“Putin’s Coup” by Ben Judah is a long but interesting analytical piece. I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing, and for sake of brevity I have organized my commentary into a modified form of the dreaded listicle format.
The article is largely based on the opinions of one Radek Sikorsky, ex-Polish foreign minister. Sikorsky believes Europe will be facing a more “menacing” Russia in the future. I, for one, maintain some skepticism because this opinion is coming from a Polish politician and to be honest, Poland has an obsession with Russia similar to Russia’s obsession with America. They have a stake in getting the world to see Russia as they do. In reality, Russia is not nearly the threat they claim. Like a belligerent drunk man flailing his arms around wildly, he could be mildly dangerous to anyone within reach, but eventually he’ll lose his balance and collapse, prompting him to piss himself and vomit. It’s important to note that the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq stretched the logistical resources of the best-funded military in the world to the brink back in 2007-2008. That being the case, what chance does Russia have militarily? The occupation of the Crimea has already put Russia’s economy on the road to ruin, and any attempted offensives elsewhere will simply hasten the government’s destruction. Russia simply doesn’t have the military to keep this up. It’s strategy of “secret” wars in the form of supposedly local insurrections failed to fool anyone and failed to achieve its objective in the Donbas region.
So as you read the article, try to take some of the more alarmist claims with a grain of salt.
The article suggests there may have been a break between Putin and some of Russia’s top oligarchs, with the president consolidating power via control of the state security services, i.e. the FSB and military intelligence, the GRU. It is generally accepted that Putin’s model of statecraft involved kicking out the old oligarchs and bringing in a new, loyal batch. The deal was simple; line your pockets all you want, but stay out of politics and keep your hands off the media. Now there’s apparently a notion that this relationship may be over due to Russia’s rapidly declining economy, particularly due to the sanctions. Indeed, some of these oligarchs have been the target of sanctions. Now there is a contradiction because the oligarchs obviously want to keep their hold on power, but Putin needs to keep playing this role of the patriot in order to ensure support. While some measures have been taken to bail out the oligarchs, Putin cannot risk spoiling the whole game by openly siding with the businessmen over the welfare of the population as a whole.
Obviously one answer to Putin’s problem would be to basically do what this article suggests he’s already doing- keeping the oligarchs in check and building a more conventional dictatorship ruled by members of the military and state security establishment. The problem with this theory is that while Putin may indeed attempt to transform the country in this way, it won’t last much longer after he does so. State workers and generals are not a class, and we live in a class-based society, specifically a capitalist society. He cannot do away with the oligarchs entirely, and that creates another problem because the people he would depend on, high ranking FSB, military, or GRU personnel could very quickly come to the realization that Russia’s oligarchs can offer them a life of luxury, whereas Putin cannot.
The article mentions how thousands of police and security workers are no longer allowed to leave the country, a provision once limited only to people working in certain sectors of the defense industry. Indeed I myself have met such people who are forbidden to go abroad. Any expansion of this provision would obviously be aimed at keeping Putin’s new power brokers loyal to him. What is possible, however, is that they will look at the oligarch class and eventually understand that these businessmen will handsomely reward them if they work to overthrow Putin. With Putin, they’ll have a nice house, a dacha, and perhaps some luxury cars, but they’ll be trapped in Russia where all that could be taken away at a moment’s notice. With the oligarchs, they will have a shot at the real life of the Russian elite in the 2000’s- Swiss chalets, vacations in the south of France, emigration to London. All it will take is for the right “siloviki” to start talking to the right businessmen, possibly friends of Putin, and the emperor could be brought down. Of course Putin must be aware of this himself, which is why he won’t be able to trust this new power base of his. Unlike in the past, the rewards for supporting Putin are rapidly diminishing.
The article offers as evidence of this break between Putin and the oligarchs a quote from an unnamed Kremlin adviser about how the London-loving businessmen are going to be a thing of the past. Alexander Dugin is credited with forming this ideology. There are a couple problems with this, however. First of all, Dugin has been ranting against globalization and the West for years, in spite of the fact that the whole time those London-Moscow oligarchs were enjoying the favor of Putin. Men like Dugin are tasked with distracting Russian youth from this fact, the fact that every Russian with power does his utmost to distance himself from Russia, be it with the products he consumes or where he spends his free time. Second, Dugin was recently fired from his post at Moscow State University, under rather unclear circumstances. This means there’s a possibility that his rhetoric against Russia’s rich and powerful overstepped an invisible line, and thus the relationship between Putin and his oligarchs isn’t as strained as some might believe. Only time will tell.
