The threat, the document continues, goes beyond the military and economic framework. The attack is cultural and civilizational. Westerners propagate social and moral attitudes that “contradict the traditions, beliefs and beliefs of the peoples of the Russian Federation”. The country must be defended against foreign ideologies and values.
If it needed confirmation, it is not the analysis of a Russian leader who is now seeking a fundamental change in relations with the West. His recent meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva may have reframed the relationship with Washington, but it didn’t reset it.
However, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, detects an important addition to the last strategy – recognition of threats both inside and outside. They include poor economic performance, heavy dependence on oil and gas, unfavorable demographics and lagging technologies. According to Trenin’s account: “Russia’s leaders now have every reason to turn in on themselves to remedy the glaring weaknesses, imbalances and inequalities of the country’s internal situation. “
Add in the rampant corruption that begins with the Kremlin and you have the explanation for Putin’s fear of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Foreigners cannot be blamed for state corruption or the declining standard of living. And the decarbonization energy supply will soon begin to cap the flow of money into the Kremlin coffers from oil and gas.
The temptation is to think that we may be back in the 1980s – that the cracks are about to grow into cracks that will someday bring down the current system. In my opinion, this is premature. Putin’s only concern is the preservation of his own power. He will gladly steal the future of Russia in order to safeguard his own position. That’s what he’s doing by throwing his lot with Xi’s China – he’ll be gone before Russia pays the price.
The equal and opposite error, however, is to believe that the trajectory of the authoritarian states of the world is fixed. The autocrats, with their elaborate Potemkin facades, understand well the fragility of their rule. Even for Emperor Xi, repression is as much a measure of fear as it is an instrument of control. The big question is that of timing. Like high carbon steel, these diets will hold their shape until the moment they break.