Staunton, February 23 – Having successfully mobilized Russians to support him by his Crimean Anschluss after the mass demonstrations against the Kremlin in 2011-2012, Arkady Babchenko says, Vladimir Putin will in the future always turn to war whenever he feels that his position has been weakened.
“The only means Putin has to influence domestic policy [in Russia] is war,” the Russian commentator now in exile in Kyiv says; “and when his position is threatened, when centrifugal processes begin, he will try to stop them by some sort of new war: escalation in the Donbass, in Syria, or somewhere else” (afterempire.info/2018/02/23/babchenko/).
According to Babchenkko, “Russia now is an extremely unstable situation and therefore it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen.” Over the past five years, one could count on Moscow choosing the worst of all options. “Now, this kind of unpredictability is spreading to many other countries.”
“Their regimes also are moving away from liberal democratic values and shifting to the side of some kind of authoritarianism and ‘greatness.’ One can see that in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Trumpist America, and in Turkey.” That all feeds back into Russia and gives Putin the chance to behave even worse at home and abroad.
Babchenko observes that “the world is changing and not entirely in the direction that many of us would like. The European Union unfortunately has not been able to do what its founders dreamed. In many countries, isolationist attitudes are growing.” And many are again talking about dividing up the world into spheres of influence.
As far as Russia is concerned, the Kyiv-based commentator says that he “already simply does not believe in any united ‘democratic Russia.’” Now, he suggests, “we are living in the era of the collapse of empires,” in Russia’s case, the third phase, the first being in 1917-1918 and the second in 1991. But how long that will last depends on many things, including the price of oil.
If oil price remain where they are now, in the 70 US dollars a barrel range, he suggests, the current regime could continue to exist “for decades.” But if they fall significantly, Russia could become like Venezuela; and in that case, “quite interesting processes will begin,” although they may lead in a bad direction instead of toward a democratic one.
Babchenko says that he does not think that Russia will succeed in building a democracy. Instead, he argues, there will be some kind of neo-Pugachevshchina, “’senseless and pitiless,” and that will end with the rise of a new authoritarianism just as it has so often in the history of Russia.
On the other hand, if Russia disintegrates, and the core is reduced to something like Muscovy, then it is possible that portions of what is now the Russian Federation might be able to articulate democracies.
That depends also on the role of other countries. In 1991, Russia was “in fact” under external rule, and it was that rule by Western institutions that prevented “the final collapse of Russia” at the time. Whether the West will play the same role in the future is very much an open question, Babchenko says.
The Russian opposition has been gelded, he continues, elections no longer really exist, and there are now powerful regionalist movements. As a result, the domestic opposition, rightist and imperialist, on the one hand, and democratic, on the other, does not have significant influence on the Kremlin.
And then Babchenko concludes with the following observation: “When I heard that ‘the people in Russia have never lived as well as they do under Putin,’ this is close to the truth. Many depend too much on the budget and it depends on oil. Although propaganda is gradually ceasing to work.”
“The Donbass theme, for example, has practically disappeared from the information agenda. It doesn’t tie Russians together. They don’t talk or think about it. Therefore, the war in Ukraine now does not influence domestic politics in Russia.” Only a much larger war there or somewhere else might.