That Putin would be reconfirmed as president at the recent “election” was a foregone conclusion, and ostensibly sets him up to rule until 2024, and will therefore probably be his last term in office. Far from giving him and the country stability however, Putin now has pressing issues to contend with which he is unlikely to fully address, the fallout of which has serious implications both within Russia and beyond it.
The result on Sunday was never in doubt. Alexei Navalny, the only real threat in terms of his ability for mobilising public support (but never a real contender in terms of possible vote share), was barred from contesting the election, and the opposition candidates allowed to run were largely seen as hand-picked puppets that would offer a steam valve to some disgruntled voters without a real chance of troubling the clique in charge of the country. Putin bolstered his popularity with dangerous adventures abroad, and rhetoric reinforcing the narrative of Russia as a traditional, Christian country cornered by a decadent liberal world that wants to see it weakened and humiliated. Now however, his focus must inevitably turn to internal issues that he has seemingly avoided dealing with. The failure to do so could see the return of political instability that almost brought post-Soviet Russia to its knees in the 1990s, only this time the consequences can realistically mean real problems for Russia’s people and its neighbours.
Leaving a legacy
Arguably Putin has already done this. He has after all dragged Russia out of the Yeltsin-era economic meltdown and humiliation into a country that has imposed its will on other states several times, and one the world has to pay attention to even if its power is often overstated and its weaknesses understated. As well as clearing Russia’s foreign debts, the takeover of Crimea was seen as reasserting Russia’s sovereignty and former glory. The economy is still relatively undiversified and shaky due to sanctions, and poverty afflicts a large part of the population, but a middle class with real spending power exists and the concept of economic diversification is allegedly going to take priority in his last term. However, as eye-catching as some of his actions have been, many of these actions are in fact reversible. The Olympics in Sochi may have gone relatively smoothly, but it came at a huge financial cost (over $50 billion dollars, due to systemic corruption and the difficulties of staging the Winter Olympics in a sub-tropical climate), and the Washington Post report the final worker death toll of 60, but some news outlets claim a higher toll. To add insult to these deaths, the infrastructure is now rotting and largely unused. The Football World Cup will take place across Russia this summer but so far Russia’s behaviour abroad has alienated it and led to calls for a boycott of the event, and fears remain of the ultranationalist Russian hooligans that engaged in highly organised violence in France’s Euro 2016 ( with hard-line politician Igor Lebedev tweeting them to “keep up the good work”). None of these things will amount to a solid legacy if Russia’s luck turns on resource markets that make or break its economy, or in the conflicts it is currently involved in. In fact, conflict has stayed outside of Russia for now, but Putin’s decision to support rebel activity in Ukraine as well as the intervention in Syria can easily return to bite him just when the focus shifts to his domestic achievements once more.
Fighting the return leg at home?
If the event that built Putin was the crushing victory in Chechnya over its separatists, the return of severe violence in the region could seriously weaken him. Nor is this a fanciful assertion; although numbers are impossible to confirm, it is widely acknowledged that the number of fighters who made their way to Syria and Iraq from Russia (especially the Caucasus region) is in the thousands. Worse still, there are allegations that far from stopping suspected fighters, the authorities were encouraged to expedite the issuing of passports to make them leave Russia earlier in the hope they would be quickly killed in battle. With the “caliphate” in Iraq/Syria envisioned by ISIL more or less dead as a vision, many of these fighters will eventually return to their Caucasus homelands (and some will have already returned). The Caucacasus region is one of the poorest in Russia, where the unemployment rate generally stays in double figures and the average income is far lower than the already unimpressive national average; a World Bank report from 2016 shows that the entire Caucasus is considered part of Russia’s “lagging regions”, with its constituent republics’ GDP per capita in 2011 often 15-50% of the national average, if that. These poor economic prospects feed into ongoing resentment in the region. After all, even if cities like Grozny have been rebuilt, many people were alive at the time when Putin razed the city and others in Chechnya and fighting spilled over into Dagestan and Ingushetia to reassert Russia’s rule in spectacularly brutal fashion. Added to the feeling that Russian central authority seems happy to assert sovereignty over the region but do nothing for its economic development, and Putin’s reliance on strongmen willing to keep order through extremely violent police and security forces, this means resentment runs deep and dreams of the caliphate could easily be replaced by a return to insurgent warfare and terror tactics (such as the St. Petersburg metro bombing last year) against the old enemy, the Russian state.
