by Gordon M. Hahn
American necons’ and neolibs’ idealism and hubris continue to fog our perceptions of Russian politics. Francis Fukuyama expressed American post-Cold War ideological triumphalism in his The End of History and the Last Man, but upon reexamination he expressed deep regret in regards to his and his neocon comrades’ “naïve super-optimism” about our ability to social engineer in our own image a world populated by very different national cultures and civilizations. Those who bought and continue to buy into the utility of American foreign supremacy, ubiquity, omniscience, aggressive democracy-promotion and revolutionism are almost bound by their optimism to expect the emergence of color revolutions in countries most opposed to U.S. hegemony.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin is such a country, though it does not seek America’s destruction as many nowadays believe or at least claim. Pro-Western analysts are often misinformed by their hatred of Russia and disinformed by their Western colleagues’ ubiquitous strategic communications operations. Thus, there has been a veritable flood of articles predicting Putin’s death, illness or overthrow produced by such adepts from the ‘Washington consensus,’ as I have detailed elsewhere (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/19/putin-is-crazy-and-sick-the-lows-of-american-rusology/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/11/the-myth-of-an-imminent-anti-putin-coup-rusological-fail-or-stratcomm/). According to such writings, Putin should have been six feet under, behind bars, or hanging from a rope on a lamp post long ago. Even the respected Russian analyst Nikolai Petrov predicted the collapse of Putin’s regime by April 2017 – five months from now and counting (www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/putins_downfall_the_coming_crisis_of_the_russian_regime7006).
In late 2014 I myself argued the much, much more cautious expectation: “Russia’s system leans on two or three pillars at most: Putin’s charismatic authority and his corrupt, patrimonial system of patronage networks, which holds the elite and part of society close to him. In turn, these two pillars are dependent on high oil and gas revenues, which for more than a decade have satisfied the rising socioeconomic expectations of both the elite and society at-large. The recent years’ oil and natural gas boom has given Putin domestic popularity (83 percent approval rating as of the same) and sufficient levels of foreign reserves (over $400 billion as of mid-November) to maintain it up to, but not necessarily through the potentially destabilizing federal parliamentary and presidential election cycle in 2016-18.” The reader may or should have noted that I did not predict a political crisis but the dangers of “potentially” destabilizing the system by way of a nexus of a potential economic and/or financial producing a political crisis around 2017 (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/01/31/inside-putins-head-the-growing-crisis-in-russia-and-ukraine-and-putins-likely-response/).
More recently, the Ukrainian ambassador to Finland supplemented the Petrov line by predicting Russia would suffer a foreign debt crisis in 2017 leading to Putin’s fall (http://glance-news.com/37049-posol-nazval-sroki-katastrofy-putina-full.html).
Ignore such standard and rampant chatter: there are no signs of an elite uprising or siloviki coup brewing against Putin. Such a development is not over the horizon in Moscow. It is more likely to occur in Kiev before it ever does in Moscow.
First of all, Russia’s reserve funds are dwindling significantly but not yet catastrophically and would be able to cover any foreign debt crisis that might occur in 2017. If in spring 2014 when the fall in oil prices was hitting hard and Western sanctions were introduced Russia’s Reserve Fund stood at some R4 trillion ($76 billion), it now stands as of 1 December 2016 at just over R2 trillion ($31 billion). At this rate, the fund should be empty by early 2019. However, Russian’s Accounting Chamber Chairwoman Tatyana Golikova recently stated that the Reserve Fund will be exhausted by the end of 2017, with R1.8 trillion targeted to cover budget expenses, and that the Kremlin will then begin dipping into the National Wealth Fund (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3163191). This may mean that the Kremlin plans to use the remainder of the Reserve Fund to cover the debt payments referred to be the Ukrainian ambassador. In spring 2014 the National Wealth Fund stood at $76 billion (R4 trillion) and now holds $71.26 billion (R4.6 trillion). If reliance on the National Wealth Fund remains the same over the next few years, it will be exhausted by the late 2019-early 2020. This means that an economic/financial catastrophe is not in the offing for 2017. It may be in the offing before 2020 given a foreign debt crisis. All remaining the same, it is likely to come after 2020 when Putin already will have been re-elected and inaugurated as Russia’s president in 2018 with four more years to go before he is faced with the prospect of another ‘operation successor’ as he did in 2011-12.
