The degradation of democracy in the Russian Federation is a continuous process in recent years, accelerated especially after Vladimir Putin managed to change the Constitution in early 2020, in order to remain in power until 2024. The image has been created, that the current political regime cannot survive without Putin, but also that Putin cannot survive his own political regime. The peaceful transfer of power after 2024 has become less and less likely, but not impossible. Will we witness a transfer of power within power on the Yeltsin-Putin model? Or maybe not? Would it be possible for a free transfer of power to take place? This is the question that worries Putin the most today. Especially after the Kremlin has seen how strong the effect of an election was – in the case of Belarus, where the ruling authoritarian leader is in danger of being replaced following an election and massive opposition protests.
Vladimir Putin leads an authoritarian regime, holds full power in the Russian Federation, has full executive and legislative power. He is afraid of only one person: Alexei Navalny. The leader of the Russian opposition was poisoned, then after he returned to the Russian Federation, he was quickly tried and detained in a maximum-security prison. His party was declared extremist by the authorities, but managed to get good results in the local elections. About his supporters, who took to the streets in impressive numbers, it was said that they represent foreign interests.
What worries Putin today is the strategy of Navalny’s supporters: as his party will most likely not run in the next elections, they have been instructed to vote for the best-placed party to defeat the state party dominated by Vladimir Putin. Why is Vladimir Putin afraid of a person who, despite all the deprivations to which he is subjected, continues the political confrontation? If the entire state apparatus is mobilized against a single man, the consequences are not clear: it means that the entire political regime can collapse suddenly, by implosion, or it can stay in power in the long run despite all objections.
Whenever an undemocratic regime desires popular support, not being sure it has it, it provokes external aggression. There are countless examples of conflicts in history, which began because a leader needed even greater legitimacy, and once the conflict started, it generated the annihilation of any internal opposition. In difficult times, most citizens gather around a single flag.
However, Vladimir Putin knows that, following the stimulation of an external conflict, a change of political regime will inevitably follow. Perhaps the best example is the war between Argentina and Britain, which began with the occupation of the Falkland Islands as a gesture of survival of the ruling military junta. The conflict generated “the grouping around the flag”, but in the long run, the defeat had as a consequence the compromise of the military in power and the opening to democracy. So did Franco, Salazar, the Greek colonists. If it had not triggered external conflicts, the wave of democratization would have come earlier. Once triggered, these conflicts eventually led to democratization, but with a delayed effect.
Due to this history lesson, Vladimir Putin knows that once a large-scale aggression begins in Ukraine, citizens will gather around him, but a possible military defeat will lead to democratization after his disappearance from the political scene. In order to stay in power and for Russian citizens to forget about Navalny, Putin threatens Ukraine, knowing that the propaganda about this country, promoted by the media strictly controlled by the Kremlin, has fulfilled its effect: in the Russian Federation it is believed that Ukraine is a state dominated by extremist, fascist parties, eager to join NATO only to provoke an aggression against its greatest neighbour. This is the motivation behind the massing of 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine, a country that has been deprived of a region (Crimea), and with regions that it de facto no longer controls, all power belonging to pro-Russian separatists (Donbas). The Kremlin’s propaganda, which began in 2014 and has continued regularly to date, claims that the Ukrainian authorities have provoked and are perpetrating a genocide against the Russian population in Donbas. In the meantime, the Russian Federation has issued more than 200,000 passports to those living in the region, in order to have a forceful intervention at any time. To achieve the autonomy of the regions held by the separatists, Putin uses a wide range of tools, from diplomatic to military, such as the constant threat of blocking the Kerch Strait.
Ukraine is constantly challenged to take the wrong step, which would be a casus belli. Vladimir Putin does not want to risk a large-scale war with Ukraine, which would result in loss of life. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Donbas, the Russian Federation has been extremely careful in hiding from public opinion the deaths of Russian army soldiers, victims of this conflict. Putin is extremely focused on what is happening in Ukraine, his attitude to power or his disappearance depends on his attitude towards this issue. What his vision for Ukraine and, in general, for the countries in the vicinity of the Russian Federation, where there is internal instability – Belarus, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, etc. is, remains a mystery. His speech on the state of the nation on April 21st offers no indication. Only Vladimir Putin knows what Vladimir Putin thinks. His actions against these countries may seem illogical, but they have perfect logic from the perspective of keeping Vladimir Putin in power.
