Is There a Chance for Normalcy in Russia?
June 22, 2023
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Evgeny Senshin
Andrei Kolesnikov reflects on the current state of the Putin regime, the Russian elite, and systemic liberals in government, as well as the possibility of civil war in Russia. In his opinion, the prevailing scenario in post-Putin Russia will be an exceedingly difficult, but relatively peaceful transition to normalcy.

The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

How would you describe the current state of the Russian leadership? They’re unlikely to be the victors of the special military operation — they lack the manpower. The possibility of declaring another draft or deploying nuclear weapons seems equally improbable. What is left?

The key decision-makers likely understand that they’ve steered both themselves and the country into a dead end. But this is precisely the reason why they’re unwilling to finish what they started in February 2022. Now they are stuck on a single path towards what they call ‘victory.’ No one fully understands what ‘victory’ means, and the conditions for achieving it remain undetermined — they’ve become even foggier than they were in February 2022. This process is gradually destroying the foundations of statehood and the reputation of the country and its inhabitants. And there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, the realization that this must end has undoubtedly occurred to individual members of the elite. But it has already become an accepted fact, even a banality, that while Putin is in power, there is no way out.

He still plays a key role and makes the most important decisions. But the decisions two, three and four tiers down are made by people with varying degrees of power who follow in Putin’s footsteps, because the country is comprised of a multitude of smaller Putins: judges, officials, military leaders, the oligarchy — all ready to consider, ‘What would Putin do in my place?’ It is like any fully automated authoritarian or totalitarian system. Thus,
“There is no need for the dictator to participate in every decision-making process, because everyone behaves as if they were the dictator himself, down to the grassroots level.
And often with a little more fantasy and cruelty.

Nevertheless, there is an internal dissonance that boils over and manifests as the informal private armies, the Prigozhin incident, and in the voices of discontent. One example is State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin — he is no fool, he is a shrewd and prudent man.

Meanwhile, the ‘broad masses’ are more inclined to stay within the mainstream, not stray from the herd, and even if they don’t agree with something, they will continue living as they’re expected to live within the system. This is the standard model of behavior for those living under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

In this regard, I don’t understand the furious debate surrounding the results of sociological surveys — allegedly, people don’t support the war, they simply don’t want to rock the boat. But this does, in fact, mean that they support it, because otherwise Putin wouldn’t be able to continue doing what he is doing now, and he wouldn’t have remained in power for almost a quarter of a century, having successfully destroyed all mechanisms ensuring the rotation of power, as well as the organizational foundation of civil society.
The role of the Central Bank chairperson Elvira Nabiullina (in the photo), along with other ‘systemic liberals’ in the government has been reduced to mitigating the consequences of the siloviki‘s decisions. Source: Wiki Commons
How would you evaluate the influence of the so-called ‘systemic liberals’, or ‘technocrats’ — Kudrin, Mishustin, Nabiullina, Sobyanin — on current and future political processes?

Previously, there was a balance of power between the siloviki in the broadest sense of the word, and provisionally — with more and more provisions over time — the systemic liberals. But this was during the ‘soft authoritarianism’ period of Putin’s regime.

Now the role of the systemic liberals has been reduced solely to mitigating the consequences of the siloviki‘s decisions. All of them serve the system, and this seriously undermines their reputation.The authoritarian modernization of Russia that the liberals within the system hoped for did not come to pass — only the authoritarianism did.

Nonetheless, since we’ve yet to see a convincing forecast of how the situation will develop in Russia after Putin, we can assume that this part of the elite will play a role in Russia’s transition from a strict dictatorship to either a softer or more severe regime. In this case, their technocratic talents may be in demand, and perhaps one of them will be recruited to be a transitional prime minister.

What options does the Kremlin have to cope with the possible military loss? Or even a drawn-out conflict like the Afghan war, which, as you wrote, will lead to ‘anxiety fatigue.’

The current regime will present any defeat as some sort of victory. That is exactly why Ukraine and the West aren’t interested in any sort of ceasefire or truce, because they assume that any “freeze” will be followed by an inevitable “unfreezing”, but with the loss of more financial, human and military resources.

And we hear the Kremlin’s message echoed in propaganda talk shows, such as Margarita Simonyan’s: let us negotiate a peace treaty, but with the non-negotiable condition that Russia gets to keep its territorial gains. At this point, Putin would be satisfied with this, but Ukraine and the West would not.

