What is the best way to describe Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
In January of this year, a British judge, Robert Owen, said that Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, was ‘probably’ a murderer. The victim, nearly a decade before, had been Alexander Litvinenko, a former Soviet, then Russian, intelligence officer who had defected to the UK, became a part-time consultant to the UK’s MI6 foreign intelligence service and had been poisoned by two other former Russian intelligence officers in a London hotel.
Owen had been tasked with doing a report on the murder. His flat statement that Putin was likely to have been the instigator went further than expected, and brought some relief to Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, who — with her husband — had always believed that the president had marked out the former spy for punishment.
As Luke Harding recounts in his thriller-like history of the murder, Marina called on Prime Minister David Cameron to expel all Russian spies from the UK, and for a range of economic sanctions and travel bans to be put on several figures close to the murder. The list included the Russian president himself.
“It is unthinkable that the prime minister would do nothing in the face of the damning findings of Sir Robert Owen,” as Harding comments, but “the unthinkable was entirely thinkable.”
A few weeks later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Cameron asked rhetorically if Britain had to carry on “some sort of a relationship” with Russia, to find a solution to the crisis in Syria – and answered himself, “Yes we do, but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”
Most hearts are cold toward Russia now, from President Barack Obama’s, early rebuffed in a first-term attempt to “reset” Russian-U.S. relations, to recently close allies like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enraged by Russia’s military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The country has few close allies who are not also dependencies. Even Cuba, a Soviet and Russian client, is now seen as drifting into the U.S. sphere.
The cold-hearted calculation in many of the world’s foreign ministries is whether to wait Putin out or confront him. A democratic leader would long ago have faced a challenge: incomes continue to fall; inflation rises as the rouble declines; sporadic strikes and small demonstrations break out more often. But the president remains mostly untouched. Vladimir Putin is making Russia great again – a spectacle staged in some form or another every night on the TV news.
Putin hasn’t much of an ideology, but that which he has, is ferociously pursued. He thinks the West, led by the United States, is out to get him and diminish Russia. He is determined to push back against the West, and emphasise that Russia is not just a state, but a separate civilization. Gleb Pavolovsky, a former presidential aide, now a critic, says that Putin strives to place the West in the box of the aggressor, while he defends truth and global justice.
The opposition to this may be growing, but it remains weak and much of it is in exile (if not necessarily safety, as Litvinenko’s fate shows). At a gathering in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius earlier this month, some 400 members of the opposition, most living abroad, debated in what state Russia now finds itself. Some, according to the writer Masha Gessen, one of the participants, thought it a “hybrid,” combing dictatorship with small doses of democracy. Others, including Gessen, saw it more as a “mafia state,” defined by the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar, as one governed by a “family” headed by a “patriarch,” who “disposes of positions, wealth, statuses, persons.”
Patriarch Putin has drawn a small, tight group around him. Alexei Venediktov, head of the still-operating liberal radio stationm Ekho Moskvy, says only two really count: Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, and Sergey Ivanov, head of the Presidential Administration, both former intelligence officers. “They are close to him both educationally and mentally. The more years pass by, the more influential they become.” To have such narrow influences indicates that the course is set, and won’t change.
In this system, everything depends on the tsar-patriarch-president. In testimony to the U.S. Congress in February, Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe and a formidable expert on Russia for two decades, said that he and his team have “worked very hard to increase (their) tactical advantage by making the Russian President — and thus the Russian decision-making system — as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible… No-one outside the inner circle is supposed to know what is going on.”
This close secrecy surrounding the insiders’ deliberations means that the pullout from Syria was a surprise to all: a nasty surprise to Assad, one could guess. Assad had talked grandiosely of re-taking his entire country, but needed Russian firepower to do so. That may have been a prompt to Putin to get out, before being dragged into a war likely impossible to win, and certainly draining of already depleting resources.
His initiative also secured him respect and status, one of his main aims. The most propagandist, and among the most popular, of Russian TV’s presenters, Dmitry Kiselev, crowed in February that “Finally America has swayed towards us. This is definitely a Russian victory,” which demonstrated that victory is measured, in important part, by the depth of American respect.
It was, definitely, a Russian victory. It was achieved with Putin’s now familiar tactical skill, playing on the confusion and divisions in the West over how to deal with the Syrian crisis. Yet, the long-term question remains. How long can the president, and the economy, last without a serious challenge? How secure would he be in that event? And if insecure, who is next?