The West is attacking Russia: so Putin must remain president

Since 2006, Russia has faced yet another crossroads. The Putin regime might transform naturally, developing and changing into a new Russian state system. On the other hand, after Putin’s departure, this regime might be gradually dismantled – and Russia would be kicked back into the 1990s.

Can the Putin regime continue without President Vladimir Putin? Which of his potential successors could guarantee the continuation of that regime and its policy course? If Putin leaves office, how would the Putin regime start to change, and how rapidly? If this regime has been constructed to suit Putin, could he hold some other office and control his successor’s actions? What’s the connection between the fate of Mikhail Zurabov, the controversial healthcare and social development minister, and the third term issue?

What we have in Russia is a political regime established by Putin himself, and it’s no secret that it has been tailored to suit Putin the President. It’s extremely important to note that the regime still hasn’t been finalized; it has some fairly strong internal contradictions, coexisting and fighting each other (and this goes beyond the contradictions between “different towers of the Kremlin” or factions within Putin’s inner circle). It’s not about individuals; it’s a matter of objective trends.

Ever since sometime in the second half of 2006, Russia has faced yet another crossroads. Essentially, it’s very simple. The Putin regime might transform naturally, developing and changing into a new Russian state system, while also influencing the formation of a new model of society. On the other hand, after Putin’s departure, this regime might be gradually dismantled – and Russia would be kicked back into the 1990s, when our country was being installed into the global Western economic mechanism.

Events in Russia are closely interrelated with the dramatic events taking place around the world: the global system’s crisis. It’s an open secret that Russia still isn’t self-sufficient: it is extremely dependent on many factors and trends, both overt and covert, in the international system. Naturally, therefore, one of President Putin’s primary objectives right from the start has been to achieve a substantial reduction in this geoeconomic and geostrategic dependence. Without minimizing dependence, choosing a sovereign course in domestic policy would have been a kind of virtual reality – deliberate self-deception and conscious deception of Russian citizens.

The only sure foundation for a unipolar world of this kind is strict, multi-level, enforced control over the sources of natural hydrocarbon energy resources. As these energy resources become increasingly scarce, the nature of global power will be determined by a fairly simple formula: whoever controls the extraction of oil and gas will control the worldwide situation over the next 10-15 years.

Many analysts and experts stress two main reasons for the strategic failures of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy strategy.

On the pretext of fighting “international terrorism,” the Americans intended a swift victory march through Afghanistan and Iraq. Syria and Iran were supposed to be next in line. Then they planned to launch a purposeful, integrated transformation process for the Greater Middle East. But events didn’t turn out as they had been pictured in the comfortable, air-conditioned, windowless offices of New York and Washington.

As a result, the Americans will be forced to flee from Iraq within the next 12-18 months; inevitably, this will be followed by the strategic retreat of the United States from the entire Greater Middle East. And by 2010, the West will probably acknowledge that its attempts to occupy and hold Afghanistan are mistaken and futile.

Secondly – and this may be the main reason – Russia’s position has become an obstacle to establishing the American unipolar world. More precisely, President Putin’s position and strategy have become that obstacle.

Intentionally or not, Putin has come to be the de fact leader of a coalition over the past few years: an emerging coalition of gas- and oil-producing countries. It has changed the rules of the geopolitical game imposed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The past four years have seen a fundamental geoeconomic metamorphosis with substantial long-term consequences: energy producers have increasingly come to determine consumer behavior and dictate the situation in the energy market. Not surpisingly, world prices for oil and gas have risen during this time. Oil- and gas-exporting countries are becoming an important new force in a world gripped by a global systemic crisis. And this is largely the result of Putin’s own strategy.

So the American establishment is unlikely to feel much political affection for Putin. Rather the reverse.

On the other hand, Putin is becoming a cult figure in various other parts of the world. Many Middle East countries, for example, have developed a kind of Putin personality cult since he delivered his well-known speech in Munich. As the Americans themselves admit, Russia is now the key country in the Middle East, in terms of influence.

