October 29, 2020

The Geopoliticization of Russian Politics

With the assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin has crossed a red line. Moscow no longer makes a distinction between domestic and foreign policy.

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Vladimir Putin
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As far as power politics are concerned, it all seems to be going well for Russian President Vladimir Putin: Kremlin candidates were able to win all 18 governorships in the Russian regional elections in September 2020, in the first round no less. The fact that a few opposition candidates made it into three regional parliaments was more of a footnote. As Russians voted, Alexei Navalny, the only relevant opposition leader in next year’s Duma elections, was in Germany recovering from an assassination attempt against him, and it was up to the Kremlin to decide if he would ever return.

The mass demonstrations in Belarus against long-term President Alexander Lukashenka are improving the Kremlin’s negotiating position vis-a-vis Minsk regarding the integration of both states under Russian leadership. In Ukraine, under President Volodymyr Zelensky, the democratic achievements of the “Revolution of Dignity” of 2013/14 are gradually being dismantled, which encourages corruption and empowers Moscow’s informal structures of influence.

In Syria, meanwhile, Moscow’s ally President Bashar al-Assad has practically won the war against his own people—with significant help from Russia, which is also playing a decisive role in Libya. Developments in both countries are opening up opportunities for the Kremlin to influence the European Union. The United States is sinking into a (cold) civil war, whether or not President Donald Trump wins reelection, and the EU is weighed down by Brexit and its internal democratic crises (Hungary and Poland). Russia’s international reputation has increased, it is considered a relevant actor in important conflicts, and it is feared in the West because of its disinformation campaigns—a fear that almost borders on hysteria.

All of this, however, should not disguise how vulnerable, how dependent on the mistakes and weaknesses of its opponents the Putin system has become. Foreign policy successes serve to distract attention from domestic problems, but this tactic is becoming less and less effective. Indeed, the Russian leadership’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the population’s faith in the management capabilities of both the government and the president himself.

Putin’s lack of interest in containing the pandemic has once again made clear how little he cares about the health of his own people. He appears weary of office; he does not want to deal with small domestic political details, preferring to play on the big international stage. And yet he has had two more terms of office confirmed in a constitutional referendum. It is not just that it took

massive manipulation to get this referendum passed at all: the result also raised the question of whether Russia can afford another 12 years—starting in 2024—of stagnation under Putin. What does this mean for the innovative capacity of Russian politics, which, although it is tactically clever in a volatile international environment, has no economic and social strategy for the future of the country?

The Erosion of Hard-Won Prosperity

Since 2010 Russian incomes have been falling every year, and with that comes the loss of the enormous increase in prosperity gained during Putin’s first two terms in office (2000-08) thanks to rising oil and gas prices. The pension reform introduced in 2018 has turned the president’s previously stable electoral base against the ruling party, United Russia, and the potential for protest is growing. Putin is clinging to power, fearful for his own security and the future of the system he has created. At the same time, it is increasingly unclear how he intends to win the support of society in the long term when social inequality is growing, the middle class is continuing to shrink, and poverty is on the rise.

Support from the Russian budget is available primarily for large state companies or oligarchs, not for small and medium-sized enterprises or the self-employed. A project like Nord Stream 2 costs Russian taxpayers billions, though it isn’t clear what the (economic) purpose of it is. Gas and oil consumption in Europe will stagnate and decline in the medium term; Europeans will need less gas, not more. How will Russian society benefit from the geopolitical games of its leadership, which is seeking to punish Ukraine by bypassing it as a transit country for Russian gas? It is mainly companies owned by oligarchs close to Putin that are earning money from the construction of the pipeline, having laid pipes at inflated prices.

The political elites are increasingly decoupling themselves from Russian society. Although the Russian people, seen by the elites as incapable of deciding for themselves, are allowed to vote regularly on which politicians are in charge, they are otherwise served only lies and cynicism; the system does not take them seriously as citizens. All the propaganda and manipulation is ultimately only designed to generate further support for the regime.

