Russia’s coming deputinization
All leaders eventually leave the historical stage, even those whose rule appears endless. President Vladimir Putin of Russia will be no exception to this truism. Whether his end comes in 2036, as he hopes, or earlier, is unknowable, but, when it does come, Russia will almost certainly embark on deputinization and attempt to rid itself of the worst features of his rule. That won’t be so as much of a choice as an imperative, for Putinism has been a disaster for the country. Russia’s survival will be directly dependent on its ability to deputinize and become, as many Russians put it, “normal.”
Consider what Putin did to Russia during his reign. He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle, the forces of coercion, the oligarchs, and organized crime. He institutionalized corruption, expropriated billions for himself and his allies, and eviscerated rule of law. He parlayed windfall profits from exploding energy prices into a vast military build-up that has terrified Russia’s neighbors, distorted the Russian economy, and left its people less well off. He inadvertently created a huge popular opposition to his rule among Russia’s professional classes and young people. He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state that kills its opponents and tries to intimidate its neighbors. He lost Ukraine, the linchpin of his neo-imperialist dreams. He alienated the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, two of Russia’s staunchest friends. He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war, mobilized the United States against Russia, and reinforced the American relations with Europe. He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships the world over. He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese.
The list could easily be continued, but the moral is clear. Although Putin and his inner circle believe that they have saved Russia and made it great again, the fact is that he has weakened Russia to such a degree that its very survival as a coherent state may soon be in question. Indeed, twelve more years of Putinism could make Russia into a failed state.
At fault is less Putin the man than Putinism the system. Naturally, Putin was central to the emergence of Putinism, but, once created, Putinism acquired a life of its own. The system consists of several main strands: 1) the hyper-centralization of political power, 2) a cult of Putin’s hyper-masculine personality, 3) a neo-imperial policy toward Russia’s neighbors, 4) the attempt to make Russia a world-class great power, power, 5) paranoid style and an antidemocratic, chauvinist ideology, and 6) a rehabilitation and normalization of violence as a tool of internal and external politics. These six components hang together, forming a coherent syndrome that makes it possible to speak of a Putin system that resembles dictatorial authoritarian states and bears comparison with fascism.
These six elements emerged over time. In 1999, when Putin assumed power, one could only surmise that a lifelong agent of the notorious and bloody KGB would be no democrat, desire to restore Russia to its former strength, and view violence favorably. Sometime between his war against Georgia in 2008 and the Orange Revolution of 2004, however, most of these features had come to the fore and become mutually reinforcing. As a result, dismantling Putinism, like dismantling Hitlerism and Stalinism, will require that an entire system of rule and its ideological underpinnings be changed. That will be no easy task. But it will be imperative if post-Putin Russia truly wants to become both great and normal again.
Putin’s eventual departure—regardless of whether it is due to natural causes, a palace coup, or a colored revolution—will immediately put in question the first two components of the Putin system. His successor will not be able immediately to command as high a degree of hyper-centralization and create a persuasive cult of personality, especially if large swathes of the population brought down the regime and remain mobilized. If Russian history is a guide to the future, a vicious power struggle is likely to break out among his potential successors. It may take as long as five years for an heir apparent to emerge, but whoever he is, whether a mini-Putin or an anti-Putin, he will be in no position to sustain the Putin-centric system that Putin cultivated for some 20-30 years.
It is also quite likely that, at least in the immediate aftermath of Putin’s demise, his successor or successors will either abandon or moderate the third and fourth components of the Putin system, partly because the costs are huge (particularly for an economy the size of the Benelux countries), partly because a “new course” could look politically appealing, and partly because an attempt to emerge from rogue-state status and isolation could be advisable. Neo-imperialism and great-power status are policy choices and not ineluctable imperatives of Russian statehood. To be sure, geography and geopolitics do make a difference, sometimes an important one, but history demonstrates that Russia’s foreign-policy goals have always fluctuated—precisely because Russia has fluctuated in size and space, with the result that the Muscovy of the fourteenth century was a different geopolitical entity with different geopolitical interests from the Russian Empire of the eighteenth, the Soviet Union of the twentieth, and the Russian Federation of today or tomorrow.
This is not to say that a post-Putin Russia will inevitably turn into an ally of the West. But it is to say that the possibility of a de-escalation of tensions is at least as high as a continuation of the status quo. Because Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy, there is no reason to think that it is doomed to be neo-imperialist, aggressive, and illiberal forever. Obviously, as a huge country, it will remain highly influential in Eurasia, but that influence can be benign or malign, depending on a slew of internal and external circumstances.
Although the post-Putin era is likely to look very different from its current incarnation under Putin, the fifth and sixth components of Putinism—a paranoid style, an antidemocratic, chauvinist ideology, and a normalization of violence—may cause trouble. What makes these components likelier to endure as a political culture is that they are shared by most Russian elites and by many ordinary Russians. Political cultures do change, of course, but in general slowly; rapid change may come about as a result of traumas such as wars and genocides. Despite the trauma of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a majority of Russians still view Stalin positively. A majority also looks favorably on Putin and quite likely will continue to do so after his departure.
What effect will their retrograde political culture have on deputinization? We don’t know, of course. All we can do is suggest that the stronger the culture is, the more it will serve as an obstacle to deputinizing Russia’s political system and foreign policy. That sounds like bad news, were it not for the fact that the politics and culture of the inhabitants of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities are far more hostile to Putin and Putinism than those of the rest of the country. The demonstrations in Khabarovsk and in support of Aleksei Navalny are a case in point. And when it comes to major transformations of a country, it’s the views of the key cities that matter most.
In sum, post-Putin Russia is in for some big changes and chances are that they will serve to propel the country away from Putinism and toward some form of a more liberal, less aggressive, and more normal regime. The challenge before the West is to keep Putinism contained in Russia—which will require patience, a strong will, and a willingness and readiness to oppose Putin’s aggressions. For if Putin manages to impose Putinism on his non-Russian neighbors—Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia—then deputinization will automatically assume the features of multiple national-liberation struggles and the outcome for Putin’s Russia could be, not a mellowing, but, as in the case of the USSR, collapse. Were that to transpire, all bets would be off, as the world would watch in horror as the largest country in the world descended into chaos.