Oil and gas aren’t the only items on the list of American grievances against Putin. The Americans believe that over the past few years, thanks to Putin, the Moscow-Beijing military-political axis has started to become a strategic reality in the international arena and a substantial factor endangering long-term US interests.

Putin has launched comprehensive rearmament in the Russian Armed Forces. During his period in office, the military budget has grown by hundreds of billions of rubles. Putin’s Russia has the world’s highest arms export growth rate.

Using the capacities provided by Russia’s oil and gas exports, Putin is striving to increase his economic and political influence in Europe. Some EU specialists believe that although present-day Russia is substantially weaker than the Soviet Union, Putin’s Kremlin is influencing the key European nations more effectively than the last Soviet leaders did.

And Putin’s political regime is now the greatest obstacle to the establishment of a unipolar world. Not surprisingly, many leaders of various countries – all of them displeased by American arrogance and incompetence – are approaching Putin in one form or another to raise the possibility of a third term in office.

An important component of US foreign policy tactics is the deliberate management of foreign policy crisis and conflicts.

A systematic assault on Russia and Putin’s political regime has begun. It’s safe to say that all the classic undermining mesures will be used: starting an arms races, establishing a geopolitical cordon sanitaire around Russia, extensive use of the “human rights” doctrine for psychological warfare, and so on.

On the other hand, some new forms of organizational weaponry will also be used, or are being used already: encouraging splits between Russia’s political elite groups, activating covert influence networks within Russia, implanting personnel, goal-directed funding to establish the preconditions for an Orange revolution, and so on.

The main goal is to ensure victory for a US-approved candidate with a US-approved team in Russia’s presidential election of 2012.

Our strategic opponent is well aware that it won’t be able to outplay the Putin regime in the 2007-08 elections. It first needs to carry out a number of systematic measures – including distraction maneuvers – over the next two or three years: political, informational, and psychological discreditation of the Putin regime; preparing the appropriate organizational-intellectual projects; establishing appropriate opposition coalitions within Russia, and so on. All of these organizational procedures and network measures must be done in such a way as to ensure that the Putin regime is effectively dismantled in future.

The West’s refusal – primarily Washington’s refusal – to recognize the results of Russia’s presidential election in 2008 and the Duma election in 2007 will signal the start of an already-planned long-term campaign: the managed destabilization of the domestic political situation in Russia.

The likes of Mikhail Kasyanov, Garry Kasparov, or Vladimir Ryzhkov are only temporary cover figures. The assumption and plan is that by 2011, the rising tide of Russia’s crisis will bring someone entirely new to prominence in the Russian political arena: someone capable of becoming a center of gravity for all potential opponents of the Putin regime.

Let’s imagine that Putin steps down voluntarily – as this comprehensive assault on Russia is beginning. The next question is entirely non-trivial: which of the potential successors – Dmitri Medvedev, Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Yakunin, and so on – would be capable of keeping a deteriorating situation under control? Ultimately, an effective politician is one who prepares in advance for worst-case scenarios.

The answer is very simple: none of the above. There are at least three reasons for that.

First of all, Putin’s role in contemporary Russian history is unique. With all due respect for his potential heirs, not one of them has political resources comparable to Putin’s. All of the potential heirs are members of Putin’s hand-picked team. But Putin practically never reveals his plans and motives completely – not even to members of his inner circle. Thus, any heir would obviously be weaker than Putin in a potential acute crisis situation.

Secondly, I repeat: the present-day political regime has been fine-tuned by Putin to suit himself. It took him at least three years, and some extraordinary measures, to transform the Yeltsin regime into his own regime. It’s hard to imagine this mechanism continuing to function effectively if Putin steps down. Ivanov, Medvedev, Yakunin, or any other triumphant successor would have to alter this system of power to suit a new leader. No one knows how effective this would be, or how long it would take.

Thirdly, Putin has been unable to complete establishing the present-day regime. The mechanism of power is still imperfect and not self-sufficient. Let me cite just two examples of that.

