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Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette

It’s high time to discuss not only Putin’s errors—but our own.

Victor Monteverdi

The world can only watch as the drama plays out that will affect the trajectory of the 21st century: Russia’s failure to modernize itself, and the West’s inability to correct that failure. Ukraine has become the most immediate victim of these twin errors, but ultimately, we will all pay for them.

Vladimir Putin has upended the global chessboard in pursuit of his imperial ambition—or so goes the popular argument. Putinology is the dominant framework now, prompting analysts to plumb the depths of Putin’s mind in order to guess at his endgame. This is a comforting narrative to us because it forgives us for own failures to anticipate Russia’s trajectory: How could one possibly predict the convulsions of an individual’s mind?

To be sure, the president is the key decision maker in Russia’s personalized state-system. But during his rule, Putin has experimented with various equations of cooperation and suspicion in Russia’s relations with the West. Until recently, he was exploiting the model invented by Peter the Great, using the West for Russian modernization. In 2012, Putin ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create, along with the European Union, “a united economic and human space from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans,” and “to reach a really strategic level of the relationship with the U.S.” Never before had Moscow so explicitly seemed to embrace liberal civilization, allowing integration of its elites into the Western community.

Why did Putin shift from integration to confrontation? There are various explanations of his pivot. Among them: Putin’s psychological evolution (recall German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment that Putin lives in “another world”); his desire to secure his power; Russia’s economic problems; a rising tide of domestic protest; and the arrogance of the West and NATO expansion.

None of these are convincing. One strains to see any real threat to Putin’s power either inside or outside of Russia. In 2021, 64 percent of Russians supported him, according to polling from Levada-Center surveys. Russia’s economy saw a strong, post-pandemic rebound, growing by 4.3 percent. Up through 2021, Ukrainian membership in NATO was not in evidence. Oil and gas exports to Europe contributed 40 percent to Russia’s budget revenue. Why, then, ruin relations with the West?

True, there were tactical considerations that could have influenced Putin’s “rebellion.” First, the Kremlin did acknowledge in 2018-2019 Russia’s “petro-state” role, and its (rather humiliating for it) dependency on the West, as well as its modernization failure. This could have forced the Kremlin to look for other ways of shoring up Russia’s resilience. Second, Putin definitely was thinking ahead about the Russian presidential elections in 2024—weighing how geopolitical games could compensate for the insufficient electoral legitimacy of his rule. Third, judging by his rhetoric, Putin has long been musing over how to cement his historical role as the leader who recreated “Great Russia.”

Finally, it seems that the Kremlin’s team became convinced that the Western epoque was over, which opened a “window” for Russia’s global adventure. In 2020-2021, the West looked like an inviting—and weak—opponent for a boxing match: There was Brexit; America’s declining leadership and its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan; French leaders dreaming about cooperation with Russia in their pursuit of Gaullist ambitions; Chancellor Merkel leaving the political scene—all these things could have created in the Kremlin an impression that the time was ripe for Russia to reenter the scene, aggressively.

This could be the way to rationalize the Kremlin’s actions. But what if irrational motivations dominated?

Digging Deeper

Putin’s gambit fits the survival logic of the Russian personalized political system. Even his errors are arguably the result of the one-man style of decision-making that ignores independent expertise. Does this mean that Russia’s confrontation with the West was inevitable, and that the fans of the “burden of history” explanation of Russia are right? It’s not that simple.

The mood of Russian society is illustrative here. One understands the difficulty of polling the people in an authoritarian system without true free speech—but we have no other instrument to analyze this society. In 2021, about 63 percent of Russian respondents were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. That means they could have supported Putin’s dream of the restoration of Great Russia. At the same time, 66 percent of Russian respondents preferred Russia to be a state with high economic standards and not necessarily a great power, and only 32 percent of respondents thought that Russia should be a great power feared by others.

Here we can see the cognitive dissonance of the Russian nation wandering in the civilizational space. But this means Russia could have accepted any direction offered to her from the “top”—either change or a return to the past. Their current leader has offered them the second option, which the elites have supported (some, unwillingly) as do a majority of the population (some, passively).

Is Russia’s pivoting a reflection of a loathing for Western “end of history” euphoria? Is it a burst of frustration with the Russian domestic liberal gurus? Or rather, is Russia’s pivot a result of a “Versailles complex” and a sense of humiliation in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse? Is this all simply a variety of attempts to survive? Our collective mantra today about Putin’s folly and Russia’s defeat can’t conceal the sad truth: We were unable to anticipate this disaster, and we are at a loss as to what comes next. It’s high time to discuss not only Putin’s errors—but our own.