The population on the whole wants peace talks. Sociological surveys show that around half the population supports the continuation of military activities, while the other are for peace negotiations, but generally only under the condition that Ukraine acknowledges its territorial losses. This means that a significant part of the population holds unrealistic expectations about the peace process. This is a dead-end viewpoint that portends the continuation of this ‘war of attrition.’ There are at least two contributing factors here: Putin's lack of good faith in the traditional productive diplomacy negotiation style of the 20th century, and Putin's toxicity towards Ukraine and the West.

Will a military loss engender any sort of disappointment, turmoil, shock?

Here, we mustn’t speak of the Russian population on the whole, but rather of the majority. These are passive conformists, and they are the core foundation of Putin’s regime. It rests not so much on aggressive conformism as on indifference. No matter what happens — falling drones or no, medicine shortages or no — they will maintain power and try to find excuses for what is happening. Moreover,
“For some, the worsening situation is a reason to justify fighting until the ‘victorious’ end: since it has already begun, we must finish it, and since we were ‘attacked’ — and by our own worst enemy, no less —we must fight until the end.
There is little hope for serious progress in the hearts and minds of the passive conformists who hold Putin's regime up, unless a signal comes from above. In Russia, all change comes from above.

Until they receive this signal, and they certainly won’t under Putin, the main portion of the population will continue to follow the status quo. And those who oppose it will continue to be repressed.
In the public opinion polls, asking people whom they trust, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin bypassed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Source: Wiki Commons
The Ukrainian counter-offensive, which has been anticipated since the end of last year, has begun. Will it become a contributing factor in Russian domestic politics?

We started by noting that the discontent of the elites has manifested in the media and information sphere in intercepted telephone conversations, Kremlin talk shows, and even the discourse during official assemblies. We will see more and more instances of this cropping up over time.

It is impossible to predict, however, the extent to which this will shake the system. More likely, the members of the elite, who are in a state of constant stress, will simply lie low. They will continue to help the regime save face on a financial level. This line of behavior may not be insurance for the future, but rather some sort of self-justification.

For example, over the past couple of months, [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin has occupied second place in the Levada Center’s trust rating. This is an open poll where the respondent is asked to name a politician they trust. Mishustin bypassed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have both completely ruined their own credibility over the course of the current catastrophe.

Mishustin is responsible for the economy, which only fell a little. Mishustin, who didn’t start out as a politician, became the second most important figure in the country. This is perhaps the only half-positive scenario for those among the elite who would like to preserve their position in the post-Putin future: occupying a niche, sitting back, and then claiming to have done good: ‘I improved the economy and dreamed of negotiations with the West, so lift some of these sanctions, please.’

Putin himself acknowledged the existence of the counteroffensive. Based on this reaction, how would you assess Putin's condition?

Somewhat paradoxically, at certain times, Putin resembles Yeltsin in his period of helplessness when, during one 1996 terrorist attack, he famously boasted about ‘38 snipers’ allegedly providing support to the Russian special services. Putin’s assessment of the situation during a meeting with pro-war bloggers, in which he stated that everything was fine, and would soon be even better, is also not a demonstration of strength, but of helplessness.

But in the Yeltsin era, the public perceived his ‘38 sniper’ remark as weakness, whereas nowadays, those same passive conformists convince themselves to take Putin’s assessments at face value, still afraid of leaving their own comfort zone.

As for Putin's more general line of conduct, he certainly behaves like any ordinary dictator in a personalist regime. This is unique for the 21st century, but not unique for the 20th century with its ultra-conservative, archaic ideology.

Incidentally, observers have often said that Putin is only interested in money, corruption and nothing else, that he has no ideology. But how is this true? The current state of affairs stems directly from an ideological value system promoting imperialism, nationalism, and archaism.

From a psychological perspective, Putin can be compared to Stalin in his later years. He has the same paranoid ideas associated with conspiracy theories and is waging a fierce war against the fifth column on the domestic front. The current period corresponds to the window of time between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s.

The war has come to Russian cities, but so far remains on the periphery. Could this change the Russian public’s attitude and undermine support for Putinism?

On the one hand, it drives people into depression and forces them to search for strategies to save themselves. Emigration, although not as prevalent as in 2022, is still a frequent occurrence. Others hide from the harsh reality in their private lives.
But for some, this is a reason to rally forces and say: ‘You see, we have no other choice, we need to beat the Ukrainians and NATO until we achieve our ultimate victory.’