Putin has devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that dangerous idle talk of the free market’s “advantages” is replaced by the emerging process of establishing Russia’s own model of state capitalism. In this model, the nucleus of the Russian economy is supposed to be an integrated state-sector system that encompasses 30-40% of Russia’s economic capacities and exerts a decisive influence on the strategic development of the entire national economy.

And the nucleus of the state sector is supposed to consist of the military-industrial complex and high-tech innovation sectors.

Putin has done quite a lot to create the preconditions for this, but Russia still doesn’t have an integrated state-sector system; neither is the military-industrial complex an innovation component of the state sector.

Second example: Russia has an extensive and powerful corruption system. We might even say that Russia is in a de fact dual power situation: there’s the Putin regime, and then there’s the corruption system. Sometimes they intersect or overlap, and sometimes they confront each other. The corruption system in its present form emerged in the late Gorbachev era, became the ruling system in the Yeltsin era, and continues to compete successfully with the Putin regime. In objective terms, Russia’s corruption system is the Putin regime’s key internal opponent.

If the balance already tends to favor the smoothly-operating corruption system – even now, with Putin in power – what might happen if the political regime’s architect and leader leaves office? The answer is obvious: unless Putin stays on for a third term, Russia’s corruption levels will escalate rapidly to overtake even the African nations.

At first sight, the Putin regime seems oddly ambiguous. On the one hand, the absolute majority of Russian citizens support Putin’s foreign policy. This is the major reason behind his high personal approval rating. On the other hand, a substantial proportion of citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with their living standards; class contradictions are intensifying; there are growing gaps in socio-economic development between social groups and regions.

Present-day Russia has almost 100,000 citizens who are millionaires in dollar terms – and around 10 million people who don’t get enough to eat every day. There is mass discontent, and this discontent will grow; consequenly, there is also the increasing likelihood of someone using the discontent for political purposes. Real stability is when people have confidence in what tomorrow will bring, and this confidence is embodied in widely-accepted ideological provisions.

Yet it’s wrong to say that Russia lacks an ideology at present. On the contrary, what we have are several ideological world-views, competing with each other at the establishment level and the popular level. History shows, however, that countries which are more consolidated in ideological terms are, as a rule, more effective and competitive.

Putin (and perhaps his team) has an ideological component of his own. In brief, it might be summed up as follows: pragmatic responsibility.

Once Putin came to power, he realized that Russia lacked a focus for survival and development. There was no force capable of becoming a nucleus for social consolidation.

Under the circumstances, Putin – as a proponent of pragmatic responsibility – had only one option: using any available methods and making any acceptable compromises in order to start rebuilding Russia’s traditional survival and development focus: the state, which was on its last legs as the 20th Century drew to a close.

In this difficult situation, Putin, as a pragmatist, had to establish a ruling coalition that he could use as a bulwark for starting to rebuild the Russian state. This coalition comprised three closely interrelated forces which actually held full power in Russia at the time: oligarchic big business, regional leaders, and the leaders of the federal bureaucracy. As Putin and his inner circle increased their control over state institutions, they also brought the security and law enforcement people (siloviki) into this coalition.

At the political level, the coalition’s symbol was the Unity movement at first, followed by the United Russia party. United Russia was the last major political project created jointly by Putin and Yeltsin’s Family. Its chief manager was Alexander Voloshin, then head of the presidential administration; after holding confidential talks with then-interior minister Boris Gryzlov and promising him the post of prime minister in future, Voloshin nominated Gryzlov for the position of United Russia’s leader.

At the time, the siloviki remained the weak link in the Coaliton of Four. Further evidence of this can be found in the history of the covert battle for control of United Russia’s apparatus; even people who were close associates of Putin were eventually ousted from actual control of the party. Gradually, however, the balance of power in the coalition shifted in favor of the siloviki.

Some oligarchs were exiled, some jailed, some recruited, and others “brought into line.” The significance of oligarchic big business in the ruling coalition has dropped sharply, primarily because they have been unable to achieve Putin’s strategic task: ending Russia’s dependence on commodities exports and actually diversifying the Russian economy. Moreover, the oligarchs couldn’t even work out any practical approaches to achieving this important objective. In the meantime, the economic power of the siloviki increased radically; members of that group now head powerful state-owned corporations, associations, and holding companies.

