Feb 11, 2021

Putin’s Security Trap

The imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and the brutal suppression of peaceful protests speaks of a Russian state that sees everything through the lens of security, including foreign affairs. Germany and the EU should draw clear red lines. 

Russian security forced in front of the Kremlin, January 31, 2021
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As Europe discusses possible sanctions against the Kremlin, the focal point in Russia is not so much opposition leader Alexei Navalny himself, but rather the possible erosion of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. As such, what Navalny stands for is not paramount. Yes, he is a flexible populist who has found his cause in fighting corruption. Yet what’s more important is that an increasing number of people in Russia are asking themselves: what kind of country do we actually want to live in?

As in Belarus since heavily rigged elections last summer, the brutal exercise of state violence on peaceful demonstrators is triggering more protests. This is the arrogance of authoritarian power, which has not only lost touch with the progressive parts of society but is frightened of its own population. “The grandpa in the bunker,” as Navalny has dubbed Putin, exemplifies this fear.

A New Type of Politician

A security logic permeates all the decisions the Russian state apparatus takes. Putin has created a system that is not only corrupt and cynical but knows no response to societal protest other than raw violence. Accordingly, the Russian security apparatus has kept a close eye on the events that are unfolding in Belarus. However, it seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions: repression and violence do not lead to more, but to less stability. Ironically, Putin’s security apparatus itself is responsible for creating the conditions for its own “color revolution” at home.

Russian society finds itself in an evolutionary process of change, one that first and foremost concerns younger people. The “generation Putin” no longer consumes state television and is skeptical of state propaganda as well as the claims of politicians. They inform themselves via Telegram and their own social media networks. Navalny, as a new type of politician, has established a direct link to these young people through his social media channels, having thus also developed a network in the regions.

This happens to be the first time that a politician from the capital city has shown concern for with the issues that affect young people in the regions, whose needs are otherwise ignored. Thus far, they have solely been afforded the privilege of serving as the dumping ground for Muscovites’ garbage. Moreover, for many, the fact that funds, which have primarily been acquired through the sale of natural resources from all over the country, are being used to build the president an extravagant palace, is a clear breaking point.

Unprecedented Ignorance

The fact that security has become the top priority in all areas of the Russian state has consequences for both its domestic and foreign policy. This is illustrated not only by the secret service trying to poison the most important Russian opposition politician, but also by the unprecedented ignorance with which the security apparatus damaged its relationship with its most important European partner, Germany.

The hacker attack carried out against the Bundestag, the “Tiergarten murder” of a former Georgian-Chechen field commander, and the dissemination of lies surrounding the attempted assassination of Navalny are all governed by this security policy logic which takes no heed of bilateral relations. Putin stands for the seizure of power by the security structures. Tied to this are self-isolation, foreign policy ignorance, and the belief in one’s own propaganda, which reconciles all of the above because the West is obviously the culprit.

Limited Influence

Germany and the EU barely have influence on Russian domestic policy, yet they also have no right to interfere. However, precisely because Navalny was flown to Germany and treated at a German hospital after he was poisoned in Siberia, this domestic matter has become a foreign policy question.

Russian elites think in terms of cost-benefit calculations: if there were no sanctions or reactions to committing a murder in Tiergarten, one can simply carry on with such deeds. Faced with personal sanctions against key members of the security apparatus, the Kremlin will certainly not release the most important opposition politician. For a normative power such as the EU, however, the most important thing is its credibility. Simple condemnation and expressions of concern are not enough. To not react more forcefully means acceptance and loss of soft power. The criminal acts of the Russian leadership and its security apparatus must be sanctioned, even if it is merely symbolic at first.

This is why a moratorium on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline makes sense. It would send a crucial signal to the Russian opposition and civil society: “We are no longer financing the corrupt Putin regime.” For Russia’s civil society it is about the credibility of the West and the EU; for Russia’s elites it is a matter of cost. Whether or not Putin gave direct orders for these actions is not important. What matters is that he has built a system in which this kind of politics is encouraged, in which perpetrators are rewarded rather than punished.

Building Bridges?

The issue that Germany and the EU face is determining which part of Russia is a friend and which is a foe. Distinguishing between Putin’s Russia and Navalny’s Russia could be helpful in this endeavor. In which direction should one build bridges? Toward a regime that clearly states that it has no interest in pursuing good relations and treats all Western activities as interferences? This message was clearly sent during the recent visit of EU’s High representative Josep Borrell to Moscow by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The promotion of civil society is an important instrument. The Putin regime, however, has continuously criminalized such activities and sanctioned foreign contacts. It is thus a matter of maintaining contact with Russian civil society despite repression and giving those who have to flee residence permits and the necessary support. Russia is an authoritarian state that is dominated by the security thinking of its elites. The only way to influence this regime is to draw clear red lines and to increase the cost for the Kremlin’s behavior. Doing nothing will only invite more aggression.

Stefan Meister is head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s office in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).


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