Media, censorship, and control over the internet
The article brings up a whole slew of recent legislation aimed at more closely controlling media in Russia. I have to take issue with one line, however, where the author said this:
Draconian laws have been passed enabling the regime to arrest anyone for anything said online.
Pro-Kremlin hacks will jump all over that, if only because it’s easy to find all kinds of anti-government, pro-Ukrainian material all over Russian social networks and other Russian sites. Their typical position can be summed up by the following formula: “Russia’s not a dictatorship because it allows all these anti-government views, but if the government wants to censor any of those views at any time, this is perfectly fine because we’re in an information war!”
In truth the laws banned things such as publishing material suggestion greater federalization or autonomy for regions in Russia, in other words advocating the same thing the Donbas rebels initially demanded and eventually got. I believe the author here was referring to laws banning “extremist” material, which is problematic because “extremism” is rarely defined in Russia. All kinds of racist and antisemitic material is tolerated, so long as it is pro-government or anti-opposition. By contrast, liberal, pro-European material could be called “extremist” because it is probably the work of paid-agents trying to start an Orange Revolution to overthrow the Russian government.
Once again the fear of internet censorship is raised, but to be fair to Putin he hasn’t gone that far yet. The main fear is that when he needs to censor or block the internet, he will. In the mean time, I don’t think crying wolf helps anything. As I said before, this only helps the Kremlin’s useful idiots.
China fantasies, again
The article offers disturbing quotes which demonstrate how powerful people in Russia are deluding themselves into thinking they can replace Europe with China. Once again we are given more hard evidence as to why this is a pipe dream. As plenty of people have pointed out before, China’s relationship with Russia is a dominant one. Obviously China views the US as a competitor, but the relationship between the US and China has been mutually beneficial thus far. China simply has no good reason to ruin that just to maintain the fantasy of Russia’s ideologues.
There is a very real danger that Putin’s system, in desperation and in dire need of a loyal support base, could go off the rails and begin turning into a dictatorship more along the lines of Iraq or Syria. Putin fans are so fond of quoting polls showing his approval rating at about 84%, but if we ignore the fact that this is already starting to wane, there’s the more important fact that there is a huge gap between what Russians say in public to pollsters, and what they actually do. The approve of the annexation of Crimea, but they’d still rather vacation in Europe, Turkey, or Egypt. They say they support the state, but they’re still mad about tax increases and the robbing of their pensions. They also continue to receive most of their salary under the table to avoid paying taxes. Putin’s system still suffers from the paradox that the economy can only survive via turning a blind eye to tax evasion. With 80% of the wealth being concentrated in Moscow and with Moscow being the only opportunity for social advancement, the economy would simply collapse if everyone were made to pay their taxes on salaries and apartments.
Obviously through its state media organs and various astroturf organizations, the Kremlin will continue to encourage people to endure any hardship lest big bad America destroy this paradise on Earth. But the Soviet Union was unable to last under similar conditions in spite of having a much better economic and political foundation. In the USSR, there were still many bureaucrats and KGB officials without a real experience of Western life, much less luxury. That’s not the case today. Russia’s upper-class and super-rich have not only experienced life outside of Russia, but they have in fact experienced an elite lie beyond that which ordinary Americans, Britons, or Europeans could ever imagine. Eventually, to save his own ass, Putin will have to ask a portion of these people to forego all of that. They will do it for a while, especially when they don’t know who they can trust. In the long term though? Fat chance. Rich Russians love them some iPads, BMW, country houses in France, London flats, and New York penthouse apartments. Russia’s oligarchs can reward those loyal to them with all of those things and more, Putin cannot. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.
As for opposition in Russia, it’s still pretty much bankrupt in terms of leadership and ideology. Alliance politics, whereby you unquestioningly side with anyone or anything that also opposes your target, still seems to be the order of the day. A great deal of anti-Putin rhetoric comes from right-wing nationalists who have once again fallen out of love with their leader. Thus while the regime will not last much longer, there is a real danger that some demagogue will use similar rhetoric to swindle the masses and secure his place at the trough. Western well-wishers need to be aware of this and encourage Russian oppositionists to exclude groups which divide the people and preach what is essentially the same rhetoric the Kremlin has endorsed for years. Otherwise the collapse of the Putin regime could indeed lead to a much worse situation.