Staunton, March 19 – Vladimir Putin’s current strategy of using carefully dosed out amounts of terror in order to have “administered chaos” in which his regime stays within his comfort zone has been extremely effective, may last for some time more, but ultimately will force him to make a Hobson’s choice, Vladimir Pastukhov says.
“In the foreseeable future,” the London-based Russian analyst says, he will either move in the direction of restoring the administrative capacity of the system by means of “terrorism with a human face” or face the prospect that Russia will descend into chaos beyond his ability to control (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/03/18/79914-vybor-shestogo-sroka-terror-ili-smuta).
Many currently think that “there is no terror in Russia or if there is, then only a ‘hybrid’ or ‘vegetarian’ kind – that is, not entirely real” because many of the attributes of terror under Stalin are lacking; but such people forget that the measure of terror is not the amount of violence used but the level of fear produced in the population, Pastukhov argues.
“Terror,” he says, “is like being pregnant – it either is or isn’t.” No one has ever observed “hybrid pregnancy.” Moreover, he continues, terror is distinguished from ordinary authoritarian forms of rule “above all by the unpredictability of repression. It is carried out as if autonomously, subordinate only to its own logic that is hidden from outsiders.”
As a result, “terror is capable of giving rise to total and paralyzing fear. This is always a game without rules, within which there is no model of behavior or personal strategy which will guarantee that ‘the player’ will remain outside the zone of risk,” the Russian analyst says.
If one examines the current struggle with corruption in Russia from this point of view, Pastukhov argues, one can see that terror is being used because under the conditions of the Putin regime almost anyone can be charged with a crime and no one can insure himself against landing in prison or worse. That creates a general sense of fear.
But Putin faces a problem, one that at least in part is of his own creation; and that is the rise of favorites who are untouchable. That puts this group of people directly at odds with the principle of terrorism because it means that some but not all are at risk of running afoul of the system and its leader.
“Under Stalin,” Pastukhov points out, “no one slept peacefully, not Molotov, not Khrushchev, not even Beria himself.” Each of them knew that he could be next. But now there are some in the Russian hierarchy who know that they won’t be – and that limits the effectiveness of terror.
“The Kremlin favorites strive at any price to extend the radius of their untouchability,” exactly the opposite of what those running a terror state want. And the Putin regime of “’administered democracy’ would never have taken shape if society had not been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which arose as a result of the Great Terror,” Pastukhov says.
Because most Russians are still suffering from PTSD, he argues, the amount of terror needed to keep them in line is far lower than would otherwise be the case. But the existence of favorites makes this algorithm less certain than any regime would like and contributes on its own to the degradation of the system.
It appears likely, Pastukhov says, that “the speed of the degradation of the system will not e as high as it seems to those who find signs of a rising political typhoon within society.” The system can extinguish these for a long time and thus maintain the stability which both the rulers and the ruled crave.
“But its effectiveness is not infinite” -- although it may last several years or even “a whole decade,” the London-based analyst says. And that suggests that at some point, there will be only a choice between “two extreme scenarios: either total terror or total degradation.” It seems likely that the current campaign against corruption could be the trigger for that choice.
If the regime starts to use a minimal amount of terror given the existence of favorites, it is likely to find that it will have to use ever more terror in order to achieve the same ends and prevent the collapse of the state administration. Indeed, Russia would appear to face a choice between a North Korean approach, which is Stalinist, or a Venezuelan one, which is chaos.
Putin will not have a free hand in either case as the imposition of total terror will lead to new forms of resistance among those who feel they are beyond his reach and the descent into chaos will lead to the rise of others who will demand that order be restored one way or another. But how Russia will develop will depend on his choices in the coming months.
They will put Russia on one of two unattractive paths.