Putin's patriotism and paranoia will be Russia's undoing

Whether through improvisation, opportunism, fear or calculation, 2014 has seen a massive shift in the way political authority works in Russia. Moscow has moved dramatically away from a legal-rational way of doing politics to a charismatic, belligerent style.

Stirring his citizens up with nationalistic sentiments, Vladimir Putin has increasingly mobilised Russians around a negative agenda centred on resentment against Russia’s diminished status, a return to empire, and cultural loathing of pluralistic, open societies.

Putin celebrated the return of Crimea to Russia in terms of righting historical injustice, and as the restoration of “historical Russian lands”. The themes of defending the Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”) and sustaining Novorossiya soon followed – with ominous signs that more expansionism could be in the offing.

In August, Putin remarked that Kazakhstan premier Nursultanov Nazarbayev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state” and that an “overwhelming majority of Kazakhstan’s citizens seek the development of relations with Russia, we see it and know it.” And in a less reported incident in October, deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin put it this way: “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”

All this has meant a radicalisation of Russian foreign and security policy, which is becoming more virulently anti-Western than at any time in living memory – in turn, it has sparked a radical rethink of the way the West engages with Russia. But why has Russia chosen to go down this road?

Of course, one explanation for this new belligerence is the Putin government’s peculiar view of itself as being on the right side of history, as opposed to the West, which it sees as as decadent, dysfunctional, and swimming against the tide. But other things are fuelling Russia’s rough behaviour besides.

Fire them up

This new nationalist grandstanding is the work of a pressurised political elite keen to recoup political ground it lost in the 2000s. The oil-backed, import-dependent, “soft authoritarian” government of Dimitri Medvedev neither met rising middle-class aspirations nor gave the existing oligarchic elite what it wanted.

Russia spent the 2000s turning itself into a thoroughly corporatist and nationalist state. Its political culture is now characterised by a highly politicised and selective application of the rule of law, a corrupt bureaucracy, and a party system defined by patronage and personal ties to the president. The “No Putin, no Russia” mantra certainly reflects the reality of Russian politics, but not quite in the way it’s meant to.

Equally, imperial “restoration”, and the much “harder” authoritarian governance system that goes with it, only make sense in a time of economic contraction and in a manufactured state of semi-permanent war.

This climate of perpetual struggle has forced the creation of a whole new national strategy. In the face of biting sanctions, food production is stimulated, Gazprom’s pivot to Asian energy markets accelerated, and internal dissent crushed. An attack on Putin is now an attack on Russia.

The country has also become a full-blown “securitocracy”. Though Putin assumed power in 2000 through a non-charismatic route – he was selected from within the system – he is now a charismatic leader with a national mission, the only individual able to protect and safeguard a patriotic electorate.

His job is to defend the integrity of the nation against “national traitors”, “foreign agents”, “fifth columnists and "sixth columnists” – never mind external threats from “fascists”, “colour revolutions”, “encirclement”, and so on.

Russia’s elite is cynical, dynastic, absurdly rich (110 individuals control 35% of Russian GDP), and pragmatic. It supports the shift to this harsh, charismatic politics as a defence of the status quo. Were the corporatist nationalist state to be reformed, power continuity would not be possible.

Fight back

Germany, the US and other leading players are currently rethinking policy responses to Russia. In the short term, maintaining NATO solidarity is critical – and paradoxically, Russia’s livid accusations of NATO plotting have helped galvanise the alliance against it.

After listening to endless screeds about how Western EU and NATO member states are backing a fascist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi regime in Kiev and training mercenaries to kill civilians in the east – where Russian forces of course have never operated – even usually pro-Russian NATO members are aghast, and willing to countenance a co-ordinated pushback.

That said, NATO still needs a comprehensive reform of its security apparatus if it is to seriously counter any future moves along these lines. Russia will continue to test the alliance’s operational capacity in the Baltic region, and it will very probably use the threat of escalation there to distract from advances on Kharkiv and Mariupol.

Of course, Russia’s goal is not to capture Baltic territory, but to reverse what it sees as dangerous and destabilising democratisation on its borders.

