Despite their sky-high ratings and recent attempts to consolidate the political status quo, the Russian president and the government do not behave like the firm and confident authority whose image they try to project to the world. On the contrary: they show the signs of increasing anxiety. Vladimir Putin’s recent decree on the classification of military losses in peacetime hints at how, under worsening circumstances, the Kremlin expects to maintain or raise its public support.
“Putin. War”, the report compiled by the late Boris Nemtsov and his associates about Russia’s military activities in Ukraine is certainly an interesting read. It confirms, through evidence that is very difficult to refute, that the Russian military is present in Ukraine and what the international press, even in the West, calls a “conflict” or a “crisis”, is in fact a war. It is also, many claimed after its publication, irrelevant. Those who had believed that the Russian military fought in Ukraine would now have further evidence, but they would not be able to convince those who had not believed it or acted so. Then there were those Russian citizens for whom, after months of propaganda portraying the new Ukrainian government as a bunch of fascists controlled by foreign forces, being in covert war was not a shameful act at all. A large enough segment of the Russian population, the argument went, had accepted the fact of the war and Russia’s role in it. According to a Levada Center Poll last month, an overwhelming majority of Russians either believed the government’s official stance that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, or was fine with the government denying direct involvement even if there were.
Yet, one of the most discussed events this week was Vladimir Putin’s decision to classify data on peacetime military losses. The decree raises the question of whether Putin, despite all the above, is afraid of domestic anger over the deaths of Russian soldiers or cares rather about the external vulnerability of the regime.
On the surface, Vladimir Putin enjoys an unprecedented an unquestionably strong support among Russian voters. From the social contract, on which his first two terms were based, he successfully switched to “besieged fortress” mode, both through supporting the war in Ukraine and inventing a seemingly endless line of enemies. The Russian political and business elite may or may not like him, but they still fear him, allowing him to execute orders down the power vertical, to make decisions in horizontal disputes and to decide when (and if) the narrative will change.
Nevertheless, the regime does not behave like the confident, almighty machine, the image that seeks to project. It behaves like a regime that is afraid.
Two events in May sent signals to the Russian political elite about the international standing of the country: the Victory Day parade in Moscow at the beginning of the month and the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga two weeks later. The military parade was meant to project the idea that Russia was successfully building the Eurasian Union, pivots to Asia but still has friends in a divided Europe. It ended up projecting everything but that. The Riga Summit was initially meant to underline the EU’s readiness to confront Russia and be present in its Eastern neighbourhood as a serious player. It ended up projecting everything but that. However, arguably, the Moscow parade, which most of Europe, and even Alexander Lukashenka shunned, was a bigger diplomatic defeat for Vladimir Putin than the Riga Summit was a victory. The latter resulted in a predictable outcome, and while it only reconfirmed a weak European engagement in the Eastern neighbourhood, this engagement had been already too strong and menacing for Russia. The former, however well it blended into Putin’s Cold War narrative, confirmed to many Russia’s isolation from the West, the absurdity of the Eurasian Union in its present form and thus, Russia’s increasing dependence on China.
When Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA that has grown into one of the biggest criminal organisations in the world, both in deeds and communication, got re-elected last week, one of the first to congratulate him was Vladimir Putin. Putin was visibly irritated by the investigation opened into FIFA’s corruption cases by Swiss prosecutors who may even require him to make a testimony. Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL opined that the president fell hostage to his authoritarian reflexes and the conspiracy theories actively disseminated by the Russian government, and thus his only choice was to use the narrative that the FIFA scandal was about him and about the 2018 World Cup. Perhaps he even believed it. This “Luzhinisation” is, without a doubt, an important personality treat of Putin, which is worth exploring in greater depth. But maybe it was more than just that this time.
Thanks to Alexei Navalny and other anti-corruption activists, we have some ideas about the real cost of the Sochi Games, a corruption scheme of epic proportions. As a reminder: the estimated total cost of the Sochi Olympics was around or over $50 billion, up from an initial budget of approximately $12 billion, which is slightly lower than the $12.7 billion that Russia is planning to spend on the FIFA World Cup. Hardly would it surprise anyone if the costs were pumped up in a manner similar to the Sochi Olympics, especially as the weakness of the rouble means that imported materials have become more expensive. It requires even less imagination to assume that the money, which the state will spend on the World Cup has already been duly distributed among the Russian elite. So precious and untouchable are the projects tied to the World Cup that Russia would rather use forced labour to keep costs low than scaling back the projects themselves.