The president of the Russian Federation is in fact less strong than he seems, but it is this weakness that makes him more unpredictable and dangerous. Every time he had internal problems, an external conflict, provoked without a clear reason, raised his percentages in the polls. It happened in 2008, after the intervention in Georgia. It happened in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea. Currently, less than 25% of voters support his party, and Navalny has not died in the assassination attempt and has not given in mentally to his arrest. Vladimir Putin has carefully observed what happened to Lukashenko in the summer of 2020: the protests have weakened his position so much that he depends solely on the support of the Russian Federation to stay in power. If something similar were to happen in the Russian Federation, Putin would have no foreign political actor to turn to in order to survive in power. Is it in the interest of the West to deal with a weakened Putin, subject to unprecedented internal and external challenges, or to try to unite domestic political forces, which can lead to regime change? The same question was asked after the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution: was it appropriate to recognize the new communist government or was it better to support its armed resistance? The ambiguity of the given answer, the alternation of the answers in one direction or another, gave the opportunity to strengthen the Bolshevik regime. The West knows this history lesson and is faced with the same dilemma: should the end of the Putin regime be expected through natural causes, or is it necessary to support the weak opposition to it and to reduce contacts with Russian officials to a minimum? The European Union is facing this dilemma. The Biden administration has the same problem.
What will happen if, in the face of an intensification of the Russian Federation’s actions in its immediate vicinity, the West continues its policy of imposing sanctions? It depends on the purpose of any new sanctions. If this goal is very ambitious, in the sense of hoping for a short-term political change, the sanctions will not have any result. There is the experience of sanctions against the former Yugoslavia, Cuba or Venezuela: Milosevic, Castro or Maduro remain in power. Only one sanction would be effective against the Russian Federation: a total embargo on gas and oil supplies. However, the West is not prepared for such an approach, due to economic interdependencies with the Russian Federation. These can be diminished (see the dispute around North Stream 2) but never completely eliminated. The only possibility remains that of moderate sanctions, which are not aimed at changing the regime in the Kremlin. The West can react to a large-scale aggression by the Russian Federation, but it can only do so with half a measure. But even the scenario of moderate sanctions is viewed with concern by Vladimir Putin. The United States has begun to realize that sanctions against Russian hackers may seem modest, but in reality, they target the essence of the type of foreign intervention practiced by the Russian Federation. The European Union should further discuss the consequences of Nord Stream 2 for its own security policy. The United Kingdom has its share of responsibility for establishing a less favourable regime for Russian financial investment. The Litvinenko or Skripal episodes can be repeated at any time, and any party in power in London cannot ignore the recent past of an extremely tumultuous relationship with the Russian Federation.
NATO has had and still has a role to play in limiting the influence of the Russian Federation in its immediate vicinity. NATO’s presence on the Black Sea makes Vladimir Putin more cautious in his actions. It was noted in the recent episode created by massing Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, that NATO’s strengthening in the region was enough pressure to withdraw these troops. This precedent must continue to be used to achieve a strategic balance in areas where NATO and the Russian Federation dispute their primacy.
However, the big problem of the West’s positioning towards the Russian Federation is of a different nature. China’s rise makes relations between the West and the Russian Federation no longer at the forefront. Public opinion in Western countries considers China a greater danger than the Russian Federation, and Western leaders act according to public opinion. However, it is not enough that the West’s relationship with the Russian Federation is monitored and analysed more closely in Beijing than in Brussels, Washington or Moscow. China is well aware that any surrender of the West to the Russian Federation will be favourable to it, and can serve as an example. Not coincidentally, just as Putin was testing the West’s reaction to Ukraine, China was testing the West’s reaction, especially the United States’, to Taiwan. Democracies have passed this double test. For now. The future of the Russian Federation depends only on Russian citizens. The external factor was and is important for a possible regime change in Moscow, but, as the history of the last century shows us, any such change can only be generated from within. The West must not support one party or a political leader or another, but pay more attention to those who think democratically and who can bring about change for the good of all Russian citizens. There are successful examples of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov: their support for intellectual solidarity eroded Soviet power more than any support given to those who promised political change. The fact that in the meantime several political parties have emerged and free elections are being held is only an appearance. We are in a situation where any support for human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation is in the interest of both the West and the Russian Federation.