Staunton, January 3 – Donald Trump’s election has led many Russians to conclude that Western sanctions against Russia will be eased or lifted entirely in the coming months and that life in Russia will “really become easier.” But Moscow commentators warn that paradoxically that could become “a catalyst” for growing popular discontent within Russia.
The reason, Andrey Polunin of the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal says in summing up their views is that “if an external enemy in the form of the West disappears,” the Kremlin won’t be able to blame it for all of the shortcomings in Russia as it has done quite successfully up to now (svpressa.ru/politic/article/163694/).
If in 2017 Western sanctions are lifted, Russian government experts say, the GDP of Russia could rise by 0.6 to 0.8 percent, a small but significant increase that could be improved further by rising oil prices. But Polunin says that no one should forget that “sanctions are far from the main cause of the slowing down of the Russian economy.”
One need only remember, he says, that the Russian economy began to head in the wrong direction already in 2013, before Crimea and the imposition of sanctions, “when the rate of GDP growth fell from 3.7 to 1.3 percent. Already then it was obvious that there were serious structural problems that Moscow was not addressing.
The upsurge in popular support for Vladimir Putin in the wake of the Crimean Anschluss and the West’s imposition of sanctions gave the Kremlin leader the opportunity to put off any serious reforms and to blame the West for all the difficulties that the Russian people have been facing.
But if sanctions are lifted, Polunin says, “2017 could unexpectedly become a year of heightened turbulence in domestic policy, something that would weaken Putin’s position in advance of the presidential elections in 2018.” He spoke with three Moscow commentators about this scenario.
Mikhail Aleksandrov, a military specialist at MGIMO, said that there are real risks that Putin will continue the “liberal-economic” policy he has been pursuing rather than consider alternatives, something he should do. After all, even Stalin in 1951 organized a discussion of how the state should respond to slowing economic growth.
Putin is comfortable with the liberal economists as they came with him from St. Petersburg, and they are telling him that Trump’s coming to power in the US “will promote the growth of political stability in Russia.” Aleksandrov says that he is convinced of the reverse: any lessening of confrontation with the West “will lead Russians to focus on domestic problems.”
That is especially true because “in the foreign policy arena, Russia doesn’t have any obvious successes except for Syria” and unless there is a breakthrough on Ukraine, the conflict there will continue to exacerbate feelings in Russia. That suggests the Kremlin needs some domestic successes.
After all, Russians are going to ask, Aleksandrov says, “why if the level of confrontation with the West has fallen are we continuing to suffer failures in the economic area?” That will lead to a decline in the support for Putin, however much his political technologists work to preserve it.
“Of course, Vladimir Putin will win the presidential elections in 2018.” No strong candidates are going to emerge or be allowed to emerge. But there is another question that should be asked: “in what condition will he leave the country to his successor” whenever that handover happens?
Unless something is done, economic stagnation will continue even if sanctions are lifted, “and this will take place on the background of a rapidly growing China and China and small but stable growth in Germany and the United States.” Russians will notice this and draw conclusions, Aleksandrov says.
And that is all the more likely because the Kremlin is currently pursuing deeply unpopular policies like “the commercialization of healthcare and education” and doing nothing to combat “the growing stratification of society.” All this, he says, “will intensify dissatisfaction and thus it is impossible to exclude outbursts” as a result.
Sergey Markov, the director of the Moscow Institute for Political Research, says that the majority of Western politicians continue to think that “the strengthening of anti-Russian sanctions will increase social tension in Russia.” They are wrong. In fact, sanctions have kept social tensions in check; and if sanctions are lifted, that will change.
But the Kremlin has insured itself against the consequences of this by effectively taking total control over all the channels through which such popular anger might be expressed. And that means, Markov says, that “we will see a plethora of half-administered half-revolts which will break out” across the country but not become a serious challenge to the regime.
These protests won’t have a clearly expressed ideological platform, except perhaps for a nationalist one because “nationalist circles in Russia are represented least in the political system and their representatives thus have nothing to lose.” Such protests would likely occur in the fall if sanctions are reduced in the next quarter.
And Mikhail Remizov, the president of the Moscow Institute of National Strategy, says that the chief task the Kremlin has this year is to come up with a platform for the upcoming elections, something that won’t be easy because the Putin regime hasn’t fulfilled any of its main promises from the last election in 2012.
The Kremlin leader could choose a mobilization program, but he is unlikely to do that. In foreign affairs, such a change would require a real break with the West; and in domestic affairs, it would perhaps undermine the regime’s top supporters. Consequently, Remizov says, the regime is likely to continue its “inert” policies.
In that case, the Moscow analyst says, “Putin will be re-elected in 2018, but against a background of processes of the erosion of his political leadership.”
Neither Polunin nor any of the commentators he spoke with acknowledge the possibility that their arguments are directed in the first instance to the West and are intended to encourage the lifting of sanctions with the possibly false prediction that lifting sanctions will promote the West’s interests in Russia.
That cannot be excluded. But neither should this: if the current sanctions regime is not working as intended, that does not mean that sanctions for Putin’s crimes in Ukraine are not appropriate. What are clearly needed are more carefully targeted sanctions so that those who suffer most from them are not the Russian people but Putin personally and his comrades in arms.