The federal bureaucracy’s elite was forced to give way as well. The major ministries and federal agencies are now headed by people from Putin’s “chekist” inner circle; all other ministries and institutions have siloviki overseers. But the middle ranks of the federal bureaucracy – the key link, and the area most affected by corruption – remains practically the same as it was in the 1990s. What’s more, as the overall hierarchy of governance has been established, the influence of this middle-rank bureaucratic component has actually grown.

Now that regional leaders are no longer popularly elected, and political power is concentrated in the Kremlin, the regional leaders have lost most of their standing in the Coalition of Four; they are directly dependent on the president.

In 2002-03, the balance of power in the Coalition of Four clearly wasn’t in favor of the siloviki; their total influence level was no more than 10%. By late 2006, the situation was fundamentally different. Overall system indicators show that the security and law enforcement component in the Coalition of Four has become dominant; what’s more, its power is essentially equal to the combined power of all the other coalition components.

The classic political dilemma (who has the upper hand?) is back on the agenda. The debates over a third term for Putin reflect this covert power-struggle within the ruling class, which is essentially on the brink of a predictable split.

Yet the situation should not be over-simplified or reduced to two-dimensional distinctions (the heroic siloviki versus the liberal bad guys). That’s dangerous. As the classic author wrote, “politics is not the smooth pavement of Nevsky Avenue.”

In reality, cooperation between the various components of the Coalition of Four is complicated, reciprocal, and contradictory. These processes have ultimately influenced – and are still influencing – the Putin regime’s effectiveness. Let me cite just two examples of this.

Many of the security and law enforcement agencies – the Putin regime’s most important component – have been granted more and more powers in the economy; they experienced the growing influence of the nationwide corruption mechanism, and at a certain stage they started integrating themselves into that mechanism, becoming part of it.

Sometime in 2001, then-prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov estimated corruption in Russia to be worth 1 trillion rubles a year. The exchange rate at the time made that equivalent to $40 billion. In late 2006, a deputy of the new prosecutor general gave a new estimate for corruption turnover, revealing the rising level of corruption: $240-260 billion a year. Even if a number of mitigating details are taken into account, it’s safe to say that corruption is expanding into the security and law enforcement institutions at a qualitatively new level. And what does this mean from the political standpoint? The stronger the corruption in any particular state institution, the less effective that institution will be, especially in a crisis. Consider the Soviet Union back in 1989-91.

Second point: we have already seen a clear example of certain oligarchic groups attempting to integrate themselves into the special spervices – in order to recruit representatives, establish outposts, and enhance their own influence in those institutions. In an environment that’s vulnerable to corruption, such attempts are sure to be repeated on many occasions in the future.

In my view, if Putin decides against seeking a third term, the Coalition of Four is likely to fall apart – due to its own internal reasons and increasing external influence. And that is very likely to lead to uncontrollable domestic destabilization in Russia. But if Putin stays on, one of his main tasks will be to reformat the coalition, which has essentially outlived its purpose.

What if Putin goes in order to stay? After all, in theory, he could become prime minister, or Duma speaker, or chairman of the Constitutional Court – and continue to influence Russia from there. Four years later, in 2012, he could run for president again.

First of all, this hypothetical scenario wouldn’t work in Russia, not even if the circumstances were extremely stable; among other reasons, there is the fact that nothing like that has ever been done in our country’s history.

Secondly, even if Putin declines a third term, he himself (not the new president) would remain the chief target for external and internal opponents, who would make every effort to discredit him and keep him out of the election in 2012.

Thirdly (perhaps the most important point), within the framework of various strategic games, declining a third term would not be regarded as a sign of Putin’s democratic convictions or his loyalty to Yeltsin’s Constitution. It would be seen as a sign of his political weakness. And according to the rule of the game, the weak are pressured until they are completely destroyed.