Street protests, like the recent ones in Khabarovsk, Siberia, are the only way for the population to react to the caprice of the elites or express their political will; elections don’t fullfil this function. The people’s primary concern, as in Belarus, is the respect of those in power. Recent surveys by the independent opinion research institute Levada show that 67 percent of Russians do not trust the Duma, the Russian parliament, 64 percent do not trust the parties, 61 percent do not trust Russian banks, and 60 percent do not trust regional administrations. And 40 percent of Russians no longer trust President Putin—and that figure is steadily increasing. Putin has thus returned to the lows of 2011/12, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to call for political change.

Crossing Red Lines

The Russian leadership crossed another red line with the attempted assassination of Navalny. Until now, the regime had distinguished between enemies and traitors. Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, former members of the Russian secret service who defected to the enemy, were meant to be killed in the most brutal manner as a deterrent to traitors. Unlike Navalny, both were largely unknown.

Alexei Navalny, on the other hand, is the most important and visible Russian opposition politician: a political opponent for the power elites, certainly, but not a traitor to the system. According to Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Putin’s system no longer has any respect for its political opponents. Whereas it was still unclear at the time whether top state authorities were involved in the murder of Boris Nemtsov, it is impossible to use the nerve gas Novichok without special access to both the intelligence services and top political actors.

Thus, once again, a line has been crossed, demonstrating that the regime is feeling the pressure and will not shy away from any means or method to maintain power. In political terms, it is almost secondary who gave the order for this assassination attempt. Vladimir Putin has created a system that kills its opponents, and no public prosecutor’s office will ensure that these cases are solved. Even if the limits of what is permitted have been exceeded for years—with the annexation of the Crimea, hybrid warfare in the Donbass, the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane (flight MH17), the murder of Nemtsov, cyberattacks and disinformation, the use of private mercenaries on behalf of the Kremlin in the Middle East and Africa—the attempted murder of Navalny on Russian soil is a new low in this respect, since this poison gas attack cannot be blamed on foreign countries.

Of course, in the aftermath, the Kremlin’s propaganda and conspiracy theory machinery tried to argue that Germany and the West were responsible for the attack. But this propaganda only seems absurd at this point. This kind of Russian state terrorism—partly outsourced to private companies, populated by former members of the Russian intelligence agencies, partly directly by the Russian secret services—is increasingly becoming a danger to people at home and abroad.

The journalist Andrei Kolesnikov sees in these events a sign that the regime in Moscow has changed its character from “hybrid” to “purely authoritarian.” The means are the same, but the propaganda is more aggressive, the hybrid warfare harsher, and the lies bolder. Criticism bounces off the Kremlin, which seems to have lost all sense of proportion and sees itself as in a de facto Cold War with the West—and its domestic political opponents.

However, this is not a classic Cold War with accepted rules and red lines. There are no more rules, and there is no sign that the Kremlin is striving for a new status quo or even a new beginning. Internationally accepted rules of conduct of diplomacy and international law itself no longer apply. Instead of foreign policy, the Kremlin uses lies and deception, and the “proxies” of the Wagner Group, private fighters from the ranks of the Russian military or the secret services, are given cover and utilized. The Russian leadership’s behavior is more reminiscent of the mafia than of responsible politicians.

Solving Crises with Russia?

When German and European politicians repeatedly emphasize that certain crises can only be solved with Russia, they ignore the fact that the Russian leadership has itself created certain conflicts (Donbass, Crimea) or become involved in order to instrumentalize them for their own interests (Syria, Libya). Vladimir Putin’s Russia has no foreign policy strategy here: it is a spoiler, but not a power that creates or upholds order (Ordnungsmacht). The recent outbreak of war in Nagorno-Karabakh shows that Russia, as the key external mediator in the conflict, used the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan above all to keep both countries dependent on Moscow, but not to facilitate a resolution.

Thus, under the current leadership, the country cannot be a partner in the resolution of conflicts. The Kremlin is primarily concerned with using conflicts to improve its own bargaining position, especially vis-à-vis the United States, and boost its internal legitimacy. The Russian leadership takes no responsibility for its citizens or for international conflicts. The old argument that it is the West that wants to keep Russia weak is only advanced by the government to justify its current policy. As long as this approach still works, the enemy in Washington or in the EU member states is meant to be distracted, the Russian people mobilized against the West.

