Friday, May 15, 2020

2020, Intended to Be Putin’s Triumph, Becoming Instead His Waterloo, Shevtsova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 13 – This year was supposed to be the Kremlin’s “year of triumph,” one in which the life rule of Vladimir Putin would be confirmed, but instead, Liliya Shevtsova says, 2020 is rapidly becoming his Waterloo, a time at which both he and his system have sailed into disaster.

            All the plans he had only a few months ago must now be “thrown in the trash,” the Russian commentator says. The coronavirus pandemic has proved fatal “not only for the individual but also for his construction which was erected for another time” (

            “The Russian state, directed toward great power status via militarization, expansion and the nuclear fist now looks helpless to defense human life, even the life of its ruling class.” Putin stopped giving orders, leading to chaos and in the process destroying his vertical: “the center won’t take responsibility, and those below cannot take it because they lack the means and will.”

            For the moment, because of the severity of the pandemic, the full consequences of this are not yet seen, Shevtsova suggests. “But what if [the regional elites] don’t want to take the blame for the failure of the center when they are up against a despairing population?” What then? The answers cannot be encouraging to the Kremlin.

            “Autocracy presupposes the unique position of a single leader standing above the people,” she argues. “But the leader must be present, consolidating the nation with courage and conviction about his vision. He loses magnetism and strength when he hides behind the curtain because that is viewed as flight.”

            “All-powerfulness is thereby transformed into powerlessness.”

            Putin’s current format of communicating with the Russian people via video conferences “looks like a caricature.” What it shows is a lonely and isolated old man, afraid of what is going on, and that is not enough to prevent people from asking where is a real leader who will in fact take the lead and take charge.

            Moreover and making the situation still worse for Putin, the Kremlin has walked away from any notion that Russia is “a social state” which “guarantees equality and justify in the distribution of economic benefits.” As a result, “the powers have destroyed the new contract between Putin and society: I give you social guarantees, and you give me lifetime rule.”

            Further weakening Putin and his regime has been the collapse of oil prices given that the Kremlin had relied on them to finance its imperial projects.  Now, there are doubts as to whether with less income, it can even maintain the notion of Russia as “a fortress” standing alone against the rest of the world.

            “The powers need a victory over the coronavirus. Immediately!” Shevtsova continues. “The powers understand that the policy of ‘no work, no money’ will provoke a collapse and an explosion. And from this, springs the decision to declare the epidemic over, when in fact it is still far from its peak.”

            The Kremlin feels compelled to do this because it wants the referendum to take place that will allow Putin to remain in office for life.  But popular anger is such that this effort may fail, and no one in the regime seems yet to have asked the even more profound question Russia will face “then what?”

            The international environment is yet another place where the hopes Putin had for 2020 have turned to dust. The US is no longer a suitable enemy given its own leadership problems. “But where is a new enemy to be found, an enemy which is categorically necessary to us? The Poles and Ukrainians in this role are too small for great power pride.”

            “This vacuum is provoking China to test its muscles. But the Chinese are not Americans.” They take a longer view and they are clearly aware that “sooner of later” the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon won’t be able to live together as Putin had hoped would be the case.

            Last year, Shevtsova says, “Russia was pleased that the world was following along its path and recognizing the values of sovereignty. But the world will defend its sovereignty against Russia as well.  How will Russia deal with that having been deprived of the resources of the developed countries?”

            In this new post-2020 world, Russia has little or no chance to become a magnet for one of the poles in a multi-polar world. There is no guarantee anyone is going to want to be part of that project. Even Belarus is showing that it isn’t interested in playing second fiddle to Moscow, Shevtsova argues.

            Who could have imagined that a disease which began with a bat bite in a Chinese province could bring down such ambitious plans? “Our dreadnought continues to sail. [But] the captain has left the bridge, the command doesn’t inspire trust. [And] it is uncertain where we are sailing to.”

            But one thing is already very clear: “the past isn’t going to return in the near future.”

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