More than a year has passed since the beginning of the war launched by Russia against Ukraine, or rather since the beginning of the second and bloodiest phase of this conflict which began in 2014. A year marked by news about the massacres committed by the Russian armed forces, fear of the outbreak of a world nuclear conflict and the revelation of some realities: the Russian army is not invincible, and European unity is not just an empty concept.
From the very beginning, the war launched by Russia was a marathon, not a sprint, and the fact that the Winter of 2022/2023 was a mild one, in which Europe did not feel the economic blackmail of the Kremlin, should not make us believe that the Spring or Summer of 2023 will bring the end of the conflict and the return to the long-awaited normality. The legacy of this war will begin to be visible only after the military side of it comes to an end: Will Russia plunge into chaos? Will Europe be divided again into spheres of interests? Will we have a new body of international institutions, where some of the known ones will be gone and others put instead? (to consecrate, possibly, spheres of interests or ideological congruences)?
Vladimir Putin’s Ideological Legacy: The Leader that Challenged the West
From a geopolitical perspective, neither Putin in his public speeches, nor the Kremlin elite, nor the Russian media made a secret of the fact that the war in Ukraine is meant to challenge the West. Analytical circles in Moscow, too, have consistently pointed out that Russia is at war (also) with the West.
For example, Ivan Timofeev, recently appointed Director General of RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council), after being Program Director at the Valdai Club, has been explaining since last year what is wrong with the West and how Russia wants to inspire other states to challenge the dominance of the Western world. Basically, Vladimir Putin wants to lay the foundations of a geopolitical and ideological legacy. This does not mean that Russia wants to become a new USSR (neither from an expansionist point of view, nor as an ideological hub). It just means that Moscow wants to be a source of inspiration for other states dissatisfied with the conduct of the West. In the Russian view, Western values are only good on paper, being misapplied and leading to social inequalities, and democratic narratives (e.g freedom, rule of law) are manipulated by the big Euro-Atlantic states in order to interfere in the internal politics of other countries.
Timofeev’s statement at the end of the article is highly interesting: a Russian military success in Ukraine can lead to a series of events that can ultimately lead to the decline of the West. Does it really matter what Timofeev says? Is this Russia’s legacy for the West? Or is it just another Russian propagandist talking? Timofeev probably knows what he is talking about, especially if we were to evaluate his predictions by referring to an article from November 2021 in which he reported on the scenario of a multi-front Russian invasion of Ukraine, the political and military reaction of the West, the possible dragging-on of the conflict and the attitudes/ resistance of the Ukrainians in case of an invasion. Even if Timofeev concluded that the war scenario was impossible, the details of his analysis hold our attention.
The war in Ukraine is also about Vladimir Putin’s social legacy
Two articles and two books led me to write this article: How Putin blundered into Ukraine — then doubled down (Financial Times, February 2023); Letter from Ukraine (Peter Pomerantsev, March 2023); Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia (Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson, Yale University Press, 2019) and The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy (Bryn Rosenfeld, Princeton University Press, 2020).
The four texts, correlated with the motivation of Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine – challenging the West and rewriting Russia’s relations with the West – reveal another type of legacy that Vladimir Putin would like to perpetuate and which – just as Timofeev anticipates – could lead to the total perversion of Western values.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is also about a social side of Vladimir Putin’s legacy, a president whose foreign minister says he has three advisers: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Three emblematic figures of Russia’s history, three personalities in whose lineage Putin proposes to place himself. Pyotr Stolypin can also be added, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy noted in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (p. 73), but the former prime minister of Tsar Nicholas II is more of a tragic figure than those invoked by Lavrov. Not to mention that Stolypin was assassinated in Kiev…
Returning to the legacy of Vladimir Putin through the lens of the three so-called advisers: territorial expansion, violent challenge to the status quo and the assertion of Russia as a first-rate power are the common features of the emperors. At the same time, the three of them are also relevant for a certain tradition of violence and cruelty: the massacre of the population of Novgorod (Ivan the Terrible), the Circassian genocide (Catherine the Great) and the punishment of the Streltsy (Peter the Great).
Beyond force, power and territorial expansion, each of the three tsars was a reformer of their time, and for Vladimir Putin the question remains what kind of reform did he bring upon Russia. If “Peter gave us bodies, and Catherine gave us souls” (p. 83), what did Vladimir Putin give to Russia?
By no means a Europeanized society, but rather one that defines itself in antithesis to the West and constantly feeds on anti-Western narratives. A society glued together by a state policy that aims to keep the citizens in a constant fear and apathy. A society in which the middle class, a primary factor for development and democratization, is captive to the state, and international or regional problems (pandemic, war, economic-financial crises) make the middle class want to be even more dependent on the state.
Bryn Rosenfeld notes that the Kremlin captured the middle class by constantly increasing the state sector, including in times of austerity (2014, post-Crimea sanctions) to secure the loyalty of a good part of the population (p. 50). The capture of the middle class practiced by the Kremlin leads to three types of corruption – moral, material and generational: dependence on the state means not challenging its policies, being vested with the authority of the state is also a source of illicit income (p. 54), and individuals tend to develop a sort of loyalty in the long run for the autocratic model that offered them personal benefits (p. 64).
Rosenfeld’s conclusions are a good explanation for the lack of a social base able to challenge the Putin regime, but they also show us the social legacy of the current Russian leader. A social legacy already visible in other autocracies, but which – under the conditions of a deep economic crisis – risks to transform into an illiberal pandemic capable of affecting even the most (apparently) stable democracies. Antibodies to such a pandemic lie in individual choices: as Pomerantsev points out, citizens must clearly distinguish between right and wrong, regardless of the background noise of propaganda.
Looking at the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Russian society, we see the reality that the current Russian president will leave behind: an authoritarianism born from a leader’s ambition to be an autocrat and the desire of some individuals to be ruled despotically (Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia, pp. 13-15). In a society where unequivocal support for an autocrat becomes a social norm happily appropriated by citizens and even an element of identity/ belonging to different groups (pp. 20-21), external actions that produce long-term economic damage (e.g., the annexation Crimea followed by Euro-Atlantic sanctions) can be perceived as a reform aimed at improving the daily life of citizens (p. 18).
Basically, the danger of an illiberal tide has always existed, and Putin is not the only exponent of illiberalism/ authoritarianism. To date, however, no illiberal state has launched an armed conflict against the West, and Western societies have resisted illiberal rhetoric well. Most likely, the social and political antibodies of the West will face la grande bataille with Vladimir Putin’s legacy at the moment of the “perfect storm”: an economic crisis that comes on top of years of pandemic and war.