What has happened to Russia?

During the late 1980’s and the 1990’s we observed a Russia that was organised haphazardly during its transition from the Soviet Union, but at least seemed a friendly bear, open to development and new ideas, an active and able people, open to the world, in principle ready to be a responsible member of the global community of nations.

This has changed. President Putin stated in 2005, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe. We have been warned since 2006 by insiders, such as Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB officer, assassinated (almost certainly) by the Kremlin, of a revived, aggressive, imperialistic, oppressive Russia, transformed back into such by President Vladimir Putin. Since 2014 we have seen clear evidence of this on the ground in the Ukraine with military action, culminating horribly this spring. The language and messages coming from Russian leadership give us this same picture, and no sign of abatement.

Vladimir Putin is not alone. He is loyal to his alma mater, the KGB, and it is loyal to him. Many of his closest associates have a similar biography.

The culture of the KGB/FSB has one factor that distinguishes it from Western secret services. It has always had the function of suppressing dissidence at home. This is what makes Russia a very dubious democracy. With this ethos, the FSB can never be benevolent to the Russian people.

It can be a tricky line to draw, between contrary opinion and treasonable subversion. The West draws it based on action. If an act is made or prepared which is treasonable subversion, then persons contributing to that act are culpable and sanctionable. One can extend this to incitement to such acts.

But without the act, in deed or concept, contrarian speech and thought is not sanctionable in the West. In Russia it is. And Russia has arguably the most powerful and nasty tool to deal with it.

When Boris Yeltsin and Boris Berezovsky selected Vladimir Putin as candidate for the position of President, they obviously failed to consider this fact: that the FSB’s basic culture and operational ethos was still firmly rooted in the Stalinist period, albeit with highly professional use of modern tools.

Russia, under the leadership of a Mikhail Gorbachev, would be able to develop into a powerful economic and geopolitical force. It has a wealth of mineral riches, an industrial base ready for modernisation, a very capable commercial elite, and a highly skilled diplomatic service.

But to do that the oppressive tool that is today’s FSB would need to be changed. Its omni-presence and ancient suppressive philosophy block economic and social progress, and now it has taken Russia down an economically wasteful and brutal path of bellicose imperialistic domination at which it cannot succeed. Russia is not more powerful than the US or China and would lose a war against either.

Quo vadis? Any changes in Russia must be internal.  Three most obvious scenarios are already well-known

  1. Vladimir Putin stays in power until 2036. Constitutionally possible, if no internal political pressures push him out, quite likely. The author considers this 80% so.
  2. Internal political pressures from the ruling elite force him to stand down. Given that he has made every effort to disempower any prospective alternative candidates, much less likely. Actions are underway to remove from office those responsible for the Russian Army’s weak performance in Ukraine. This will strengthen the President’s internal position further. The author considers this 20% likely.
  3. President Putin relents and invites Alexei Navalny to form a Government, due to popular pressure. The author considers this 0% likely. The FSB has the situation under control.

There are analysts and commentators who consider the likelihood of scenario 2 in the current situation to be far greater. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former owner of Jukos, the Russian oil company, gives President Putin’s leadership another 2-5 years, thanks to his failure to achieve stated objectives in Ukraine. They judge the motivation and ability of political and secret service players to organise Vladimir Putin’s departure to be greater than his ability to keep control of the secret services and army apparatus.

This tension is real and has determined many political outcomes in Russia through the centuries. Peter the Great created his own guard regiments with this in mind.  Still today the retention or transfer of power in Russia can be bloody and conspiratorial.

For the West firm push-back is surely the best plan. NATO’s united stance has surprised commentators and some NATO members themselves.  President Joe Biden has led a solid push-back, including economic sanctions. There is considerable aid going to Ukraine. There is spontaneous engagement and solidarity from Western citizens. Sadly, horrible war crimes are happening. Western institutions are building the legal case against the perpetrators. NATO members have confirmed full mutual support under Article 5 in case NATO territory is infringed, and have increased troops close to Russia’s borders to underline this.

The general situation and the new imperialistic Russia do not look likely to change of their own accord. Vladimir Putin has said he will prepare for a “bigger war”. Even if President Putin did cease to be President, we cannot assume that a new leadership would change course. The former President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite is saying “listen to the Russians, they are telling us what they will do”. Let’s increase the push-back while listening carefully. and prepare ourselves also.

 

Janis Folkmanis, former Advisor to the President of Latvia,

Brussels, 27 April 2022