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Bread and circuses: Putin’s Russia in the next six years

3 April, 2018

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

On 1 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address before hundreds of top officials and lawmakers in Moscow. Although clearly a campaign speech ahead of the elections he won less than three weeks later, the address provides an important insight into what the next six years of Putin’s leadership mean for both Russia and the world. Hidden between the lines of domestic propaganda and international assertiveness, the image of the present-day Kremlin can be distinguished – and it is one shaped by illusions, insecurities, and the same fantasy employed by Russian leaders in times of need throughout the decades.

In a pre-elections speech reminiscent of those delivered by Soviet leaders in the Cold War era, Vladimir Putin covered all grounds to distract attention internally and create a military fantasy externally. With no sign of a political platform and two distinct audiences in mind, every successful manoeuvre of Putin’s past eighteen years in power was exploited to its fullest potential. Throughout the state of the nation address, Russia is portrayed as a great power with a strong military capability, and one of the most important players on the world stage. The Russians themselves are described as one of the greatest people in the world, and every one of Putin’s actions is merely the means to the goal of ensuring their survival.

On the domestic side, Putin ensured that he presented himself as fully aware of all social and economic problems, and the best man for the job of solving them. The Russian leader not only understands Russian mentality perfectly – he is the one who ensured it suffered very little change over his close to two decades in power. He knows exactly which buttons to push, that it is the middle class who is most dissatisfied with him, and that Russians respond most positively to talk of their country as a world leader. As a result, his speech suggests that, domestically at least, Putin is likely to keep in line with the strategy that made him popular with Russians in the first place.

The social and political chaos that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, coupled with almost a decade of weakness and even ridicule on the world stage, were the main factors that paved the way to Putin’s emergence as leader of the Russian Federation at the beginning of the 2000s. His continuous popularity has been to no small degree determined by a complete overhaul of Russia’s international image during his time in power –  many Russians have not forgotten the humiliation of the period that preceded his accession to office, and they are unwilling to see it returned.

The sheer scale of the modernisation and development proposed in the speech, however, is beyond regular political campaign promises. Wage increases, investment in education, healthcare and infrastructure, poverty reduction and more employment opportunities all feature as priorities, alongside a military build-up that will require significant amounts of capital. These are ambitious plans at the best of financial times – but with an economy that is stagnating, two military interventions that are taking their toll, and sanctions that are likely to be extended, they are an outright delusion.

As Russia’s budget cannot stretch to both domestic reforms and modernising the strategic arsenal, the preference for the military needed to be justified. With an emphasis on the importance of defence, investment in the military is portrayed as a necessity, not a desire. To convince Russians of this, the United States’ actions in the military and defence sphere are presented as wanting to dominate and impose its point of view, and dictate on every decision. Russia, on the other hand, is presented as conciliatory and open to dialogue, but forced to fight back and maintain its independence in the decision-making process.

It has been evident for years that Putin is employing a strategy that has served leaders, authoritarian or otherwise, very well throughout history: he is presenting a manufactured scenario in which the threat of destruction is not only real but imminent, and the country must do everything in its power to prevent it. The easiest way for a leader to boost their approval ratings is to appear to be solving a crisis – and when none suitable presents itself, one can always be created.

The second part of Putin’s speech, then, can be seen as targeting both his internal but even more so his external audience. Flexing Russia’s military muscles by showing videos that allege top-of-the-line weapons was meant to both impress his domestic audience and serve as a warning to his international one. When looked at out of context, the Russian leader’s state of the nation address is similar to that of a wartime president ready to defend his country from an enemy who is likely to attack at any given moment, but also one already thinking of how that same country will be rebuilt once the war is over.

Every element, from the campaign through to the elections and all the way to his plans for the future, is a well-crafted illusion – there is no war, no enemy, and no financial strategy that would allow the country to rebuild itself on its own. Unlike many other authoritarian leaders throughout history, however, Putin is fully aware that it is all fabricated – which makes him even more dangerous. Moreover, despite his seeming unpredictability, all decisions have been thoroughly examined, and all benefits and costs calculated well in advance.

That Putin was re-elected came as no surprise both internally and externally, as the elections themselves were designed in such a way that this was the only possible outcome. The list of voting irregularities was impressive, with ballot stuffing, votes from deceased persons, coercion by employers and multiple vote-casting as only some of the ones highlighted by the limited monitoring allowed by the Kremlin. The eight candidates that ran against him also did a good job of creating the impression that Russians can choose who they vote for from representatives that cover the full political spectrum, while at the same time being the least likely options to gather enough votes and pose a real threat to the existing leadership. The fact that he did not allow any real opposition during the elections, however, suggests that he does not consider himself as untouchable as he likes to appear. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the self-proclaimed number one opponent of Putin, was not even allowed to run, which shows that Putin does have something to fear.

That a tough stance in relation to Russia is appropriate goes without saying – with the annexation of Crimea and the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, it is clear that the Kremlin’s actions have become bolder and more public in recent years. The attempted killing of the Skripals, however, if indeed Moscow sponsored, is clearly a provocation rather than an act of war. The goal is to attract attention, but also to instil fear. As such, a muted response to his re-election, the so-called lethal defensive aid to Ukraine, and the down-playing of Russia’s military capabilities are all steps in the right direction – and coupling them with cooperation, where possible and suitable, is the best way forward.

In relation to the latter, it is important to note that a call for young people, scientists and researchers from abroad to begin a life in Russia is re-iterated in the state of the nation address. This, along with an increasingly valuable access to the West’s technology and innovations, can be very useful bargaining chips – and the war in Syria and terrorism could serve as good dialogue points.

Another six years in power are likely to take their toll on his internal popularity, therefore attacks from the West would allow Putin to play the patriotic card with considerable success. International scandals also serve to distract attention from domestic issues that will most likely go on unsolved, and nothing makes him stronger than the opportunity to portray Russia as the victim of the international world. As such, an over-response to his action must be avoided at all costs, and the West is better served focusing on maintaining and even improving its relationships with the countries Moscow in which continues to have an interest. Strengthening ties with present and future members of European organisations that were once part of Moscow’s sphere of influence serves as a better blow than any diplomatic scandal – and a weakening of Russia’s international standing is more likely to have the desired effects.

Furthermore, just like Putin has used the paradigm that everything is Russia’s fault to its fullest potential and created a political narrative in which Moscow is the victim and everything is the West’s fault, the West needs to use his political games against him. The next six years are unlikely to bring economic growth and an overall improvement of life in Russia, and Putin is aware of this. The only option, then, is for him to turn this mandate into continuing the fight against external threats that are certain to destroy the country if not countered, and ensure his legacy is at least that of protector of the motherland. This is a weakness in his leadership that can be used to the West’s advantage – and the best way to do this is by eliminating the Kremlin’s opportunities to distract attention.

Despite virtually no sign of a clear political platform in Putin’s speech, Russia’s next six years have been carefully planned. They include a focus on a military build-up reminiscent of the Cold War era, a domestic rhetoric reminiscent of Putin’s coming to power, and a foreign policy reminiscent of wartime aggressiveness. As such, if stability is to be ensured in the next six years, there needs to be a better understanding and countering of Putin’s political games on the part of the West, but also an attempt at cooperation. A tough stance is appropriate, but alienating Russia further will only make him stronger as a leader. Most of all, what needs to always be kept in mind is that Putin has complete control over Russian politics – it could very well be a matter of personal choice if this is his last term in power or not.

Image source: Kremlin.ru via CC BY-4.0

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.