“Autocracy is a superannuated form of government that may suit the needs of a Central African tribe, but not those of the Russian people, who are increasingly assimilating the culture of the rest of the world. That is why it is impossible to maintain this form of government except by violence”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 22 January. Russia is a relatively small, relatively corrupt state that governs the world’s single biggest political land mass, governed by President Putin who has been in power for twenty years and who, under the existing constitution must finally step down in 2024. However, President Putin also believes he is indispensable to Russia. Therefore, Russia is about to witness what passes for political reform. As so often in Russia history it is the wrong reform by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Central to Putin’s ambitions is a desire to ensure the health and wealth of him and his family during any future succession. In his annual State of Russia address President Vladimir Putin proposed a series of constitutional changes that would effectively make him Russia ‘power for life’, even if he is not actually the President of the Russian Federation. Why does Permanent Putin matter? What are the proposed changes? Who will benefit? What are the strategic implications, what to expect now and, finally, what to do?
Why does Permanent Putin matter? Last week, at a high-level meeting in Switzerland, I was asked by a senior figure why Russia posed a threat. It is to do with the nature of autocracies, their fear of political reform, and a tendency towards military adventurism when their own contradictions catch up with them, I responded. Moscow is unable to carry out the vital social, economic and political reforms that would benefit the Russian people for fear that those very reforms would topple the regime from power. Unwilling to carry out such reforms autocracies historically have turned to oppression at home and aggression abroad and constructed a security state to that end. Putin’s Russia is no different. Incapable of reform Moscow is locked in its own eventual demise and because of that more military adventurism is likely as the regime lurches from one engineered crisis to another.
What are the proposed changes? Putin called for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would nominally increase the power of both the parliament (Duma) and the State Council, hitherto an advisory tool for the Kremlin. As President Putin announced the proposed reforms former Russian president, and erstwhile Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, immediately stepped down. To maintain his complete authority President Putin will either return to the post prime minister or become the chair of a strengthened State Council. Indeed, it is not entirely inconceivable that Putin could change the Russian constitution from a presidential to a parliamentary system so as to ensure the prime minister’s office becomes the real power in the land.
Who will benefit? Apart from Putin himself there are several close allies who would seem to benefit from such changes, mainly because their very mediocrity means they pose no threat to Vladimir Vladimirovich, to whom they all owe their power and allegiance. The ‘stars’ of Duma Speaker Vyacyheslav Volodin and Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Anton Vaino both seem to be in the ascendant, and either could be named at some point as a puppet successor to Putin. The new Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who will ensure the changes Putin proposes are carried out, is also a possible candidate, although he has been given the poisoned chalice that is constitutional reform. For obvious reasons, the so-called Siloviki, Putin’s apparatchik base in the ‘power ministries’ that deal with foreign affairs, security, defence and intelligence will be untouched by the proposed reforms. Critically, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, remain in office, although the former is closer to Putin than the latter.
What are the strategic implications? Unable or unwilling to risk the thoroughgoing reforms Russia needs it is likely Moscow will redouble its efforts to convince the Russian people they are under threat from an insidious West to justify the regime’s hold on power. The central paradox of Putin’s foreign policy has always that it bites the European hand that by and large feeds it. Whilst Russia relies for much of its income of the export of hydrocarbons to its European neighbours, it also routinely paints those same neighbours as part of a ‘fascist’ western conspiracy to force Russia into strategic tutelage. Expect such fabrications and provocations to continue.
Permanent Putin will also make much of his ‘friendship’ with that other President-for-Life, China’s Xi Jingping. Both China and Russia are likely to make common grand strategic cause against an increasingly global West, more idea than place, as and when it suits them. One of many paradoxes in Putin’s position is that not only is Russia’s relationship with China today a bit like contemporary Britain’s relationship with the United States, or ancient Athens to ancient Rome, the greatest threat to the Russian Far East is posed not by Washington, but Beijing. What binds them is that both Putin and Xi are latter day ‘tsars’ who see themselves in strategic competition with the world’s democracies.
It is also hard to deny that the intensity of that competition, the economic pressure being exercised by Beijing on many states, as well as pace and scale of the arms race underway between the US and China (about which Europeans are in denial). Some form of Second Cold War is now clearly underway, although Frigid Peace may be a better description. A war that is already taking place across the ‘grey zones’ of hybrid and cyber war, and which could, heaven forfend, one day break out into a true hyperwar in which a whole host of exotically devastating technologies are unleashed.
What to expect now? Expect more Russian defections from the norms of international relations. This is because many of Russia’s paradoxes and contradictions are policy intractable. Whilst Permanent Putin will make some efforts to improve the lives of Russian citizens at the margins, nothing will be done that could threaten the regime’s grip on power. Russian foreign policy towards Europe will thus be a distraction strategy designed to give the impression Moscow is out-foxing Western powers. This will involve a series of defections from international instruments, such as the INF Treaty and international norms, such as the seizure of Crimea by force. Increased interference can be expected in a host of European states from the North Cape to the Arctic, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, all of which will be designed to give the impression of a clever, nimble Moscow that hints at Soviet power of the past, routinely confounding a lumpen West. In fact, over time the strategy cost Russia and its people dearly.
What to do? To preserve peace and limit Russia’s strategic opportunism the United States must first remember it is the leader of the West, global or otherwise. Second, Washington must also realise it no longer has the power alone to prevail across the conflict spectrum against the Chinese-Russian partnership from jawfare to warfare. Third, Europeans, and other allies and partners of the US, need to realise that only by the sharing of America’s growing strategic burdens can they assure their own peace. For Europeans that means, first and foremost, becoming united enough diplomatically, and strong enough militarily, to ensure peace in and around Europe. And, in so doing, help keep America strong where she needs to be strong.
Sooner or later Russia will have to stop biting the European hand that feeds it and realign its strategic and economic interests. In what could be a lengthy interim that means the sustained application of sound defence and credible deterrence in the face of Russian opportunism, allied to a willingness to consistently and constantly talk to Russia. Such a dual-track approach offers the best hope of giving Russia the soft landing both Russians and Europeans need as Moscow inevitably falls from the heady heights of its own manifold contradictions.
In other words, Europeans speak with Russia, both softly and firmly, but also carry a sufficiently big stick to ensure Moscow strategic opportunism does not become grand delinquency. For, as Vladimir Vladimirovich will one day discover, time waits for no man, not even him.