Staunton, March 30 – In his effort to extend his time in office and thus his life, Vladimir Putin has undercut the three foundations on which his power has rested up to now: the basis of his legitimacy as president, the balance of forces in the world, and the rules of the game both internationally and domestically, Liliya Shevtsova says.
In a commentary for Radio Svoboda today, the prominent Russian political analyst said that politicians always try to remain in office and dictators try to do so forever, not only to satisfy their ambitions as leaders but to ensure that their lives will not be at risk as they might be if they left office (svoboda.org/a/29120086.html).
But it sometimes happens, Shevtsova says, that in attempting to extend their time in power, they take steps which undermine the principles on which they have relied for their power in the first place. That is what has happened in the case of Vladimir Putin over the last several years.
That became especially clear during the recent campaign when “the Kremlin was forced to undermine the basic principles of the existence of the Russian state,” the analyst continues. In its course, “the Kremlin demolished three principles which had been guaranteeing the functioning of the state.”
First, it undermined the basis of the legitimacy of the president and his system. Putin’s team understands the need for some legitimation otherwise it would have to rely exclusively on repression, “and it is unclear to what extent society would agree with that.” But a plebiscite without a choice doesn’t legitimate its victor, especially when society has ceased to be sealed off from the world.
As a result, Shevtsova says, “Putin had to search for an additional source or support,” and he did so by “creating the myth of a foreign threat and then presenting himself to the countrya s the Leader-Defender of the Motherland.” That he did so shows that his legitimation via the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea has “exhausted itself.”
Putin’s “plebiscitory-militarist legitimation” could have “two consequences.” On the one hand, “the preservation of power via the manipulation of the electoral process (which he has done before) discredits the electoral mechanism of the formation of power. And on the other, shifting to a military model “contradicts the requirements of the state.”
That state, the Russian analyst says, “is interested in integration into the world system not only because of the requirements of the economy but also for Russia’s retention of the status of a power.” If Russia becomes an outcast or is ignored by others, as Putin himself has acknowledged, that does not legitimate Putin’s power.
Consequently, the Kremlin leader had to offer Russia “convincing arguments for the retention of power: either victory in the clash with the West or ‘the defense of the Motherland.’” Because of the West’s response, Putin has been forced to choose the second option, hoping that the West will give way and make concessions to his position.
But he and his comrades in arms can’t possibly believe that “the West will agree to save the reputation of the Kremlin by sacrificing its own.” And they must also know that “’the besieged fortress’” tactic “will have only a short-term effect. The Russian elite wants to have the benefits only the West can provide and “it’s doubtful” the population is ready for the sacrifice a war would require.
Indeed, as has become ever more obvious in recent weeks, “it is not NATO and Western actions but events in Volokolamsk and the tragedy in Kemerovo which have delivered a blow to the new presidency by demonstrating the cynicism and lack of humanity of the Russian powers that be.”
Second, in his drive to try to save his position in power, Putin has rejected “the principle of the balance of forces in world politics.” Russia lacks the resources to be a power of the size Putin imagines and wants it to be. And so he has engaged in threats and blackmail to try to force others to bend to his will.
The result has been tragic – first of all for him and his country. “Hardly ever in modern times has Russia been in such isolation as it is now” when even its supposed allies like Kazakhstan and Belarus are distancing themselves from Moscow lest they run afoul of the far more powerful West.
And third, Shevtsova continues, Putin has demanded recognition of the right of the Kremlin to “freely interpret rules and agreements both within the country and on the international scene.” As a result, Russians live in a Darwinian and Hobbesian world where “there is no guarantee of property, freedom or security.
In foreign affairs, she continues, “the Kremlin has decided to play the role of an anarchist destroying taboos and declaring what its understanding of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, and democracy are,” however much at odds these notions are from those of the international community.
Apparently, some in Putin’s entourage think that the West is prepared to play “’Russian roulette’” with Moscow and even take the hand that Putin has extended. But reality shows that “the Kremlin has miscalculated.” Instead of disordering the West, it has brought it much more closely together than anyone could have imagined a few years ago.
And consequently, she concludes, “the Putin corporation has driven itself into a dead end.” The Kremlin is now in conflict both with the most developed countries and with that part of Russian society now demanding change, while simultaneously undermining the possibility of the survival of the Russian rentier class that has been his base.