Russian President Vladimir Putin raised more than a few eyebrows when –in the context of the early January 2020 edition of his state of the nation address– he announced his intention to implement constitutional reforms that would reshuffle the Russian political system. This move was even more intriguing considering the resignation of the entire Cabinet, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (a figure that, until not long ago, was seen by many as Putin’s potential successor). Consequently, even traditional ‘Kremlinologists’ are somewhat baffled and there has been a lot of speculation concerning the ultimate interests that motivate such agenda, but a careful analysis reveals that –in the grand scheme of things– Putin’s fateful announcement makes sense when seen from a strategic perspective of political realism.
Understanding the Importance of Putin’s Singular Profile
As an analytical methodology, geopolitics usually prioritises the behaviour of impersonal forces when it comes to grasping the realities of both international relations and domestic politics. In other words, it assumes that the margin of action for human agency is limited. However, skilful statesmen –a historical occurrence that is rather rare– can be able to turn the tables and challenge conventional paradigms in order to advance their respective countries’ national interests. Based on his record, it can be argued that Vladimir Putin is one of those figures whose leadership has managed to make a meaningful difference.
It is pertinent to underline that Putin’s worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his professional background as a KGB officer. Despite its legendary ruthlessness both at home and abroad, as the main intelligence agency of one of the two superpowers during the Cold War, the KGB –i.e. the Committee for State Security– was arguably one of the most knowledgeable and pragmatic branches of the Soviet government concerning worldly affairs and how to handle them. Regardless of the pervasive influence of communist propaganda in most sectors of Soviet society, the Committee developed a dispassionate and sharp mind-set, one that was not strongly contaminated by heavy ideological indoctrination. Thus, a clever KGB foreign intelligence officer could have a better sense of situational awareness and strategic clarity than the average Politburo apparatchiks.
Furthermore, Putin spent some time as a foreign intelligence officer in East Germany, an experience that allowed him to fathom the multidimensional complexity of the Cold War, Moscow’s top national security imperatives in Central Europe, the far-reaching might of the United States, the essential rationale of nuclear deterrence and the heterogeneous nature of the Western alliance, as well as the substantial degree of economic and technological development reached by several capitalist societies. Likewise, the fact that he hails from Saint Petersburg –Russia’s most westernised metropolis– is also telling.
Such circumstances strengthened Putin’s strategic thinking abilities, an asset whose practical value is more than useful in countless fields which require formidable analytical skills, including running a country. That is precisely what Putin was taking about when he famously stated that ‘there is no such thing as a former KGB man’. One must bear in mind that, above all else, the point of intelligence activities is to provide valuable input for the decision-making process. Interestingly, with the notable exceptions of characters like Henry Kissinger (once US National Security Advisor) and George H. W. Bush (once CIA Director), few Western leaders have shared a similar background.
When then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was about to become President of the Russian Federation 20 years ago, he half-jokingly told some colleagues that ‘a group of FSB operatives, dispatched undercover to work in the government of the Russian Federation, is successfully fulfilling its task’. In hindsight, it looks like perhaps that was a statement of fact rather than a joke.
Based on his idea that ‘the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20thcentury’, Putin’s opponents claim that he is some sort of neo-Soviet dictator. However, such criticism is flawed. Although Putin’s actions speak volumes about his rejection of Western-style liberal democracy as the model that Russia needs to follow, he does not intend to revive communism or to recreate the Soviet Union. As a pragmatic nationalist, what he laments is the steep degradation of Russian national power derived from the loss of its position as a super-power.
In the minds of average Russians, the 90s –the period were Russia tried to follow the political principles of liberal democracy and the axioms of free market economics– are not seen as times of prosperity, pride or hopefulness. Instead, those years are regarded as a tragic reflection of rampant corruption, increasing crime, acute economic stagnation, erratic political leadership, widespread poverty, social decay, unassertive foreign policies and constant national humiliation. As a result of this, Russia almost became a failed state. The rise of Vladimir Putin cannot be understood without the pressing need to solve such a crisis. After all, it is relevant to highlight that Caesarism flourishes precisely in times of trouble.
Hence, Putin intended to address such problems, identifying them as threats whose harmful impacts were jeopardising the very survival of Russia as a functional national state. The most important achievement of Putin and his clan is that they successfully managed to alter the internal balance of power in order to reassert the uncontested control of the Russian state over actors like local oligarchs, regional strongmen, organised crime networks, the Russian Orthodox Church and foreign companies. The new rule was that their often questionable activities would now be tolerated only as long as they did not undermine vital Russian national interests.
Accordingly, centrifugal forces would no longer be tolerated. The implementation of this authoritarian approach entailed the concentration of a great deal of power. In this process, the instrumental role played by Putin’s clan (the so called ‘Siloviki’) was vital. Not surprisingly, such group includes veterans from Soviet intelligence agencies, security services and armed forces, many of whom have literally occupied the most critical nerve-centres of the Russian state. That means that many of the top cadres of the Russian ruling elite are individuals more or less similar to Vladimir Putin.
To a certain degree and also thanks to the involvement of relatively young and highly educated technocrats, Putin’s administration managed to reactivate the most promising sectors of the Russian economy (aerospace, the manufacture of state-of-the-art weaponry and military hardware and the extraction of natural resources, mainly energy). The accumulation of gold as a geostrategic asset has also been pursued as a monetary policy priority. However, Russia is still over reliant on foreign investment and its economy is still not diversified enough to participate as a leading player in the innovative developments related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Also, the idea of turning Moscow into a world-class financial hub proved to be an illusion out of touch with reality. National power represents a multidimensional aggregate but, in order to achieve a sustainable position, a contemporary great power cannot rely on oil and gas exports as the cornerstone of its economic performance.