Meanwhile, the EU will review energy policy towards Russia, and as the US becomes more energy independent and begins to export liquefied natural gas to Europe, any shift from Gazprom will be decisive for Russia’s income and so its foreign policy.

Over the longer term, countering the claims Russia uses to justify interventions in Ukraine will demand a serious diplomatic counter-offensive. Russian-language broadcasting to Russia and its neighbours and countering the influence of Russia’s external propaganda, in particular, could prove effective.

Running out of time

Russia’s window of opportunity is closing. Putin’s critique of the global system is certainly a powerful one, but no plausible alternative to the liberal capitalist democratic network the US leads has been proposed.

The BRICS, the putative “opposition” to that order, are mismatched and divided. Even as Russia’s notional strategic allies, the other BRICS view events in Ukraine as a regional squabble, not a new East-West rift or second Cold War. China in particular is determined to have its own relationship with the US without Russia as a mediator or third party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s cash reserves fund is set to run out in 18 months, even sooner if oil prices keep falling. It faces a full-blown currency crisis, with the rouble having devalued 25% since June; shrinking investor confidence and the West’s sanctions are biting hard.

Internal domestic support is fickle. Euphoria is hard to maintain. Loyal elites, including those running Russia’s most lucrative industries, may baulk at the threatening logic of “no Putin, no Russia”.

Above all, more worrying than what happens if Putin succeeds is the prospect of what will happen if he fails. Ultimately, the challenge is to craft a response that positively channels Russia’s power and patriotism without reinforcing Putin’s paranoia. That will be easier said than done.

The Conversation

Graeme Herd does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Professor Graeme P. Herd is founding Director of the School of Government and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Business, Plymouth University, which he joined in September 2013. The School of Government has four degree programmes – Politics, International Relations, Public Services and Sociology – with 443 undergraduate and postgraduate students and approximately 32 Faculty.

From 2005-2013 Professor Herd was an international faculty member at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), where he served as Co-Director of its International Training Course in Security Policy and Master of Advanced Studies, accredited by the University of Geneva. Before moving to the GCSP in 2005, he was appointed Professor of Civil-Military Relations at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (2002-2005) and a non-resident Associate Fellow of the International Security Programme, Chatham House (2004-2007). Prior to this he was Lecturer in International Relations at both the University of Aberdeen (1997-2002), where he was Deputy Director of the Scottish Centre for International Security (formerly Centre for Defence Studies) and Staffordshire University (1994-97) and a Projects Officer, Department of War Studies, King's College London (1993-94). During his doctoral studies on seventeenth century Russian military and diplomatic history he studied at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow (1991-1992) as a British Council Scholar.

His own teaching and research interests have focused on diverse aspects of Russian foreign and security policy and Great Power relations. During his 21-year academic career he has written or edited nine books, written over 70 academic papers and has given over 100 academic and policy-related presentations in 46 countries. Recent major publications include: Graeme P. Herd and John Kriendler (eds.), Understanding NATO in the 21st Century: Alliance Strategies, Security and Global Governance. (London and New York: Routlege, 2013), pp. 256; Nayef Al-Rodhan, Graeme P. Herd and Lisa Watanabe, Critical Turning Points in the Middle East, 1915-2015. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, pp. 272; Graeme P. Herd (ed.), Great Powers and Strategic Stability in the 21st Century: Competing Visions of World Order. London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 256; Paul Dukes, Graeme P. Herd, and Jarmo Kotilaine. Stuarts and Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Special Relationship. Dundee: Dundee University Press, 2009, pp. 262; Anne Aldis and Graeme P. Herd (eds.). The Ideological War on Terror: Worldwide Strategies for Counter-Terrorism. London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 285; Tuomas Forsberg and Graeme P. Herd. Divided West: European Security and the Transatlantic Relationship. Chatham House papers. Oxford: Chatham House, 2006, pp. 186.


Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 22.06.2018
It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now. Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
Added 20.06.2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Added 19.06.2018

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Added 12.06.2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Added 11.06.2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Added 08.06.2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Added 07.06.2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Added 05.06.2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Added 04.06.2018

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
Added 30.05.2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
Added 30.05.2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
Added 29.05.2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
Added 28.05.2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.