Moreover, while an economic and/or financial crisis might begin, such crises never guarantee a political crisis, no less a regime transformation. They can lead to a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation. However, such situations do not necessarily end in regime transformation, no less one that occurs by revolution. Even the more threatening revolutionary situation – a credible claim to rule over a given territory and population backed by competitive resources by an opposition group in society or the state group that seeks to establish a new form of rule – is highly contingent. Instead of revolution, a revolutionary situation can lead to: (1) a negotiated transition to a new regime, (2) a transition imposed from above implemented by the the ruling group in response to the risk that a crisis portends the end of the viablity of the old regime, or even (3) an authoritarian restoration through a hardline coup against a reformist or transition-minded leadership [see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002), Chapter 1].
Moreover still, Putin is a fairly successful arbiter of the mostly democratic hybrid system he inherited and refined into a soft authoritarian regime. What Carnegie Moscow Center recently said about Putin’s relationship with the siloviki can be said of his place within the entire political system: “Putin is an observer. He is like a weighing-machine that takes into account all views and tries to balance them. He gives them room to compete with each other up to a point and makes certain conclusions. It is a matter of effective political management” (www.russia-direct.org/qa/hawks-vs-doves-who-will-dominate-kremlin-2018-elections). Putin is as much a product, even prisoner rather than a pure master of ‘his’ system. He is by far the most powerful operator within the system but not all-powerful. He must balance rather than eliminate tendencies, weakening then strengthening one or another political orientation or bureaucratic-business clan in alternation. Thus, Putin’s survival in power in the hybrid Russian regime is dependent both on: (1) balancing various elite factions – from liberal to ultra-nationalist – to retain their support, (2) popular support in polling exercises masquerading as fully free and fair elections, and (3) and considerable though not full compliance with Russia’s constitution which provides some stickiness and thus regime stability.
In addition, Putin took a step this year that shores up his position within the system by creating the National Guard headed by a loyal long-time associate Viktor Zolotov (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/04/14/putins-golden-ticket-the-new-national-guard/). There is no evidence whatsoever that this step was motivated either in response or preemption of a coup or regime change threat, though it would be reasonable to assume that Putin took this step in reaction to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and repeated statements by Western politicians and other in circles influencing Western governments, especially in Washington, of the desire to see Putin overthrown.
In society, civil society is too weak and divided to mount a challenge to the present regime, without a major catalytic event. There is little to no significant willingness to participate in political protests against the system. Putin is trusted by a strong majority, meaning his rule is legitimate. To be sure, the playing field in elections is tilted in favor of pro-system forces, given the regime’s media hegemony (but far from a complete monopoly and without the use of censorship) and rigged and semi-forced voting in distant regions, by and large in the titular Muslim and ethnic republics. However, such voting problems have been an issue throughout the post-Soviet period not just under Putin or in the recent Duma vote. Even the protest movement that emerged after the last Duma elections in December 2011 was not prompted by dissatisfaction with electoral inadequacy but by Putin’s decision to return the presidency and thus seemingly signaling an end to President Dmitrii Medvedev’s reformist ‘thaw’ of nascent ‘perestroika 2.0’ (Gordon M. Hahn, “Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 228-259, http://www.gwu.edu/~ieresgwu/assets/docs/demokratizatsiya%20archive/GWASHU_DEMO_18_3/C6RV2N817P0572R3/C6RV2N817P0572R3.pdf and Gordon M. Hahn “Perestroika2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 28, 4, October-December 2012, pp. 472-515, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2747/1060-586X.28.4.472#.VNIAL53F-uw).
