“From the time of imposing sanctions against Russia, the US and most of EU (sic) member-states openly states openly state that the end goal of sanctions is to undermine the socioeconomic situation in the country to provoke social upheaval and overthrow Putin’s regime“
Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality’.
There is a lot going on in Russia at the moment, and while we beat the drum of Russian dastardliness we need to understand the Russian perspective; a cornered bear is dangerous. The prospect of Russian regression and collapse may not be imminent, but the prospect of Putin’s regime collapsing is what drives the Kremlin’s calculations, and Putin has a problem.
It’s all about the economy, stupid, and Putin needs to grow his. Unfortunately as this perceptive piece from Bloomberg makes clear, Putin’s room for manoeuvre in his regard is strictly limited. The Russian economy is growing by an average of 0.5% a year according to the IMF, it should be growing at >1.5% (IMF) but even a 2% growth rate would not enable Russia to start catching up with its peers (IMF) and, as every Russian strategist from Svechin onwards knows:
“…the strategist must take into account the entire rear, both his own and the enemy’s, represented by the state with all its economic and political capabilities”
Svechin, Aleksandr, ‘Strategy’ p69.
Putin also needs to improve the economy as quite frankly, the people are hurting. One in four Russian children now live below the poverty line according to Russian statistics, and a recent poll by the Levada Center indicates that two thirds of Russian families had no savings to speak of.
The IMF and others have suggested various ways that Russia could reform in order to improve its economic prospects, but these reforms will either create social unrest or directly impact on the Russian state sector. Again, going back to the Bloomberg piece it is pretty clear that in a kleptocracy such as exists in Russia, Putin cannot afford significant reform to the public sector as that would prove an existential threat to him:
“The employees of various branches of government and state companies are Putin’s most reliable support base. Putin’s billionaire friends have gotten rich from state procurement, and now that many of them are under sanctions, it remains the only source of their continued prosperity.“
Bershidsky Leonid, Bloomberg
Putin is the most powerful, but he is not all powerful. It is also clear that Putin is increasingly following the dictates of the Emperor Severus’ deathbed advice to his sons:
“…agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men”
Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 16.
So Putin is in a bit of a fix, a Catch 22. He needs to placate the masses while keeping his power base, the oligarchs and security forces, on side; it is a difficult balancing act. At the moment he is trying to position himself above the fray, using the plausible deniability of his adhocracy to apportion blame beneath him; he is the wise (albeit increasingly remote) Tsar. But the social contract is fraying, and as it frays so to are the numbers of protests increasing and participation broadening.
The protests, which show no sign of abating represent a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and broad unhappiness with the entrenched corruption of the Putin regime. Yet it is this selfsame corruption that sustains Putin’s power. This Meduza article represents the best analysis of the protests that I have seen to date; I imagine it is thorny reading inside the Kremlin.
So we should all be cheering in the West at the prospect of a triumphant liberalisation of Russia? Probably not, or at least not immediately, because if a transition was to happen, then like all transitions it would be a period of great uncertainty, great opportunity and great risk. Transitions need to be planned for, and the Russians have been planning for such a transition (or the threat thereof) for years; it’s all a Western plot don’t you know?
The opening quote was taken from an article written in the Russian ‘Journal of the Academy of Military Sciences’ in 2017. The entire article is well worth reading with it’s somewhat paranoid tones reminiscent of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion‘. Yet this strain of Russian strategic thinking has been apparent for some time. In Ben Macintyre’s riveting book ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ it is quite clear that Yuri Andropov, the then Soviet premier, was convinced that the USA and NATO was preparing a first strike against the Soviet Union and ordered Operation Ryan to confirm this. Ofer Friedman’s excellent book Russian Hybrid Warfare also lays clear the origins of Russian thinking in hybrid warfare (gibridnaya voina) and makes it clear that the origination of this belief lies in the deep rooted belief that the Soviet Union was defeated by the West through the use of ‘methods and techniques based on political, economic, ideological and other non-military types of subversion‘ (page 97), with the continuing conviction that Russia remains targeted by such today.
So what does this mean for us? All politics are ultimately domestic, and as we look at Russian foreign policy we need to bear in mind two factors:
- Regime survival;
- Regime transition (2024)
Regime survival is the foremost consideration of all Russian (Putin) policy decisions, foreign and domestic; it trumps all other considerations. Regime transition, refers to the fact that Putin, under the current constitution, is due to leave office in 2024 and with no obvious successor, is the paradigm under which the broader regime (the oligarchic kleptocracy) is now operating. The strategic culture under which the Russian military operate is one in which the West represents the existential threat. We need to tread carefully, engage constructively, and carry a big stick.
Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality‘ in Russia’s Journal of the Academy of Military Science. Translation by Boris Vainer and accessed through FMSO.
Svechin Aleksandr, ‘Strategy‘ East View Publications, Minneapolis, 1999.
Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History, Volume IX, Books 71-80‘, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1863.
Fridman Ofer, ‘Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicisation’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.