Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Midnight in Moscow

June 7, 2016

What Does Putin's Authoritarianism Mean for Russia's Foreign Policy?

Former U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill famously said about American politics, “All politics is local.” Torrey Taussig shows us in her article below that the same applies in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s international politics are explained through the lens of his internal domestic situation: a quick synopsis of a complicated subject and worth the read.  BG (ret) Kevin Ryan, director, Defense and Intelligence Projects, Belfer Center

A quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, authoritarianism is staging a comeback. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Russia, where Putin is progressing from consolidating power within Russia’s borders to projecting power beyond them. In response, the world continues to watch and react.

Later this month, members of the European Union will decide whether to renew sanctions against Russia in response to Putin’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. In July, NATO will convene in Warsaw for its annual summit to determine the most effective steps to take in the face of an encroaching Russia. What is not likely to be discussed in these deliberations, however, are the political conditions within Russia that are influencing Putin's actions abroad.

Simmering beneath the surface of Putin’s brinksmanship on the world stage is a political chess match that the Russian president is playing with his own people. Russia’s foreign policy features centrally into this domestic game, as Putin’s international adventures are carried out with a key objective in mind: to maintain domestic support and stability in a period of surging economic calamity and waning political legitimacy.

Putin is currently winning the hearts and minds of the Russian people, even as he tightens his grip of authoritarian control. Accountability and transparency have hit an all-time low in Putin’s tenure as leader of the Russian Federation, but the Russian people don’t seem to mind – for now.

How Did We Get Here?

When Putin became president in 2000, his primary goal was to piece Russia back together after a decade of economic turmoil. He wanted to pay back the tremendous debts owed to international lenders so that Russia could have more room to maneuver. This was no small task, given that Mikhail Gorbachev’s government maintained almost $70 billion in foreign debt, which the Russian Federation officially assumed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin consulted widely among domestic coalitions to deal with the debt problem, and in 2006 Russia paid back the final $22 billion of debt owed to the Paris Club – a group of 17 creditors including the United States and the United Kingdom.

At the time, the economy was booming and riding a wave of surging oil prices. In 2006, Russia experienced 6.8 percent GDP growth and amassed $303 billion in foreign reserves. But a series of international and domestic events would shock the system and risk loosening Putin’s grip on control.

First, in Russia’s “near abroad,” a series of so-called color revolutions took place in Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-2005), and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005), during which civil resistance movements threatened the stability of autocratic and pro-Kremlin governments close to Russia’s border. Putin perceived the West as inciting these revolutions and attempting to compel democratic change on Russia’s periphery. Meanwhile in 2004, NATO underwent its most extensive round of enlargement, offering membership to seven countries including Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. From the ever-wary Russian perspective, the enemy was at the gates.

Then in 2008, Russia was thrown into the abyss of the global economic crisis, coupled with the collapse of oil prices. Turmoil in the world financial markets led to a rapid depreciation of the ruble against the dollar and ensuing capital flight from the country. Hard times fell on an undiversified economy: By 2008, hydrocarbon export revenues effectively comprised 65 to 70 percent of Russia’s budget directly or indirectly. The world was reminded how thoroughly dependent Russia is on oil and gas.

Economic turmoil eventually preceded political discontent. In 2011 and 2012, Russians took the streets, including several thousand in central Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, to challenge the contested parliamentary and presidential elections that placed Putin back in the Office of the Presidency for a third-term. Things looked grim for Russia’s heir apparent.

If You See Something, Say Nothing

Following these internal and external shocks, there emerged a palpable sense of anti-Americanism within the regime. The governing elite believed that the United States played a behind-the-scenes role in fomenting color revolutions and economic instability around the globe. America’s goals were allegedly to change regimes it did not like and to drive jittery investors to American markets: its own form of hybrid warfare.

An intense tightening of control on civil society followed, with the rule of law and free media becoming primary targets of Putin’s resurgent authoritarianism. Real justice means very little in Russia, and judges remain at the whim of the political system. Take press liberties as an example. Politicians and government officials frequently use the country’s politicized and corrupt court system to harass journalists who dare speak out against authorities. The Russian state essentially owns the television sphere, and is steadily hollowing out free speech online.

