Staunton, March 3 – In a 3,000-word essay for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky argue “post-Putin Russia” will arrive following the March 18th elections because Putin will focus on transferring power to a new “Putin generation” and elites will act “not by the president’s presence … but by the expectation of his departure.”
Many assume that with Putin’s departure, whenever that does occur, “the regime will undergo a major transformation.” That is unlikely, the two analysts say because there is no group pressing for such change and young Russians are even more pro-Putin than are their elders” (ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_arrival_of_post_putin_russia).
The two analysts, one based in Vienna and the other in Moscow, say that this means “Moscow will likely maintain its current foreign policy objectives even after Putin’s exist from the Kremlin, but without him Russia will probably be a weak international player,” taking a backseat to its emerging security partner China.
The key passages of their argument are:
The paradox of 2018 can be summarised as follows: Russia is in deep social, political, and economic crisis. … But, while Russians are aware of this state of affairs, regime change is highly unlikely. There is no critical mass of people demanding radical change and, contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society.
But while Russia is not on the edge of regime change, the regime is changing. The coming presidential election will mark the arrival of post-Putin Russia regardless of whether Putin remains the head of state for the next six or 16 years. This is because, following the vote, the behaviour of Russia’s major political and economic players will be defined not by Putin’s presence in the system but by the expectation of his departure.
Most Western analysts fail to see the pending arrival of the new era primarily because they assume that post-Putin Russia will be an anti-Putin Russia … Many Western observers find it difficult to understand that, for most Russians, Putin is not simply a president but the true founder of the post-Soviet Russian state … similar to that of the national liberation leaders of the 1960s and the 1970s. Therefore, his successor – whoever he or she is – will claim to defend Putin’s legacy even while intending to break from it.
In the 2018 election, Putin is not so much a candidate as a “prize”: the real suspense is in which of the Kremlin’s competing elite groups will be able to credibly claim to have achieved victory for him.
Members of the Russian elite now know that the president is focused on designing post-Putin Russia – even if they have no power to influence his choices. Putin is doubtlessly aware that the absence of any vision of the country’s future without him could dramatically weaken his standing in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
In our view, four factors will shape this vision.
The first of these is Putin’s belief that the country will face a hostile international environment and that its rivals will use all means at their disposal to weaken and fragment it. Therefore, he sees post-Putin Russia as Fortress Russia … But Putin is also aware that the “Crimea effect” cannot be replicated, and that the legitimacy of the government and the survival of the regime will depend on its ability to satisfy the basic material needs of the population.
The second factor is Putin’s conviction that Russia has nothing to gain from imitating Western-style institutions – or, put differently, Russia should imitate what the West is doing (interfering in domestic politics) and not what it is preaching.
The third factor is that, while members of the Russian elite once perceived modernisation as centred on Western-style institutional reform, they now view it as an attempt to maintain Russia’s competitiveness in the development of new technology.
The fourth factor is Putin’s conviction that Russia needs not a single successor – as it did under Boris Yeltsin – but a successor generation. He sees the coming transition as a transfer of power from his generation to the “Putin generation”, comprising politicians who came of age during, and have been shaped by, Putin’s rule.
The fast promotion of the sons and daughters of senior figures in the elite is critical to the president’s plans for post-Putin Russia. There has been a major change in the behaviour and career trajectories of leaders-in-waiting in the last few years: if the sons and daughters of the Yeltsin-era elite tended to study and work abroad, those of the current elite often study in the West but usually work in Russia – many of them for the state.
Post-Putin Russia has begun to arrive not only because the president is preoccupied with his vision for it; some key members of the Russian elite have also started preparing for the realities of this new era. They have begun to transform the access to the president that is their major source of power into a political currency that will retain its value after Putin leaves the Kremlin.
Despite these significant domestic changes, Putin’s position as the ultimate decision-maker on foreign policy will ensure that Russia continues its aggressive efforts to secure a role as a global power. In this, a perceived need to counter American influence will be the dominant rationale of Russian foreign policy.
There will be no decisive breakthrough in the negotiations on the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region under Putin … US-Russia relations will remain frosty. The Kremlin will continue to be openly hostile to the US while being respectful and constrained in its criticism of Donald Trump. Moscow fears further US sanctions, but also hopes that some international actors will see Congress’s latest round of sanctions as having gone too far, pushing them to limit their exposure to the volatility of American politics.
The emerging Moscow-Beijing strategic alliance is the most significant outcome of the current crisis of the relationship between Russia and the West. Events in 2018 will demonstrate the Kremlin’s commitment to linking its economic future to China and trying to manage the power imbalance in the partnership by investing in military capabilities and maintaining a high international profile. … Russians sometimes draw parallels between the Russia-China relationship and the Franco-German alliance, claiming that Russia, like France, is a security-minded global power while China, like Germany, is an economic superpower reluctant to engage in military operations. There are evident flaws in this analogy, but Russians prefer to ignore them.
In the coming years, the major challenge in policymaking on Russia will be that, while the arrival of the post-Putin era will reshape Russia’s domestic politics, it will do little to curb the country’s aggressive behaviour as an international actor. Moscow will likely maintain its current foreign policy objectives even after Putin’s eventual exit from the Kremlin. But without him Russia will probably be a weak international player: it is Putin rather than the Russian state that has regained the status of a great power.