Even the results on the ground in Syria are not safe, which is also telling as we could soon see whether Putin is willing to commit more resources to defending Assad’s regime, and more importantly, the bases at Latakia and Tartus which are Russia’s only bases outside of the former Soviet Union and its means to permanently project power in the Mediterranean. The extent to which Putin backed Assad surprised the West, but now Turkey has entered the conflict decisively, and despite the operation in Afrin Canton being undertaken with Russia’s agreement, there are obvious points at which friction could arise. Most obviously, Russia, Turkey and Iran may be on relatively good terms with one another, but they all have different vested interests in their interventions, and Syria represents an area where the presumed spheres of influence of all three countries converge. While none of them actively push for regime change (and Russia and Iran are especially invested in keeping Assad in power), they are also acting to limit each other’s influence. The remaining rebels and Kurdish groups provide convenient punchbags for the time being, but as Turkish troops push deeper and further into Syria and the three countries’ troops approach areas occupied by American-backed troops (or Israel’s borders), clashes between themselves or other forces appear increasingly likely, and could visibly embarrass Putin should the Russian military suffer evident losses at the hands of a rival.
Who comes next?
Perhaps the most dangerous issue that has so far remained unresolved is the question of succession. A consequence of Putin’s nearly two decades of rule with no domestic checks and balances has been the gradual morphing of Putin into the state: Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia, and at some point the two must be convincingly dissociated with one another after 18 years in which they have been virtually indissociable. This term is likely to be his last, seeing as he will be 72 at the end of his next term. So far, no convincing alternatives have emerged, partly because Putin has to keep the economic and political strongmen around him happy, and the different factions have different preferences, with no-one satisfying all of them just yet. Dmirty Medvedev, the only man to have been president since Putin emerged as leader, has little credibility despite the relative youth that would allow continuity. Putin’s role as prime minister during his presidency made it transparent that Medvedev would not have the possibility to truly be his own man. He portrayed himself as a youthful moderniser, and there was hope that he would pursue a warmer approach with the West. The brief war with Georgia swiftly ended those hopes, and no real economic modernisation has been achieved despite the clear need for it. Putin’s hard swing towards social conservatism and promotion of explicit nationalism also seem to reinforce the message that Medvedev shouldn’t have attempted to take any initiative, he was and is there to follow orders and make sure the other organs of the state fall into line. Navalny’s campaigning has also hurt him, revealing the extent of his corruption and its luxurious proceeds (i.e. an estate in Tuscany, an extremely expensive yacht, etc.) in a video explainer called “Don’t call him Dimon”, available on YouTube.
The other high-profile members of Putin’s administration also have significant disadvantages. Sergei Lavrov, the current foreign minister and former Russian ambassador to the UN, is considered a competent diplomat and despite certain controversial statements of his has the respect of diplomats and politicians abroad. However, he is considered to be too much of a functionary rather than someone able to navigate highly mediatised political theatre, and perhaps rarely, he is seen more as a servant of Russia than of Putin. After all, his diplomatic career started in the 1970s, so Russia without Putin is not unthinkable for him, and tellingly he is not considered part of his inner circle, and therefore not crucial to key internal decisions. His age also penalises him, as he is two years older than Putin and so is unlikely to continue with politics at the highest level for long. Finally, Sergei Shoigu, the pugnacious defence minister who is allegedly the inspiration for Putin’s tough-guy image, is a close personal friend of Putin’s and the Syrian intervention has boosted his profile. He is popular with the Russian public for his hands-on and no-nonsense approach (he has held ministerial posts since the 1980s), although he avoids the spotlight, preferring to send subordinates to speak to the media for him and in his few public appearances speaks in a frank and sober manner with no additional flair. Interestingly, he is also considered a neutral figure within Putin’s inner circle who allegedly does not create major divisions between the main factions, and on the face of it, does not actively seek additional power for himself. However, he too has certain disadvantages working against him. Aside from his aversion for publicity, he is only three years younger than Putin, so should he be considered for the presidency he would only be a short-term stopgap whilst the search for a long-term successor takes place.
