Staunton, March 15 – Vladimir Putin is moving Russia ever more rapidly toward a state resembling something between China now and the USSR under Stalin, Vladimir Pastukhov says, the result of a variety of factors that are likely to come to a head between 2024 and 2030 and lead either to a new totalitarianism, a possible liberalization or collapse and disintegration.
In a programmatic interview given to Valentin Baryshnikov of Radio Liberty, the London-based Russian analyst says that his own prediction in 2012 that Putin “must become Stalin” in order to survive remains unchanged, but that “the movement along that trajectory has only accelerated” (svoboda.org/a/31150423.html).
“We have passed into a new state where new evil is being created on a daily basis,” Pastukhov says. That can’t continue without some radical shift, something he believes will happen sometime “between 2024-25 and 2030,” with regime policies and events prompting the Kremlin to move in ways that will make change then even more radical one way or another.
When one speaks of Putin becoming Stalin, he continues, that means that the Kremlin leader will shift from targeted repression against individuals to broadscale repression against entire social categories. Stalin did that to the peasantry but Putin may do it to the educated class, cutting it off from the world by erecting a Chinese-style firewall in the Internet.
Moves in that way cut two ways, Pastukhov suggests. On the one hand, they give the regime greater ability to control society; but on the other, if successful, they will give young people “a new reason not to like the regime” and to think about how to challenge and change it to something else.
What matters profoundly in the coming years, he continues, is in the first instance the ability of the Kremlin to satisfy the basic material needs of the population. As long as it is able to do that, it will not face a revolutionary situation. People don’t go to the barricades for abstract ideas, Pastukhov suggests, but because their immediate needs aren’t being met.
Putin’s support has rested on his ability to improve the lives of Russians. If he ceases to be able to as appears now likely, he will face new problems not only in the population but in the elites around him. And if he erects a new iron curtain, the difference between “’here’ and ‘there’” will grow and become “a basic revolutionizing factor.”
According to the London analyst, Putin isn’t going to turn in a liberal direction. That chance was lost “long ago.” But at the same time, he says he “does not believe that the mechanism of rule established by Putin is something which can be handed down as an inheritance.”
Putin’s exit from power thus is “practically a sentence on the existing regime,” and those in both the elites around the Kremlin leader and population generally will be thinking about what that development means for them and how they might influence it in ways that would work to their advantage, Pastukhov argues.
The threat of destabilization that such reflects cause will prompt Putin to move in an ever more authoritarian direction, one that will leave Russia in a state somewhere between that of China today and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But that won’t be the end of the story because such a development is likely to breed its own nemeses.
The most important of these is not going to be the much-speculated-upon “division among elites.” That is an unfortunate term, Pastukhov says, because it suggests there are two or three parties contesting with each other and distracts attention from the fact that all members of the elites around Putin dislike all others in their personal pursuit of self-interest.
Putin’s entourage is united by fear of what will happen when Putin leaves the scene, but its members are very much at odds if not in collectivities then as individuals as to what is the best option. That could lead some to coalesce around a plan to be even more totalitarian, and others to seek some kind of legal state to protect themselves.
Such reflections could lead to unexpected alliances and developments just as they did after Stalin died in 1953, Pastukhov argues. Then a new consensus may emerge among these elites, a consensus based on fear of threats from other members of the elites or the population to their position.
The more insecure members of the Putin entourage feel about their personal futures, the sooner they are likely to form this new consensus, although it is far from clear which direction they will move. At present, Putin is increasing the insecurity of these people; and thus they are certainly considering what they should do to ensure their own safety.
Such fears within the elites are likely to be exacerbated in the second half of this decade because there will be “a new destabilization throughout the world” as a result of significant elections in major countries and a generational change there, Pastukhov says. The unity Putin achieved by overcoming the 1990s will disappear almost completely.
The analyst says that “the 1990s were years in which the state was lacking. Putin came to power in large measure on the basis of a recognition that one must not live without a state. People expected that he would restore the state; and let us be honest, he has done so. That it has turned out to be a bandit state is another issue.”
Eventually, Russians “recognized that the decentralized banditism [of the 1990s] had been replaced by a centralized one.” But the country was pleased with that and it was also pleased that Putin restored “a certain imperial self-respect” and did not allow the Versailles syndrome to affect Russia the way many feared.
“What will happen now?” Pastukhov asks rhetorically. The possibility for a positive course of development “has practically exhausted itself.” The system is rapidly degrading, and worse in terms of stability, “the level of hatred among the main functionaries of the Putin regime toward one another exceeds their common hatred toward the opposition.”
“These internal conflicts will become institutionalized, and then they will go beyond the limits of the vertical,” he suggests. Indeed, “at a certain stage shooting will begin, the very same archaic arrangements restoring the system out of which the Putin one emerged.
There is “another factor” at work as well: Chechnya. Putin defeated its drive to independence, “but today [that republic] which as it were was suppressed by Putin is in fact the victor as measured by the place and role which is now plays in Russia.” Moscow doesn’t control it and it is increasingly aggressive toward its neighbors.
At present, Putin is holding everywhere else in his fist, but “if that fist weakens, the country will fall into a hundred micro-copies of the existing regime.” That risk, already on view in Chechnya, is, Pastukhov says, “the greatest threat which I see for Russia” in the next decade or so.
And yet an additional factor is Aleksey Navalny. By returning, the analyst argues, the opposition leader forced the Putin regime to move more quickly in the direction of repression than it had intended. One can even say that Navalny, although now in a labor camp, has become “the catalyst of the crisis.”
One thing that is very unlikely to happen in Russia in the coming years, Pastukhov says, is a revolution of a Maidan type. “We must not forget that Russia, was, is, and certainly for centuries will continue to remain an empire,” something rooted in its culture and a set of views that make Maidans virtually impossible.
All the ones that have happened took place in “former colonies and satellites” where movements from change could draw on both social aspirations and the desire to escape out from under an imperial system. Russia “a priori” doesn’t have that opportunity because the two desires can’t reinforce one another as they do elsewhere.
What could happen as in fact it did a century ago is a real revolution sparked by defeat in a war, something that led to the overthrow of the Romanovs and the rise of Bolshevism and that could have similarly radical consequences if Moscow were to enter a real war against Turkey or against the West.
Such a move might be natural for Putin and those around him, but almost any of them would involve “difficult and unpredictable” consequences that would likely lead the country again to the bottom. “As a realist, Pastukhov concludes, “I am forced to consider this scenario” given that it could happen, no matter how disastrous it might appear to the sober-minded.