It should be kept in mind that it is usually not the existence of authoritarianism per se that prompts pre-revolutionary and revolutionary crises but rather the shattering of rising expectations and the loss of recent reformist gains that do so. Putin succeeded in rolling back much of Medvedev’s thaw without further destabilization. After Putin’s return to the Kremlin, a significant ‘zamorozka’ or freezing of political, civil and economic freedoms ensued, negating much of Medvedev’s presidency (Gordon M. Hahn, “The Russian Federation in 2012: From ‘Thaw’ and ‘Reset’ to ‘Freeze’,” Asian Survey, 53, 1, 2013, pp. 214-223). Since there are no serious liberalizing reforms or a major economic crisis ongoing in Russia today, there should be no expectation of political instability or Putin’s overthrow.
Even if a popular uprising was to emerge from below, Putin could deploy the National Guard and/or other siloviki, opt to use massive force if necessary, and successfully put down any such revolt.
Any departure of Putin and perhaps the soft authoritarian regime he has presided over is likely to come – as Russian dissident, democratic oppositionist, and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii recently suggested – with his voluntary retirement after his ‘second second’ (i.e., fourth) term in 2024: “I think Putin is healthy and understands perfectly well that either he leaves or everything will end badly for him and the country. I think that he very clearly decided, taking the decision on two six-year terms, and he designated these dates and that he will leave (power) in 2024” (www.ng.ru/politics/2016-11-29/4_6871_hodorkovsky.html).
What is more is that Putin’s is not the worst outcome for the West or for Russia. Putin is not the dictator he is being propagandized by the Washington consensus to be. There are far worse statists, hardliners, and even neofascists in the Russian polity who would establish a real dictatorship. We can see this in the various political battles that occur under the carpet that seek to drag Putin in a more hardline direction but which are won by liberals, sometimes with Putin’s covert, even overt backing.
The most recent attempt to shut down the pro-democratic and liberal European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP) is a case in point. The pretext marched out in this at least third attempt to close EUSP was the absence of a gymnasium on the university’s premises, despite the fact that this is a graduate higher educational institution, which by law is not required to have a gymnasium or offer physical education courses. It was pushed by hardliners in the state bureaucracy and society who criticized its liberal line (www.ng.ru/regions/2016-12-13/2_6883_petersburg.html). The purpose may be to force Putin to the right or expose him as insufficiently hardline if he steps in again to save the university. It is highly unlikely that Putin stands behind or will support this attempt to close the university, since it was founded by Putin’s mentor the deceased St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak and is closely affiliated with an institute led by Putin’s associate and economic advisor, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.
This attempt follows several previous attempts of which at least one was defeated because of Putin’s intervention on behalf of liberals. After Medvedev’s election victory in 2008, Putin met with democratic opposition Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, with whom Putin had not met for years and who later declined to deny rumors that Putin offered him a position in his future cabinet. Responding to Yavlinskii’s appeals, EUSP, which was closed down weeks earlier on the pretext of specious fire code violations, was reopened. Incidentally, Putin also promised Yavlinskii that he would look into the clearly unjust arrest by police of the chairman of Yabloko’s St. Petersburg branch, and days later a Petersburg court dropped all charges against him. Days after that authorities announced the reopening of the official investigation into the death of prominent Yabloko member and Novaya gazeta journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, which was subsequently solved and its perpetrators imprisoned.
Now if Putin is the hardline dictator who regularly exercises the power to remove and kill his opponents at will — as he is portrayed routinely in the West — rather than a soft authoritarian leader with limits on his power imposed by the system and his own sense of proportionality, then why would he not be able to close down a small graduate school of some 250 students and a several dozen professors? Why would there be several failed attempts to shut down this small university? Why do some hardline projects receive Putin’s backing, while others do not? Is the more likely explanation the dictator Putin and his full monopoly on power, his indecision and/or behind-the-scenes power struggles that Putin needs to resolve by placing his weight on the scale balanced by competing ideological, interest, bureaucratic clans?
In sum, although many Americans would like to see Vladimir Vladimirovich hanging from a rope snugly wrenching his neck as Saddam Hussein experienced or run down and slaughtered like a dog, much as Muammar Qadaffi met his demise, this particular American dream of revolution will be significantly further deferred and America and the West may be better off if that proves to be the case.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the Ukrainian Crisis and ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.