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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