In contrast, Putin has demonstrated his acumen as a superb geopolitical player. His accomplishments in terms of foreign policy include the following:
-The development of comprehensive preparedness for enhancing Russia’s geopolitical presence in the Arctic, an interest that has implications for the control of raw materials, increased international business opportunities, the potential to revitalise Siberia and the chance to upgrade Russia’s military and maritime capabilities.
-The active participation of Moscow in multilateral frameworks like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
-The projection of power through unconventional conduits like paramilitary private companies, psychological operations, memetic warfare, covert action, the manipulation of diplomatic intrigue, cyber espionage, amongst others.
-The profitable exploitation of foreign markets eager to purchase the items manufactured by the Russian military-industrial complex.
-The participation of Russian regular and irregular forces in complex battlefields like Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
-The restoration of Russia a great power whose interests cannot be overlooked and also as a powerbroker whose influence is felt in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and the Far East.
-The modernisation of Russian strategic weapons as a factor that reinforces the credibility of Russian foreign policy.
Nevertheless, the restoration of undisputed Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union –the so called ‘near abroad’– still remains elusive. For instance, even the project to undertake Anschluss with Belarus is not advancing as expected. Furthermore, it is unclear if Moscow’s efforts to return Ukraine to Russia’s geopolitical orbit will be successful in the near future. Even though the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula a few years ago, direct or indirect control of Ukraine is crucial in terms of infrastructure, defence, demographic weight, agricultural productiveness and industrial output.
Another structural problem waiting to be solved is the country’s dramatic demographic decline. Despite a continuous modest improvement, the downward trend still needs to be reversed. Russia’s current fertility rate is still below replacement levels. This is a major challenge for a country whose population is mostly concentrated in a relatively small area (European Russia) of its huge territory. Without a substantial demographic volume, Russia’s critical mass will diminish in the long run in the economic, geopolitical, military and cultural realms. Thus, the eventual prospect of depopulation could compromise Russian national security.
In short, Putin started his first presidential term as a visionary reformer so, in order to carry out his ambitious plans, he accumulated a great deal of power. In this respect, his enlightened despotism is similar to that of other Russian rulers who wanted to transform and modernise the country, like Peter the Great. Hence, Putin’s levels of authoritarianism and hawkishness are relatively mild for Russian standards (the contrast is evident when comparisons with Ivan the Terrible or Stalin are made). Some progress has been made and the flame of national morale has been rekindled during the reign of President Putin and his clan, but there are problematic issues that will have to be dealt with if Russia truly wants to reassert itself as a relevant player on the global geopolitical chessboard.
What to Expect
Putin’s recent announcement was rather vague and, consistently with the Kremlin’s traditional hermeticism, not many details have emerged yet. It is remarkable that the New Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin is (former head of the Federal Tax Service) a skilful technocrat but he does not belong to the Siloviki clan. Given his profile and background, it is not clear is he is being groomed as Putin’s handpicked successor or he is simply acting as a temporary manager.
Kremlinologists are discussing if Putin intends to retire by 2024 (when his current term ends) or if he somehow intends to retain power or at the very least a great deal of de facto control. Perhaps it is a false dilemma. Someone like Putin does not have to be President for life in order to operate as the ultimate mastermind behind the throne. Regardless of official titles, Putin can pull the strings from other positions. After all, strategic thinking emphasises the importance of flexibility when it comes to securing a continuous advantage.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the role of both the State Council (a deliberative and executive decision-making body) and the Russian Parliament will be strengthened, particularly when it comes to matters related to defence, national security and foreign policies, fields Putin is more than familiar with. That means Putin is likely widening his political margin of action.
Furthermore, Putin is already 67 years old. If he remains indefinitely in power as President of the Russian Federation with no clear and legitimate succession process, then it is merely a matter of time before a succession crisis unleashes an ensuing power struggle that can undermine the continuity of his national project, undoing what has been achieved during the last two decades. In other words, Putinism–with or without Putin– needs to find an institutional way to survive if its vision is to prevail well into the 21st century. Otherwise, its prospects could be compromised in a foreseeable future. Therefore, the model –albeit still authoritarian– will have to de depersonalised.
Another consideration that deserves to be taken into account is that the implementation of a political reform buys more time to address complicated issues –which directly affect the lives of millions of ordinary Russian citizens– that might hypothetically galvanise popular discontent and maybe even unrest.
This measure will provide room to groom several potential successors but also to make the adjustments that will be necessary in order to guarantee the stability and functionality of the Russian regime as it navigates through unchartered waters. It is still too early to forecast what role Putin intends to play after 2024 but it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that all options are on the table. The die has been cast and that is likely by design.
Like most political phenomena, Putinism is a product of its circumstances. Furthermore, its patterns are consistent with the Russian long-term geopolitical cycle. It arose in times of intense turmoil and it has managed to strengthen a national state whose vitality was declining as a result of multiple difficulties. Thus, the national power of the Russian state has been restored to a certain extent, but there are dire challenges waiting to be overcome and that fuels both uncertainty and anxiety. Hence, Putinism is preparing to face what is to come in the next few decades but, as usual, only time will tell if the project it advocates turns out to be successful.