Most interestingly though there is a possible cultural roadblock in Shoigu’s case. He is from Tuva, a sleepy ethnic republic in Siberia geographically closer to Beijing than Moscow, and has no direct transport links with the Russian capital or other major cities due to mountains and rivers guaranteeing its isolation from the rest of the country. The Tuvans are a Turkic people heavily influenced by surrounding Mongol peoples, and are therefore closer to certain ethnic groups in neighbouring Mongolia than to Russia’s East Slavic culture. Unlike other ethnic republics where partly due to Soviet repression Russians dominate and the native culture has been lost or russified, Buddhism and Shamanism, not Orthodox Christianity, are the dominant religions here, and Tuvans (who have retained their native language) outnumber ethnic Russians five to one. By contrast, the Russian heartland is around the West of the country, espacially around the Moscow region and the so-called “Golden Circle” of cities North of Moscow, whereas St. Petersburg is considered its cultural capital, and is both Putin’s and Medvedev’s hometown. Despite his Russian mother, and very public demonstrations of Orthodox faith, the english-language Moscow Times argues that Shoigu’s origins within a culture so divergent and geographically distant from the heartland (and persistent rumours that he in fact privately practices Buddhism) mean he is unlikely to be accepted as the highest internal and external representative of the Russian nation and people.
All this means that a potential successor must be identified soon and gradually built up into the man to lead Russia after Putin, as was the case with Putin who entered the spotlight with his apparent leadership of the war in Chechnya. The longer Putin is unable to personally identify a candidate to mythologise and transform into a president, the more likely the competing factions of his inner circle will push their own candidates, and work to eliminate competitors (with the potential for violent escalations that this implies), and even begin the process of marginalising Putin, who in such a scenario is unlikely to leave without a fight. This could also see violence abroad as the different factions have members in major global cities’ Russian communities and involve the oligarchs who have moved their wealth and often their families to London, Geneva, or other cities, and will invariably attract the attention of their rivals. More worryingly still, a weakening of law and order could see flows of illicit weapons, drugs and other goods finding their way into Europe as organised crime take advantage of poorly resourced or corrupt police officers in and around Russia, pushing for a coordinated response at a time when Europe is divided on a series of issues.
Who loses? Everyone
In a sense, this all confirms that Putin rather than preparing for a transition in advance decided he would rule by way of cementing a cult of personality and individual legacy in the country, and in order to reinforce this has castrated opposition internally and created divisions externally. But procrastination only goes so far, and in a very literal sense, he now needs to do his homework. The fear is not that Putin will decide to lash out at weaker countries abroad or meddle in the internal affairs of his EU rivals. Rather, the fear is that his obsession with creating a legacy defined exclusively by him has created a need by some factions in the Russian elite to violently impose a successor. Combine that with an economy that will not withstand further falls in the fuel and metals prices it needs to sustain high government spending, and the ongoing economic hardship of a large part of the country’s citizens, and a return to serious instability is not an unrealistic scenario. Putin wanted to restore Russian strength, yet he leaves the country with institutions too weak to truly govern outside of a strongman model, and even then through a system of entrenched corruption and brutality, with the complicity of the resurgent Orthodox Church to reinforce the message of external enemies and nefarious liberal influences originating abroad. At the top there is Putin as this system’s figurehead and master. In choosing to make Russia all about him, he has condemned it to instability once the discussion on succession emerges. We worry about Russia as some sort of sinister force engaged in cyberwarfare or ready to back far-right fifth columns in our elections, but we rarely worry about another iteration that Russia could easily fulfill: a volatile powder keg of various powerful factions cannibalising each other and the country in order to control Russia’s political sphere, as well as dissatisfied citizens and restive ethnic minorities alienated and angry at Moscow’s rule, all on Europe’s doorstep. Whatever happens, Europe, as usual, will have no choice but to prepare for more Russia-related difficulties, and might even be forced to pick up the pieces of something more serious.
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