Two new laws took effect in 2014 that significantly extend state control over online platforms. In May 2014, Putin signed “the bloggers law,” which requires any blog or website with more than 3,000 daily viewers to register as a media outlet with Roskomnadzor (a federal agency responsible for supervision of the media). Separately, under Law No. 97 and a follow-up law passed in July 2014, social-media platforms and other internet companies would have to store Russian users’ data on servers where it could be accessed by authorities. All media platforms operate with the understanding that the government has the power to shut them down at any time.

What is left of free press in Russia suffered another major setback on May 13 when three senior managers of the country's biggest independent media holding, RosBusinessConsulting (RBC), resigned under political pressure. These Individuals include RBC editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, chief of RBC’s news service Roman Badanin and newspaper editor Maxim Solyus. There are concerns that oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov (owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets), who controls 51 percent of shares, was also pressured into self-censorship after reporting on the Panama Papers, in which Putin’s allies feature prominently.

It’s Lonely at the Top

Freedom of the press is not the only target of Russian authoritarianism. Since the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015, meaningful political opposition to the Kremlin has been non-existent. Those who do not admire Putin’s leadership, including individuals such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, either say so from abroad or are repeatedly brought to court on fraudulent charges made by the Russian government.

In a recent meeting with Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, he remarked on a noticeable shift in Putin’s leadership style since his reelection in 2012. "After 2012, Putin became almost an emperor, leading through a more tsarist-like rule," says Lukyanov. “This is different from his first term, when he was like an extremely powerful CEO, but with a board that he listened to. Now there are still several people with whom he consults, but none of them can say that he knows what decisions will be made. And this makes Putin indispensable."

From this vantage point Putin is visibly accountable to no one. He has removed all meaningful opposition and has successfully taken diverse factions of the Federal Assembly and Duma under his wing. In this political climate, Putin can pass legislation on a whim without little threat of debate or pushback.

One recently passed piece of legislation includes a makeover of Russia’s internal security corps. At Moscow’s Victory Day parade on May 9th the newly established Russian National Guardparaded publically for the first time. The 400,000-person internal security corps is intended to maintain public order and ensure security against domestic threats. The force will be led by Mr. Putin’s former bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, a choice that signals a narrowing of Putin’s decision-making circle. While plans for the unit have been in the works for years, the timing of this development serves as a warning to society against protests and unrest surrounding the upcoming Duma elections in September.

What Role Does Foreign Policy Play?

So how do Putin’s foreign policies fit into his political objectives to maintain power and order at home?

First, Putin seeks to build Russia into a counter-weight against Western intentions that are anathema to his own foreign policies and domestic interests. According to Dimiti Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “Moscow’s immediate foreign policy goal is to withstand the pressure imposed on it by the United States and U.S. allies.” Since February 2014, the Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode, with Putin acting as a wartime leader. So far, he has no intention of stepping back and reconciling himself with the West.

Prime Minister Medvedev said as much at the Munich Security Conference several weeks ago, when he articulated that a new Cold War was in the works, singling out NATO: “NATO’s policy with regard to Russia has remained unfriendly and opaque. One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War.” Trenin also argues that Russia’s principal foreign policy priorities, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria, are “checking any further advance of NATO in Eastern Europe and confirming Russia’s status as a great power outside the post-Soviet space.”

Second, Russia is taking measures to ensure that revolutions abroad are seen to fail. It is imperative to Putin’s own survival that revolution in such volatile places as Kiev and Damascus not provide successful examples of what happens when the people rise up against their leaders. If Putin does feel an intrinsic threat from the West, it is not the fear of overt regime change, but the fear of information warfare and the support of revolutions abroad that would show Russians on the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg that revolution could succeed.

Putin’s own history as a KGB officer in East Germany during the downfall of the Soviet Union has also led him to respect and fear the power of protest and revolution.  Furthermore, Putin conceptually believes that strong (and subservient) states will provide stability for Russia’s foreign policy interests everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Anti-statist forces can only sow chaos and new breeding grounds for terrorism and disorder.

Third, Putin’s “made-for-TV” warfare is working to distract Russians from economic hardship and political repression. Glorified images of Russian airstrikes on state-run TV news channels fit perfectly into the nation’s worldview that it is a great power with the ability to be a decisive force in international politics.

