The Putin System and the Kremlin’s Influence in Europe

Foto: Kranert, jet-foto

On March 13 the Center Liberal Modernity held its first inter­na­tional confer­ence on Russia. The event’s main intention was gaining a deeper under­standing of the Putin System and to find out what a realistic Western policy towards Russia should look like. This report summa­rizes the discus­sion and provides some analyt­ical back­ground for Sunday’s pres­i­den­tial vote — which was far from free  and fair demo­c­ratic elections. Written by Nikolaus von Twickel, edited by Ralf Fücks.

How does Putin’s system function in Russia, how does it influence Europe and what can Europe do about it? The theme of the Center for Liberal Modernity’s first major confer­ence last Tuesday in Berlin was not chosen by accident: The Center was set up in November as a think tank directed against growing populist and anti-liberal tenden­cies in Europe, a trend that many have linked to Russia, where President Vladimir Putin was re-elected for a fourth term on Sunday.

The conference’s aim was to under­stand the political and economic aspects of the Putin System and to raise awareness about the real nature of the regime. Another aim was to discuss realistic policy options for the West: “There is this timid, undecided feeling in western capitals – they do not look because they are afraid of what they might see” – the Center’s co-founder Marieluise Beck said in her opening remarks. Ralf Fuecks, its director, explained that the Center would deal with antilib­eral chal­lenges from within and outside. Russia is no longer an external power but an effective political actor inside Europe.

The Putin System’s Character

Is Russia a moderate fascist state in formation? Or is it a rent-seeking corpo­ra­tion with Putin as its CEO? Is it an author­i­tarian system with a clerical-conser­v­a­tive ideology, or is it a deeply prag­ma­tist govern­ment with no convic­tions, held together just by the will to stay in power? Does the regime have strategic aims or does it see political power just as a tool for its own enrichment?

These are some of the theories that Krem­li­nol­o­gists debate in 2018. Deciding what is right is not easy. One common denom­i­nator that scien­tists, experts, politi­cians and NGO workers could agree on is that it is a hybrid regime that combines elements from different systems. A major diffi­culty is, as one eminent soci­ol­o­gist put it, the habit in contem­po­rary Russia to “say one thing, think another while doing a third”.

On inter­esting discus­sion is about the room for maneuver left to the indi­vid­uals at the top. One theory called “sistema” in Russian argues that the elite’s private interests and systemic inertia is prone to take hostage even reformist leaders with good intentions.

Confer­ence partic­i­pants largely agreed that Russia is an author­i­tarian klep­toc­racy with systemic corrup­tion, a revi­sionist power that aims to rewrite history and change the geopo­lit­ical order. Add to this that its govern­ment shows little care about ethical and legal constraints and incor­po­rates informal networks of former and current security agency members (the “Chekists”).

Plus, Moscow has not only become a party to deadly wars in Syria and Ukraine (despite vehement denials), it is also widely seen to use dubious means like Internet trolls and state propa­ganda to influence western deci­sion­makers and public opinion to promote its own goals – a huge issue at least since the meddling accu­sa­tions in the 2016 US election.

But Russia’s ability to influence and manip­u­late has more to do with western weakness than with Russian strength. Rather than exag­ger­ating Moscow’s capa­bil­i­ties, western poli­cy­makers should focus on strength­ening and educating their own societies and start a wider debate.

Despite claims made by Russian state media, the West isn’t exactly plotting to overthrow Mr Putin. Not least because the risk of an abrupt regime change is widely seen as too high.

And yet it is important to ask questions about the future for Putin’s rule, which has entered its 19th year already. Alas, the answer is not as easy as you think.

Russia’s state pollster VTsIOM said last week that Putin’s rating is 70 per cent, and few were surprised when Sunday’s election delivered 76 per cent for Putin and a turnout of 67 per cent. Election fraud was actually largely unnec­es­sary since there was no serious contender on the ballots after oppo­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny was barred from taking part. The second strongest candidate, Communist Pavel Grudinin got only 11 per cent, while the liberal Xenia Sobchak finished fourth with just 1.6 per cent.

However, political ratings are highly contro­ver­sial in Russia. The inde­pen­dent Levada Center has been barred from publishing them under Russia’s contro­ver­sial foreign agent law. And oppo­si­tion activists say that conducting opinion polls in an author­i­tarian state is mean­ing­less anyway because people fear saying the truth. Which, in turn, justifies their prepa­ra­tions for the end of Putin’s rule.

When this will come, is another matter. Some say that a peaceful palace revo­lu­tion could happen, if Russia’s economic stag­na­tion and inter­na­tional isolation continue. But nobody knows, if many people would take to the streets to defend Putin. It is also unclear if a regime change can lead to a reformist govern­ment at all. Propo­nents of the above mentioned “Sistema” warn that Russian voters have an anti-western negative identity so strong that candi­dates demanding good relations with the West won’t have a chance to get elected.

What should the West do?

Many European poli­cy­makers now accept that there is a Russian strategy to spoil European cohesion. Donald Trump’s pres­i­dency in the US has also served as a wakeup call to better defend rule-based inter­na­tional order.

Some confer­ence partic­i­pants came up with recom­men­da­tions to build “coali­tions of the willing and able” that should target Moscow’s Achilles heel, that is money, and freeze and seize assets of Putin-loyal oligarchs and members of his ruling elite abroad.

Others stressed that Europeans should adopt a united strategy. But while the European Union’s resilience to stick to the sanctions regime – it was prolonged once more for six months earlier this week – comes as a positive surprise, given the current levels of intra-EU disagree­ment, nobody expects the 28-member bloc to impose new sanctions against the Kremlin soon.  Not even Britain has demanded this after the recent chemical agent attack on the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal.

In addition, calls for isolating Russia because of its government’s alleged criminal nature were met with criticism. Sanctions that isolate Russia polit­i­cally and econom­i­cally would hit the popu­la­tion more than the regime. Most EU members support a limited coop­er­a­tion with the Kremlin – e.g. in Syria. But many confer­ence partic­i­pants crit­i­cized the Nord Stream II pipeline project, because it only increases Europe’s depen­dence on Russian gas and strengthens the natural resource industry as the Kremlin’s most important financial resource.

“We need to find a balance between contain­ment and conflict manage­ment ... isolating a whole country and crim­i­nal­izing Putin won’t resolve the chal­lenges we face,” a senior German lawmaker told the confer­ence. He added that the Kremlin should still be subject to “naming and shaming”, espe­cially in the United Nations.

Thus, the West will keep talking with Russia – not least because turning your back on a difficult and dangerous neighbor is not a good option. However, mutual under­standing will remain extremely difficult, because Putin’s Russia sees itself as an opponent of the West.

The confer­ence was held under Chatham House Rules, which is why quotes were not attrib­uted to anyone.Anmerkung: Die Konferenz fand unter „Chatham-House Rules“ statt. Diskus­sions­beiträge wurden deshalb nicht persön­lich zugeordnet.


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