Staunton, February 5 – Russian President Vladimir Putin does not aspire to become a new Stalin as long as he is able to maintain power and profitability without the use of the totalitarian violence of the Soviet dictator, according to one Russian analyst, but he may become a Milosevich by his incautious actions in Ukraine, according to another.
In yesterday’s “Novaya gazeta,” Vladimir Pastukhov of St. Antony’s College and one of the most penetrating observers of the Moscow political scene, argues that the most frequent explanations offered for Putin’s apparent softening at the end of last year are wrong (novayagazeta.ru/politics/62097.html).
Putin did not release Khodorkovsky or the others because he wanted to create an atmosphere of good feeling in advance of the Sochi Olympiad, Pastukhov says. As important as the games are to him, he is not that “sentimental.” And he did not do so because he had had a fundamental change of heart.
Instead, as subsequent events like the attack on Dozhd television show, the real Putin is the same one that has been on offer since he came to power, Pastukhov says. He suggests that this shift was only a “tactical zigzag” and reflects the approach of Vladislav Surkov who not long ago returned to work in the Kremlin.
As Putin has demonstrated throughout his years in power, Pastukhov continues, he is “not a ‘one-dimensional’ dictator, whose actions” reflect the working out of “a single political equation.” Instead, they reflect the fact that “Putin has his own ‘political comfort zone’ and the organization of mass political repressions is not part of it.”
Unlike some rulers, Putin would not take pleasure from putting his opponents in prison. Instead, “if he can defend his power without using extreme measures, he will be satisfied to get along without them,” although his statements show that he is entirely “indifferent to the fate” of those who may fall victim to repression.
The reasons for this, Pastukhov suggests, are both psychological and political. Psychologically, Putin suffers from a certain “squeamishness” people like Milonov and Chaplin he uses to advance his policies. “Using them does not mean he loves them,” and Putin clearly is not “a convinced homophobe, a cave-dwelling anti-American or an Orthodox fundamentalist.”
But the political reasons are more important: Putin is focusing on the 2018 elections. “On a tactical level,” Pastukhov continues, “the ‘liberalization in a glass of water’ which has taken place is not a retreat by Putin but a continuation of his advance.” But because he faces no serious opponent, what has been happening since mid-Decembeer is in fact “nothing more than a policy of normalization.” (Italics in the original.)
No society, including Russia’s, can stand conditions of a permanent “war,” and consequently, at least occasionally, it needs to feel that things are returning to a customary and predictable path. That is what Putin has been doing recently, Pastukhov says. It is typical of his approach rather than a break with it.
Putin doesn’t view repression as his first choice. He is prepared to use it but he generally prefers to use other means, the St. Antony’s scholar continues. Putin “is a master of putting up publically false goals and creating smoke screens. He instinctively fears people whom he cannot manipulate and therefore fills the public with those” who can be.
But the Kremlin leader’s latest moves are about more than tactics. They reflect Putin’s confidence that he is unchallenged in the near term and thus can make some concessions to “’the liberal establishment’” but at the same time, they show that Putin is anything but confident about the longer term.
Putin cannot not recognize, Pastukhov argues, that Russia’s economy is headed “into a dead end” and that changes are needed if he is going to keep his power and the money it brings him and his regime. To the extent that is the case, his latest “zigzag” may be “the beginning of Operation ‘Successor 2.’”
“Strategically,” Putin has an interest in introducing “complexity” in the Russian political “landscape,” but he recognizes, Pastukhov suggests, that “the instruments which were used for the resolution of this task have completely exhausted themselves,” including “the ‘systemic opposition,’” and that he must demonstrate his “ability to play political chess.”
With Surkov’s help, the Oxford-based analyst concludes, “Putin is converting Russian into a castle where hundreds of false mirrors create the appearance of light by concealing the absence of [real] windows and doors.” That may work for a time, Pastukhov says, but “sooner or later,” it will become obvious that “there is no exit from this fabulous palace.”
But if Putin does not want to become a Stalin, he is very much at risk of becoming a Milosevich because of his actions in Ukraine. In an essay posted on Slon.ru yesterday, Leonid Ragozin argues that Putin’s approach in Ukraine is fraught with just such a danger (slon.ru/world/pochemu_ukraina_ne_yugoslaviya-1052120.xhtml).
In many ways, Ragozin suggests, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is playing a role similar to the destructive one Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić played in the early 1990s. But standing behind him is Russian President Vladimir Putin who could end up playing the role of Slobodan Milosevic.
“The citizens of Russia should remember,” the analyst continues, that “under the wise leadership of their popular leader, the Serbs lost all that they could lose and even overfulfilled the plan for losses.”
When “Kremlin propagandists” like Mikhail Leontyev say that “Ukraine is part of Russia,” it is obvious “what Putin has in mind.” He’s already repeatedly said tht the disintegration of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and apparently has decided to go into history as a gatherer of ‘Russian’ lands.”
To the extent he tries, Ragozin says, Putin is likely to “become a Milosevic on a global scale,” not because NATO will attack but because as he may have forgotten, it was “not NATO but the angry citizens of Serbia who overthrew Milosevic and sent him to [the International Court in] the Hague.”
Those who support Putin’s course believe that Moscow can count on the support of ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine and “above all the Donbass.” But they are wrong, Ragozin says. “If the west of Ukraine ... is an already prepared Balkans, the Russian-speaking southeast is its complete opposite.”
“It is impossible to mobilize the eastern Ukrainians for the army or even for small-scale protests,” Ragozin continues. Up to a third of the residents of this region support the Maidan, a equal to the share of Navalny’s supporters in Moscow.” Whatever the Kremlin thinks, “the southeastern oblasts [of Ukraine] are in an entirely different category than provincial Russia.”
And the situation is changing against Moscow and Putin’s aspirations quite quickly, Ragozin concludes, as the post-independence generation replaces those with Soviet experiences. He cites in support of this a conversation he had with two students in Ukraine.
After he asked them if they were Russian speaking, one of them responded, “yes, unfortunately. But we have decided that a year from now we will go over to Ukrainian with all our relatives and friends.” Such a shift points to an outcome in which Putin could find himself in the position of Milosevic rather than as the latest in-gatherer of Russian lands.