politics
Putinists after (in place of) Putin
September 15, 2022

Andrey Kolesnikov

Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

After a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, “militarists” dissatisfied with the indecisiveness of the Kremlin have made themselves heard. Andrei Kolesnikov reflects on whether or not power could fall into the hands of the “party of war till the bitter end”.
Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, observe the Vostok-2022 strategic command post exercise in Russia's Far East, September 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
After the first successes of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the voices of "hawks" calling for a radicalization of hostilities are becoming distinctly heard. Some demand a general mobilization, like, for example, Duma deputy Mikhail Sheremet; others, like war correspondent Vladimir Sladkov (people “are waiting for us to start, when we’ll hit them so hard that the opponent will end up on his behind, knocked out”), insist on totally destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, meaning strikes against civilian targets; while still others are already dissatisfied with Putin as a strategist. Ramzan Kadyrov even questioned the competence of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Is a tougher version of Putinism possible?

It seems like there is a split in the camp of war proponents – between those who support Putin and those who think he is a too soft and indecisive leader. Between those who demand war until the complete destruction of Ukraine and those who are tired of the constantly tense atmosphere, would like to stop the losses (which can be presented as a “victories”) and would prefer peace negotiations.

Of course, the voices of radicals are louder, which has brought the fear that they could become a real political force capable of being more "Putin" than Putin himself – bigger conservatives and bigger militarists. They would maintain and develop an even tougher version of Putinism after Putin. (Still, it can’t be ruled out that the recent radicalization of discourse is actually aimed at preparing public opinion for the Russian side to take more aggressive actions and target the infrastructure and civilian population of Ukraine.)

However, when looking at the likelihood of the "party of war till the bitter end" coming to power, a couple circumstances should be considered. First, it is hard to imagine an even tougher version of such neo-patrimonial rule that is based on an ultraconservative ideology and a rent-seeking state economy.Second, Putin reaches huge masses of people with his politics and ideology – he, along with his rhetoric and his actions, including war, is still attractive to millions, including the radically inclined.

Third, to take power you must bring the elites and the masses around new figures, who must at least be able to form strong coalitions within the establishment itself, which is very difficult to do technically. You can captivate the masses with ultraradical ideas, but for now they have Putin, and in general they prefer demobilization, meaning maintaining a private life and supporting the army from the couch versus actually fighting in wars.

Fourth, of course the repressive machine needs to destroy. The liberal opposition and civil society are its main targets, but then it’s the overly radical figures and organizations on the ultraconservative flank, which could be suppressed with the same effectiveness and cruelty. Putin is unlikely to tolerate competition in a niche where he is the only man in the market.

The “salon conversations” of political experts revolve around the possibility of a generation similar in some ways to that of Vietnam and Afghanistan veterans appearing in Russia. Still, it wouldn’t be an entire generation, just a frustrated part of it. In addition, as we see, among the soldiers there are many who were forced to go to the front, who didn’t want to fight, who don’t understand why and for what they are laying down their lives. Since Russians and Ukrainians are, as Putin says, one people, it turns out that the battle is being waged with our own people, while there are just no neo-Nazis among the civilian population.

This means that most veterans of the “special military operation” shouldn’t necessarily be war-traumatized supporters of total fascism and universal violence. It is also a question whether they could organize themselves politically even if they were to have the support of radicals on social media, ideology from Alexander Dugin, money from the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, as well as human and informational resources from “Kremlin cook” Yevgeny Prigozhin.
“Yet again, Putin’s radicalness is such that it would be extremely difficult to outplay him when it comes to brutality and archaic ideological."
He also retains a monopoly on legitimate and illegitimate – including irrational and excessive – violence.
Vladimir Putin sworn in as President of Russia, 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
System fully prepared to suppress and destroy its own people

Over the years, Putin's very rule has sometimes been justified widely across the liberal elite on the grounds that if authoritarian control weakens and/or truly competitive elections are allowed, fascist radicals will come to power in the country. In comparison, Putin and his type of government are extremely rational and shield the liberals themselves and the modernization of Russia from the unreasonable fascist masses. The justification is completely in line with the logic of the famous collection of essayed titled Milestones (1909), where the philosopher Mikhail Gershenzon wrote: “not only can we not dream about fusing with the people, but we must fear them… and we must bless that authority which alone with its bayonets and prisons manages to protect us from the popular fury.” We never saw evidence of this, but instead saw how Putin's mild authoritarianism grew into a patrimonial dictatorship and a war motivated by imperial chimeras.

The emergence of a third force is hardly possible in today's harsh authoritarian regime, which contains elements of totalitarianism. A regime that has completely subjugated political processes and institutions, colonized its own civil society and represents a single system that won’t tolerate the existence of a second alternative power center, much less a third. And if it becomes necessary to suppress and destroy its own people, it is ready for that too.

Another part of the conversation is about the future. Will an ultraconservative, radical third force come to power after Putin? Of course, after Putin's departure, the range of opportunities that will open up will be very diverse. In theory, both a transition to democracy and a transition to an even more complete ideological dictatorship, where supporters of such a course take advantage of the challenging economic situation and the post-war humiliation syndrome (if one arises) and manage to attract the favor of the masses.

The last scenario is possible only if Putin doesn’t build up the system enough to have it seize preventive control over a possible transition and guide it on a path the Russian autocrat would like to see himself. Thus far, both Putin and his elites have lived by the principle “après moi, le déluge” [literally: “after me, the flood”]. And that makes the political and economic outlook even more unpredictable.
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