Recently, the Pskov governor announced that citizens should prepare to form self-defense units. This speaks not of the strength, but of the weakness of the state.
A state that is capable of suppressing and repressing, but, as it turns out, is unable to protect.
It takes money from the Russians and spends it in an unregulated manner. In fact, more than a quarter of the federal budget is kept secret. ‘Secret’ means it goes toward military purposes. This is an indisputable sign of the state’s “weakness”.

Today, there’s a debate going around intellectual circles: Is Russia under threat of civil war? What do you think about this?

We need to figure out what ‘civil war’ is. The state is waging a fierce war against its own citizens who are trying to defend their constitutional rights — a sort of second front for Putin's state.

If you look at the number of people being persecuted — administratively, criminally, extrajudicially, the number of sites that have been shut down, the number of people declared foreign agents — add all these together and picture them standing in the town square. You end up with a huge mass of people, and this is the civil resistance. We see that there is resistance on an individual level, and it is no less important than the organized resistance that we used to see.

But civil war is often spoken of in the context of the post-Putin chaos. This may come to be. It seems to me that the most probable scenario is a transition to normalcy after Putin, and a transition that begins at the top, while the population remains an unorganized mass, and the chaos will not have a significant effect on the character of the transition. The authorities will have very few resources to survive and they will be forced to open up the country, which means they will employ a strategy of pragmatic liberalization.

The opposition, who are often called supporters of liberal democracy, are now scattered abroad and unlikely to have the chance to influence domestic politics. But there are other political forces forming within the country that are also anti-Putin, but are far from supporters of liberal democracy. Rather, they are ultra-conservatives, state supporters, or even anarchists. How do you rate their chances?

In a sense, the symbol of modern Russian ultra-conservative movements is Prigozhin. He behaves like a classic populist, painting himself as a man of the people, especially since he has criminal episodes in his past. In reality, Prigozhin is connected to the Kremlin by a thousand tiny threads. He is a product of the Kremlin kitchen. He is against the elites, but supports Putin. If he was against Putin, he would no longer exist. But by raising the stakes, he takes a big risk.

His statements may gain popularity in some segments of the population, especially during the military operations. These movements may take shape and gain traction, although they will still need the Kremlin’s help to do so. In the period of post-Putin chaos, the truly conservative popular forces may promote Russia’s nationalist, imperialist path.

There exists a conservative civil society in Russia, and perhaps those who return from the trenches will join it.

It is possible to criticize Putin from the far right, but so far,
Putin has done a successful job of representing this ultra conservative party himself. He has more divisions, support, and money.”
But if you believe that these forces will win out in the post-Putin chaos, you need to understand the serious problem they will face in the dire lack of resources. They will come into power to find an empty state budget and the exhausted financial, moral, psychological resources of the nation. Establishing a dictatorship will be possible, but it will be a dictatorship of chaos and hunger. And in this respect, they are not likely to stay in power for long.

In your opinion, will the West be able to generate a constructive dialog with Russia after the end of the ‘special military operation?’

It is the West that is Russia’s natural partner geographically, mentally, and economically — not the East at all. If some of the more optimistic scenarios prove true and we see further normalization in the post-Putin period, there is a possibility of effectively restoring ties with the West and having some — and eventually all of the sanctions lifted as a result of the complete dismantling of Putin's repressive legislation and the installment of reasonable voices in positions of power — some from the elite, some from the counter-elite.

This will be a very difficult path. The state’s integrity and credibility are in ruins, and the risks are enormous. All this will significantly prolong the transition to normalcy. And even if the sanctions are lifted, I do not see Western businesses rushing back to Russia.

In addition, we must take into account that many in the West share a radically anti-Russian position. At a recent conference, during a discussion of the security architecture in Europe and whether Russia should be included in the future, one of the former presidents of a Western nation literally said: “I don't give a shit about Russia.”

But Russia is not going anywhere, at least not geographically. And if the West is willing to eliminate the threat of future war and tension, then Russia must also become a space with sufficient human capital, development and democracy. It would seem that now is not the right time to have this discussion, but in order to preserve peace in Russia, we must see the emergence of a high-quality, modernized, and patriotic (to a normal degree) public body, which shares the values that, I reiterate, are enshrined in the Russian Constitution.

The key component will be education. Among other things, the West needs to open up to the Russian youth in order to educate them, especially since the brain drain is still depriving Russia of its best and brightest at an alarming rate. Give the youth a Western education and they will return in 10-20 years and build this version of Russia themselves. Otherwise, nothing will work. There will always be conflict, even if a frozen one, — there will always be authoritarianism, a decline in the quantity and quality of human capital, who will all be indoctrinated by an archaic vision of ‘scientific Putinism.’
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