The Initial Plan

The year 2020 became a watershed moment when the Kremlin edited the Russian Constitution to secure rule for life for the Russian leader. This move strengthened the system’s spine with a view toward Russia’s great power role, which, in the Russian context, serves as a legitimizing and consolidating factor. Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is the means to start this Great Russia project.

The Kremlin’s military “breakthrough” could have been predicted–Putin had been demonstrating his intention to play the bully throughout 2021. The Kremlin’s ultimatums to the United States and to NATO in December 2021, demanding that both “give Russia long term guarantees of Russia’s security,” were not offered with any expectation that they would be accepted. Their inevitable rejection was intended to serve as a pretext for offense. The world thought Putin was bluffing.

It’s a safe bet that Putin based his subsequent actions in 2022 on the conviction that he would be able to repeat the “Crimea victory”: The Ukrainians would submit to Russia’s invasion, and the West would accept the new reality. In 2014, Putin got what he wanted. And, judging from the West’s awkward reaction in 2021, he might have believed he would get what he wanted a second time.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Putin’s primary motivation was not to be a “war president.” Moscow was not ready either for bloodshed or for isolation—no Fortress Russia was in place. Plus, Russia as a pariah state would mean the end of her great-power role. Rather, Moscow was preparing for a victory parade in Kyiv. The “special operation” was supposed to be the instrument by which to force the West to accept Russia’s agenda without a bloody mess. That plan could have worked, but Ukraine ruined it. Thus, we may add one more mistake to our list of fatal errors: a failure to understand the Ukrainians.

Creating Chaos

When it comes to the current state of Russia’s relations with the world, we are not dealing simply with Putin’s demons or dreams. Rather, we are dealing with the survival logic of a personalized political system attempting to respond to new circumstances. The Kremlin has to balance ambitions inherent in Russian statehood against its limited resources, and to adapt militarization to the need to cooperate with the modern world. Having to connect these incompatible elements, Russian policy turns into a canvas of ambivalences. Here we have an example of intentional postmodernity, with its blurring of borders between opposing principles: fair and unfair, dialogue and confrontation, truth and lies, war and peace. This is the outcome of the Soviet collapse, whose rigidity forced the Russian system to look for a subtler mode of existence. Deception, pretense, and appearances—this has been the new policy pattern.

The Kremlin has not been able to digest liberal values. But it would be an exaggeration to say that Russia intends to lead a battle to the death with democracy. What sort of battle is really possible, given that the Russian elite is ever ready to imitate Western institutions when the need arises?

The Kremlin’s self-declared causes of the “special military operation” and confrontation with the West are an example of ambiguity—meant to disorient opponents and force them to waste their time digging in the sand. One can imagine the Kremlin’s amusement at watching how the world has been trying to understand what Putin is up to while the Kremlin itself, as if only joking, has been changing its goals twice a day.

Mythology instead of ideology, reconstructing the past instead of projecting the future, the glorification of death instead of life—these are the elements of Russia’s postmodern style.

The policy of blurring principles, “tearing human minds to pieces,” and then forming an artificial reality has consequences. Russians are afraid of war; at the same time, they’ve accepted the military “special operation.” They support the “operation,” and at the same time they want peace negotiations. The Russian people demonstrate an ability to accept contradictory ideas. The fact that the “operation” continues has not prevented 77 percent of respondents from saying that they are “in a good mood,” or 63 percent from thinking that Russia is “moving in the right direction.” This dialectic gives the Kremlin extensive breathing space (so far).

The goal of the Kremlin’s postmodern policy is to make Russia’s opponents accept its right to interpret the rules globally and domestically as it wishes, and also to remain a respectable member of the Concert of Great Powers. It is a grand farce.

Now that the Kremlin’s initial plans have failed, we see a new quagmire. On the one hand, the Russian system needs confirmation of its great-power role, which can be reached only by victory in war. On the other hand, the Russian system needs Western resources and the Kremlin needs Western recognition of Russia’s great power role; Moscow understands that its “love affair” with Beijing could only lower Russia to the role of China’s junior partner. Which path Russia pursues will depend not only on the mood of the Russian elites and the Russian people, but also on what unites the West: a readiness to deter Russia, or a search for a deal with Moscow.

Back to the USSR?

Such an assumption would be another simplification. The Soviet Union consolidated itself on the basis of a well-defined ideology. Today, the Kremlin has no ideology but instead aligns itself with whatever works for that moment; in a way, ambiguity is its ideology. The great-power role has also acquired a new flavor. The Kremlin understands that the old instruments of might are shrinking and it is trying to find other means of confirming Russian greatness—by building up a Hitchcockian suspense, and by brandishing the ultimate instrument of power in the contemporary world—the nuclear threat. In his February 21st speech, Putin announced that Russia was suspending the New START Treaty, the last major nuclear arms-control treaty Russia had with the United States. Then he announced Russia would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, threatening to return such weapons to a country that surrendered them to Russia nearly three decades ago.

