Saturday, December 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: To Keep Power, Putin May See No Option But Another War, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 21 – Vladimir Putin is running out of options to maintain his power and consequently is likely to launch another war, if not in Ukraine then in some other former Soviet republic farther away from Europe and further from Western attention, according to a Moscow commentator.

            In a column on, Nikolay Klimenyuk says that Putin’s decision to offer 15 billion US dollars to Ukraine despite the risky nature of Ukrainian bonds has called attention to the fact that “bribery and compulsion have been the main instruments in the management arsenal of Putin from the very beginning of his administration”  (

            Putin’s use of these tools, Klimenyuk says, have passed through three phases.  The first one, that of “’distribution,’” lasted as long as high prices for oil and gas allowed him to satisfy the population.  Such transfers became “the source of the popularity of Putin and the foundation of his power.”

            His use of force in this period could be and was carefully targeted against selected members of the elite and in Chechnya, but Putin did not use it more broadly against the population because he didn’t need to, although even then he showed that he would not be hesitant about doing so whenever a need should arise.

            At the same time, the commentator says, Putin “never” had an interest in promoting economic diversity which might have helped Russia whether price change shocks for commodities. Instead, he relied on oil and gas revenues to enrich himself and his circle and to administer the country.

            The second phase, of “preservation,” began as growth slowed and then stopped after 2008, a development that collided with the revolution of rising expectations that Putin’s earlier largesse had triggered.  He sought to compensate for this development with easier credit, something that delayed but would not prevent a decline in Russians’ quality of life.

            In the face of this development, Putin relied ever more heavily on the force structures and boosted spending on them, while cutting funds for infrastructure and social services.  In the case of Chechnya, where force didn’t work, the Kremlin leader sought a way out byproviding everore money.

            Within the Russian Federation during this stage, Klimenyuk says, “political life was completely destroyed both within official institutions and in the informal sphere,” although much of the media, with the exception of television, remained relatively free. The Kremlin increased “patriotic rhetoric and even revived the Brezhnev-era cult of the Great Fatherland War.”

            The third phase, of “taking away” what had been given earlier, is the one Russia is in now, according to Klimenyuk.  Because the state no longer has enough money to pay its defenders what they want, because the people are dissatisfied and because the prospects for new incomes are less, Putin is “taking away” many things people had gotten used to.

            These “confiscatory” measures can be seen both at the macro and the micro level, he suggests, and involve everything from taking money out of pension funds to increasing burdens on the population by fines, taxes, and paid parking. And the regime is defending itself by increasing the use of force and engaging in show trials.

                “The government has tightened control over information (from direct censorship of themedia to laws about ‘the defense of children from harmful information’) and openly, if very clumsily, trying to introduce a state ideology” with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, a single history textbook, and the promotion of the idea of the “sacredness” of state power.

            Klimenyuk notes that “for the first time after the demise of the USSR, the government is trying to directly control the personal life of citizens.”  But because of stagnating or falling incomes, it is meeting with more resistance to its campaigns. “At a certain point,” such campaigns just like money “will cease to be effective.”

            To counter that, he continues, Putin’s regime has to keep raising the propaganda bar and find or invent new enemies against which the Russia people need to struggle.  “The potential of internal enemies (migrants, liberals, the ‘creative class,’ homosexuals) is still not exhausted,” Klimenyuk says. “But external enemies are always more effective.”

            Since the August 2008 war with Georgia, Putin has changed his approach in foreign affairs in a fundamental way.  Money and energy are “no longer” his “main instruments,” even if he continues to use them.  Instead, the Kremlin leader “is ready to apply crude force even abroad.”

            Putin’s monetary assistance to Ukraine at best will have only a short-term effect. Then, “the money won’t help” keep Ukraine from turning to Europe.  The only thing left to the Russian president would be the introduction of troops into Ukraine.

            At present, “when the popularity of Putin is secured only by propaganda, when there is ever less money, and hen the main instrument of administration has become the direct application of force, war is the most logical measure for strengthening power,” according to Klimenyuk.

            European attention and Ukraine’s size and nationalism may be enough to keep Putin from using force there, the Moscow commentator says.  But that only makes his use of force somewhere else around the periphery of the Russian Federation but “further from Europe” more likely as he seeks to retain power at a time when his other options appear foreclosed.

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