This is an effective and popular way to identify with the Russian people. “Russia has a tradition of being a great power, and even a superpower, which is rooted in several centuries of history,” Lukyanov indicated in a recent email exchange. He added, “For the Russian national psyche it is important to feel respected (and sometimes even feared) on a global scale. That is why the collapse of the Soviet Union has been perceived as a national and even global disaster, and why Russia’s current recovery as a great power is so widely popular.”

Indeed, Russia’s status as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage is perhaps the only uncontested truth in the Russian identity after centuries of revolution and upheaval.

This is why Russians admire Putin for his qualities of strength, perseverance and leadership, particularly in response to what many see as unjust Western sanctions. This image of strength could not be more crucial for maintaining power in today’s Russia, where slick bribes grease the engines of the economy, government officials answer to no one and the rule of law is a mere façade behind which corruption reigns.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

In the short-term, Russia will ride out the current economic downturn the way it does war: it will muddle through on the backs of the people. Andrei Movchan, director of the Economic Policy Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, thinks the economy has a long way to go before it incites unrest. According to Movchan, although the Russian economy lacks the capacity and the momentum for new growth, the wealth accumulated in the boom years will insulate the country against a crash for at least three years.

“Many analysts suggest that until GDP per capita in Russia falls from the current $8,500 USD to $4,500 USD there is no risk of political instability,” Movchan indicated over email. He added that popular uprisings are more likely to start in countries with nominal per capita GDP of under $6,000 USD.

Yet even in this historically tenacious society, one has to wonder how much economic pain Russians are willing to tolerate in exchange for chest thumping nationalism and pride.

As The Economist recently reported, living standards have fallen in recent years and continue to fall. The average salary in January 2014 was $850 a month; a year later it was $450. Russians are tightening their belts in response; shops along Moscow’s most expensive commercial street, Tverskaya Street, have been shuttering their businesses with increasing regularity.

Despite the bite of Western sanctions and plunging oil prices, rampant corruption will remain an even greater detriment to the long-term health of the Russian economy by inhibiting entrepreneurship, innovation and international investment. Movchan highlights that this lack of trust in the government has progressively turned businessmen away from the country. Over the past sixteen years, total capital flight has exceeded total revenues from oil and gas sales. Furthermore, the Russian private sector is so underdeveloped that it generates less than $3,000 per year per capita, a figure that puts Russia outside the top 100 countries worldwide in this ranking.

Even with these abysmal figures Putin’s image as an international strongman is insulating him from intense criticism. In May 2016, 80 percent of Russians gave Putin a positive approval rating, although the percentage of Russians that see the country heading in the right direction continues to fall, from 64 percent in June 2015 to 50 percent in May 2016.

If oil prices stay low and the economy continues to slide, other indicators of Russia’s mood will start to worsen, too. Movchan warns, “In three-four years’ time the threat of imminent breakdown will be considerably more grave.”

The Unknown Unknowns

There are many “unknown unknowns” emanating from Russia today, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was known to say, which makes the situation even more daunting. The Kremlin does not have the economic strength needed to continue its expansionary military strategies, but it also do not have the luxury of being seen as retreating in the face of a unified Western front.

Therefore, policymakers in the U.S. and the West should expect Putin to continue his reliance on Russian nationalism and countering a phantom threat from abroad for as long as he can afford.

As for Russia itself? The West should view Russia as a distressed yet proud and able nation whose people have lived through generations of uncertainty over where their country is headed, and what parts of their past they should hold on to. The lesson of an old Russian proverb could not be more relevant today: The future is known. It is the past that keeps changing.

Unfortunately as long as Putin continues to allow rampant corruption and repress innovation, free press and the transparent rule of law, Putin will leave his people wanting. This will have severe repercussions when he plans his own exit strategy in the years to come. His actions may even incite protests and unrest in advance of September’s parliamentary elections.

When the time does come for a successor to Putin, the West must be ready for the possibility of someone worse, not better, from the West’s perspective.  With liberal opposition leaders either chased abroad or repressed at home, those successor candidates waiting in the wings will likely be more draconian and nationalistic than Putin himself. We know one thing for certain – whoever that successor may be, he will inherit a regime with ever less constraints or checks on his power. Those will have all been cast aside.


About the author:

Torrey Taussig is a researcher on the dynamics of authoritarianism and their relevance for global security and U.S. foreign policy. She is a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Taussig, Torrey; Foreword by Kevin Ryan. “Midnight in Moscow.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 7, 2016.