In an interview with Russian state television at the end of August 2020, Putin stressed that the demonstrations in Belarus were a domestic political matter for Russia’s neighbor. However, he said that if internal Belarussian political processes change the geopolitical status quo in Russia’s neighborhood to its disadvantage, what happens in Belarus will become an international affair. In other words, it will become a Russian affair, with the option of meddling or even intervening.

Here the Kremlin is not evaluating what is happening in a neighboring country on the basis of legitimacy or international law, but according to whether the distance between the country and the West is maintained. With regard to Belarus this means that Moscow currently has no better candidate than Lukashenka to guarantee that Belarus does not move closer to the West. The interests of the Belarusian people are secondary (or even dangerous), and Lukashenka can be replaced at any time if he can no longer guarantee the status quo.

In principle, “the street” is not allowed to decide on a change of power in a post-Soviet neighboring country. Putin himself must decide lest a precedent for Russia be set. Any successful democratic reform could challenge the authority of the Putin system. The fear of so-called color revolutions in the post-Soviet space is the fear authoritarian leaders have of their own people. The population is declared to be incapable of deciding for itself: only foreign forces could bring people to the streets.

Neither Lukashenka nor Putin wants to admit that the post-Soviet societies, including Russian society, are changing. But for Russia this means that if the Russian people do not say “yes” to Putin as president, then the people are the problem, not the president. This geopoliticization of all domestic political developments has grave consequences because the preservation of power and balance of power are becoming the decisive criteria of all politics. Meddling in the domestic politics of a neighboring country is thus legitimized.

Resilience and Responsibility

What does this mean for Germany and the EU? The current Russian leadership is not a credible partner for resolving conflicts or renewing the European security order. On the contrary, Putin’s Russia is a disruptive actor that exploits and fuels conflicts and uses intelligence, hybrid and military means to weaken its opponents. Moscow counts Germany and the EU as among its opponents, not its partners, since they represent a model that questions Putin’s claim to power.

According to this viewpoint, all means that guarantee the preservation of the Putin system are legitimate. Foreign policy is thus subject to the domestic logic of maintaining power. But if everything, including domestic policy, is geopolitics, then there are no more boundaries between domestic and foreign policy. So political opponents can be killed all over the world, whether in Tomsk, London, Salisbury, or Berlin. The dissolution of boundaries in Russian politics under Putin has become an international problem that needs an appropriate response.

An effective response should begin with domestic political resilience against opponents of democracy and against disinformation campaigns; and it should be linked to the capacity for military deterrence and to the use of instruments of the rule of law, within the framework of national and international alliances. Deterrence will only work if sanctions are credible, and thus increasing the costs to the Putin system of any misbehavior. Everything else is lip service.

There is the question, however, posing itself with ever greater urgency whether the Russian leadership is not only unwilling but also unable to solve conflicts in its neighborhood. Being a spoiler power is not only cheaper but also easier than an investment into real conflict resolution. Looking into the current dynamics of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Nagorno-Karabakh, new actors (Turkey) or changing societies (Belarus) modify the rules of the game. The Russian leadership has so far proved flexible enough to respond to every regional crisis, but other actors are getting involved more and more. With its limited resources and lack of a long-term approach with regard to conflict zones in its “near abroad,” the Russian leadership might lose the momentum to stop a war, like it did in the very complex conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh. All this points to further disintegration of the post-Soviet space, where Russia is less and less able to act as a security guarantor.

However, should Russia become weaker and United States further withdraw from conflicts in the EU’s neighborhood, the EU itself must become more active on the ground. If it doesn’t, other actors will exploit these conflicts for their own purposes. Only those who are themselves willing to assume responsibility can get the Russian leadership to make compromises. Inactivity is no option anymore.     

Stefan Meister heads the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi. He is Associate Fellow of the DGAP’s Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.

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