Russia’s upending of the global chessboard is creating a new narrative. It changes the familiar geopolitics and balance of power of the past thirty years into a game of “who blinks first.” Putin’s method has been to ratchet up tensions and then to demand “binding agreements,” which Moscow itself does not take seriously. Moscow demonstrates an aim—a new world order, built on disruption. This order has nothing in common with the Yalta rules during the Cold War, which were diligently followed by all sides. The Kremlin today is suggesting something different: “Russian roulette” bravado. This means creative interpretation of the possible and impossible.

However, this creates a new headache for the Kremlin. If one is engaged in a game of deception, how to guarantee that its architect will not become its hostage? One must also consider the fact that the policy of disruption will at some point start to worry the elites and society. Polls show that Russians are already overwhelmed by anxiety (50 percent of respondents have noted this)—which could become destabilizing. The human desire for normalcy is inevitable. Who would argue that Russians are a genetically self-destructive nation?

Finally, there’s been a new update to the Russian construct initiated by the Kremlin: the attempt to make “defense of the Motherland” a new Russian way of life. The idea is to turn Russia into a military camp at all levels of society—education, medical care, sports, and culture. There haven’t been signs of a dramatic mobilization, rather, attempts to build a new “normalcy”—real or imaginary—where militarist-defensive rhetoric is the everyday routine; where there’s every minute suspense about survival or demise.

As one Russian pro-Kremlin observer has described the current situation: “We don’t know what it means—movement up or movement down.” We see how the Kremlin has started to follow the German Marxist Eduard Bernstein’s formula: “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.” Is it just an experiment, with other blueprints waiting to be tested? Welcome to Russia’s laboratory, where the country experiments with itself and the world around it. It’s more frightening than the previous agenda of “shock and awe.”

Future Challenges

Confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine has brought challenges that will impact Russia’s own future trajectory. I will name a few of them.

First, look at the fusion between the regime and the state. We don’t know how strongly Putin’s regime is interwoven with the state, or how the regime’s destiny will influence the resilience of the state. In Russia, the leader personalizes the state. But the leader still has to secure the consensus of the elites and the support of the population. At the moment, Russia appears ready to pay for Putin’s survival, because in the minds of the majority, this is associated with the survival of the state. Seventy four percent of respondents want Putin to be reelected in 2024.

As Russia’s history shows, however, elites and the population could eventually conclude that the state’s existence requires dumping the regime. But the next ruler and regime could always be the means to save the personalized system, not to transform it.

Second, Ukraine’s role in the future of the Russian system is no longer an exotic topic for debate. Where Russia assumed that it could use Ukraine to force the West to accept the Kremlin’s demands, Ukraine has instead become the cause of the West’s consolidating against Russia. The question is: for how long? Russia will now have to figure out what the militarization of Ukraine (as a result of the conflict) and its hostility to Russia means for Russia’s existence.

Third, Moscow cannot admit defeat; it would mean more than just Putin’s downfall. Many experts argue that Russia’s defeat could end with the crumbling of the state. Who is ready for a new collapse of a nuclear state? True, the “crumbling” scenario could sound like a warning to those who would undermine Russia’s traditionalism: “You will go down in flames with us!” But what is real and what is fake in Russia’s scenery?

Fourth, we view the siloviki corporation (the security types around Putin) as the driving force of the Russian regime. But why do we neglect those liberal-technocrats who are saving the economic basis of the Russian system? There is an additional factor that gives resilience to Russia’s system—the intelligentsia and culture. Russia’s intellectual class has been softening society’s rebellious impulses, channeling them into “soul searching.” Russian culture, with its “spiritual” guideposts, has been suppressing individualism and the longing for freedom, subordinating these to transcendent goals. How to erase this cultural genetic code? This will be an even more important question than that of political revolution.

Fifth, is there hope for a systemic change in Russia? The new Russia’s model could be the result of a serious crisis and understanding by society that the old path is suicidal. But Russia’s new model could be the result either of a serious internal crisis or of an understanding by society that the old path is suicidal. Dramatic political change is still viewed by many Russians as a trigger that would bring about the unravelling of the state (the memory of the 1991 Soviet collapse remains strong)—a price they are not ready to pay.

Russia is trapped. At the moment, Russia cannot modernize itself through liberalization, even as the traditional means (economic, ideological, and military) of survival are shrinking. It may take even more time—and pain—to get out of this quagmire.

Victor Monteverdi (a pseudonym) is an independent observer.

Image: A graphic of Vladimir Putin's bust. (Unsplash: Antigone_Polytube)