Kicking Putin off the Island

Russia after Putin doesn't need to be Putinist, and driving a wedge between the craven president and his inner circle is the first step.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin has directly or indirectly ruled Russia since New Year’s Day 2000. And, after 14 years in power, there are few signs that he will abdicate his position anytime soon. The Russian president has stated he may seek re-election in 2018, meaning he would rule until 2024 — by which time he will be 72 years old.

No tyranny, however, lasts forever — Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich lasted all of 12 years — and it is in this context that we should view Putin’s rule. His power is not what it once was: The social contract he built with the Russian people in his earlier years — he could do whatever he liked, as long as life improved for many of them — is broken. High rates of economic growth are long gone, and so too is the increasing standard of living that they provided. Russians are becoming restless and, although the opposition movement as a whole is cowed and quiet, opposition candidates have performed well in recent mayoral elections. Putin resorted to invading Ukraine (at least, in part) to boost his falling approval ratings, which are now enviably high.

While many Russia-watchers cannot imagine the country without Putin at the helm, it’s time for Western leaders to start. In confronting a resurgent, revanchist Kremlin, the West must have a clear vision of the ideal post-Putin Russia.

In a lot of ways, Putin was an unlikely president. A little-known figure who had spent most of his career working for the KGB, the Soviet security service, Putin moved to Moscow in 1996 and quickly developed a reputation as a "grey cardinal" — a loyal worker who wielded power quietly, away from the spotlight. He rose through the Kremlin ranks, and in 1998 was appointed head of the FSB, Russia’s secret service. As Yeltsin re-shuffled his government following the 1998 Russian financial crisis, he appointed no fewer than five prime ministers in just over a year, finally settling on Putin. Facing mounting corruption charges and with elections scheduled for the following year, Yeltsin needed a loyal heir. When Yeltsin stepped down on New Year’s Eve 1999, Putin became acting president. His first act was to sign a decree giving Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. The Economist described Putin at the time as "the Great Unknown," but, driven and certain of his own staying power, he ascended without hesitation. He hasn’t looked back since.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has fostered a grotesquely corrupt, illiberal system that constrains democracy, centralizes economic and political power, curtails media freedoms, reins in the judiciary, restricts civil liberties, and treads on human rights. Outside of Russia, the regime carries out extrajudicial murder, engages in the arbitrary use of force, and promotes Moscow’s interests with utter disregard for international norms. 

It wasn’t always this way. 

During the 1990s, Russia had the potential to develop along a liberal-democratic path. The country was a multiparty democracy in which officials were chosen in regular elections; its fledgling economy was based on markets and private property, and its media independent and pluralistic. The Russian military withdrew peacefully from Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states, pursued cooperation with the West on nuclear disarmament, and accepted the expansion of NATO. To be sure, serious issues remained (not the least of which, its underdeveloped legal system and the pervasive nature of organized crime), but the country was headed in a promising direction. U.S. President Bill Clinton described this period as "a time of real possibility and opportunity." 

Nowhere is Putin’s impact on Russia as visible as in the country’s political sphere. In the 1999 parliamentary elections — the last before Putin took power — no fewer than 32 political parties and 1,143 independent candidates participated. While the large number of parties reflects the slow process of party consolidation after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was genuine choice for the electorate; this translated into real political debate and a diversity of legislative initiatives. In the most recent parliamentary elections, in 2011, just seven political parties took part, and no independents. These parties are accused by critics of being part of the "systemic opposition" — parties that exist only with Kremlin approval.

Soon after Putin assumed the presidency in March 2000, he assembled an inner circle of individuals that would assist him in building a "new" Russia. Although the faces have changed over the past 14 years, many remain the same. Putin’s inner circle consists of two groups of people; some have links to Putin going back to the 1990s during his time in St. Petersburg, others go back even further — to his days in the KGB and even his childhood.

First, there are the so-called "Putin oligarchs," or individuals who have amassed wealth and power because of their closeness to Putin. They include: Yuri Kovalchuk, a leading shareholder in Bank Rossiya; Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, leading construction contractors to the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom; and Gennady Timchenko, head of the Gunvor oil trading firm. Second, there are members of the siloviki, or hardline ex-secret servicemen, including: Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of Putin’s staff; and Viktor Ivanov, a former deputy head of the Kremlin administration. It is a cohort of individuals who control key sectors of Russia’s kleptocratic economy and its brutal security services, but who’ve already felt the heat of Western sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine — something Putin has called a "violation of human rights." By targeting these individuals, the West is driving a wedge between Putin and his closest allies. But it can do more to weaken his standing.

Sanctions should become the status quo, and they should go further than visa bans and asset freezes, to include asset seizures. Given the choice between siding with Putin and protecting some of their vast wealth stored in Western capitals and financial centers, enough of them will go with the latter. The friction and resentment that this creates will demonstrate the growing fissures within the Kremlin — over what is needed to improve Russia’s economy, what direction the country is headed, and whether international isolation is sensible — and may even lead to Russia’s elite deciding the country needs new leadership. This would make clear to the next generation of politicians, policymakers, and businessmen that being associated with Putin and his system comes with a price.

If the West is going to uproot Putin, it must remember that past successes employed more subtle strategic campaigns. The West may have won the Cold War because of the superiority of capitalism over Soviet communism, but one of the most subversive — and effective acts it undertook was to offer visas to Soviet students as part of "cultural exchange" programs. In doing so, the students were exposed to the West’s democratic and liberal values and took these back to germinate in the Motherland. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin reformist policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") took hold, Soviet citizens were equipped to take advantage. In the words of one U.S. foreign service officer involved in these programs, those citizens of the Evil Empire "came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same."

Now, once again, Western countries should liberalize their visa regimes with Russia, rather than follow the European Union’s lead in freezing talks on a visa-free regime. This will make it easier for the next generation of Russian decision-makers to expose themselves to liberal-democratic values and, as a result, they will be far better prepared when Putin leaves power.

Offering cultural exchanges may seem like a long-term program, but in the short-term the West could pay more attention to countering Putin’s increasingly anti-Western propaganda in Russia. Across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcasts were an important alternative to the Kremlin’s lies. Now, the West must revive this Cold War thinking by providing money, expertise, technology, and support for Russian-language broadcasting in Russia. This would meet Putin’s propaganda head-on, and begin to drive out bad information with good. It would send a clear message that the West is not going to give up on Russia just yet.

It is not possible to turn the clock back to a pre-Putin era, but that doesn’t mean the West should consign Russia to the dustbin of history. Despite what Kremlinologists might claim, it is not inevitable that a post-Putin Russia will be Putinist. Although they are embattled and less prominent than they used to be, there are still liberals in Russia. Even the Soviet Union’s Politburo was not as monolithic as many assumed. Whether the end of Putin’s rule is evolutionary or revolutionary, the West must be clear about how it hopes to see Russia develop; it must be willing to put long-term strategic objectives over short-term economic interests. 

A Russia without Putin is cloaked in uncertainty, and there is no guarantee it would be any more democratic or liberal — when anti-Putin protests broke out in Russia, they had more to do with rejecting Putin than rejecting his take-no-prisoners style of leadership. But the West should help guide a post-Putin Russia for the sake of the Russian people, Eastern Europe, and the world as a whole. Western governments should engage in dialogue with NGOs and civil society, supporting those battling corruption and promoting human rights. They ought to speak to Russian liberals and those members of the Russian opposition committed to democracy and liberalism.

Putin might be flexing his military muscles in Ukraine and demonstrating his steely indifference to threats from the West, but in the end it is the West, and not Putin, who could ultimately determine Russia’s future.

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