No, the FIFA investigation is probably not just a convenient excuse for Vladimir Putin to continue his “cold warmongering”. Far from it. If the boycott or the cancellation of the 2018 World Cup over corruption allegations is a real threat, the FIFA case may be of vital importance to the Russian political elite. Right now, Valery Solovei of MGIMO claims, although the Russian political elite is overwhelmingly peace-oriented and would support mending fences with the West, they would also execute any order that the president gives them. Whether the elite would still feel like this after the sudden disappearance of such an amount of dollar-shaped sedatives is questionable at best.
And then, there is Ukraine. Is Vladimir Putin afraid, in advance, of the end game in Ukraine? Possibly. Stating that the war in the Donbas was never really about the Donbas is commonplace. It was never about establishing Novorossiya either, but with Novorossiya, the Russian government would have been able to place unbearable pressure on the Ukrainian government. With only the Donbas, it cannot. Even more importantly, Russia cannot even afford a frozen conflict. Both in terms of population and (damaged) industrial base, the rebel-held territories of Eastern Ukraine are much bigger than the rebel republics on Russian life support in other post-Soviet countries combined. Unlike Crimea, the Donbas would not only need higher social handouts and investment but also reconstruction of its destroyed industries. Reconstruction, investment and hefty budgetary support (i.e. 70% of Transnistria’s budget is thought to be financed by Russia) would amount to a sum that Russia can hardly afford. The costs incurred by the pacification of the territory and sealing its dangerous elements off from Russia would come on top of that; and in case Russia turns out to be unable to finance the rebel state, these costs will be high.
Too much disinformation
It is in under these circumstances that the State Duma is contemplating calling elections for three months earlier than they should be held. With a vote in September, the electoral campaign would take place during the summer holidays, with opposition candidates, arguably, getting much less attention than they would in the autumn. And for an increasingly paranoid Putin, the opposition getting too much attention is a credible threat, even at a time when it gets close to nothing. A shocking defeat of the United Russia party in Baltiysk, a small town in the Kaliningrad Oblast last week must have raised these fears – even if the small exclave is very far from the semi-urban and rural towns of “Russia B”, the heartland of Putin’s support.
Vladimir Putin may, in fact, be afraid. He may be afraid of a prolonged economic crisis, in which the best-case scenario is long-term stagnation and in which avoiding a total collapse is considered to be good news. He may be afraid of the loss of future funds that have already been distributed among an increasingly insecure elite. He may be afraid of electoral campaigns, even ones that count little or nothing. As I warned last year, Putin does not know when he will reach his “Milosevic moment”, the moment when calling an election to get renewed support is already a bad decision. Despite the obvious differences, today’s Russia is, in many ways – in definitely too many ways for Putin – similar to Serbia in 2000. And this is 2015, not 2000: both facts and economic shock waves spread quicker.
This is why Putin’s decree on peacetime military losses is relevant: the Russian president is not only a master of divide et impera. He has another powerful weapon: the relativisation of the truth.
In Agatha Christie’s classic, ‘The A. B. C. Murders’, the one murder that is important to the killer is “hidden” among a series of seemingly related murders. In Putin’s Russia, the truth vanishes among a bunch of competing conspiracy theories, neither of them officially supported by the government, but each kept in circulation to make the one factual and truthful explanation seem just another one of them. This works in Siberia, in Moscow, in the Donbas and, increasingly, in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood.
Putin does not want to tell citizens the truth – not even the truth that Russians would not mind hearing – and he would rarely settle for one specific lie. Instead, he wants to give Russians a framework of interpretation; one, in which any crass conspiracy theory sounds credible and the truth sounds just like a conspiracy theory. One, in which the president is the one fixed point and the one moral authority.
Putin may as well pull this off, but he needs many, perhaps too many people to play along: the Russian political elite, the heads of the Russian regions, maybe even Swiss investigators and the European Union. Even this is not entirely impossible. Unless more people start telling the truth.