Marching ahead into the past. What this year has in store for Russia and its neighbors

9 January 2022, 05:24 PM

Moscow will keep looking to strike a grand deal with the West.

This article was originally published in a special issue of NV magazine World Ahead 2022, under an exclusive license from The Economist. Re-publication is strictly prohibited.

None of the predictions of Russia’s internal instability and imminent collapse of Putin’s regime have come to pass. Over the past two years, the Kremlin has managed to further consolidate its power and chart the way to perpetuate autocracy ad infinitum. There remains the bitter irony that the stability of Russian political system relies upon two potentially destabilizing contradictions.

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Firstly, the legitimacy the current regime obtains through the charade of “predictable” elections declines with every iteration. And secondly, it keeps getting harder and harder to maintain the “backbone” of the system – the grand and sovereign status of Russia – with ever dwindling resources and international influence.

The bipolar nature of the emerging Sino-American world order relegates Russia to the pool of second-rate states, subverting its ambitions of grandeur.

However, in the context of the ongoing crisis of liberalism and the decay of the liberal world order, the current Russian regime can persist indefinitely, provided the field of domestic political opposition remains barren. So far, the Kremlin has managed to maintain the status-quo by looking to the past for values and tenets that can bind the nation together.

This year, the government will keep trying to manage the COVID pandemic while spending as little as possible to support the population. Paradoxically, the Kremlin is hesitant to coerce its population to vaccinate en masse (unlike, say, China), despite having built and deployed a ruthless machine for political repression.

The pandemic will eventually become the ultimate test of the regime’s ability to tame existential crises, even if so far COVID has served as a suppressant to any kind of extra-parliamentary opposition.

The way Putin intends to perpetuate the system he has built is rather plain: it lies through indulging in neo-totalitarian impulses, while keeping the population snugly insulated against corrupting western influence.

Russian society turned out to be utterly hapless against the onset of illiberalism; however critical some segments of Russian population may be of Putin, their discontent does not transform into active protest.

To paint Kremlin’s foreign policy strictly in terms of confrontation with the West is far too reductive. As ever, Russia is triangulating a position that is simultaneously with the West, within it, and in opposition to it.

Liberal democracies remain a key economic asset to the Russian elite, who keep leveraging their status within the global kleptocracy to bribe and placate the western elites.

The Kremlin exploits the current moment of confusion, when the United States and its allies are rudderless, to bully and coerce them into a variety of concessions. The Russo-American summit in Spring 2021 that re-established the dialogue between the leaders of the two countries was made possible by the Russian saber-rattling along its border with Ukraine.

The eagerness with which the United States is trying to ease tensions between Washington and Moscow has only proven to Kremlin the success of its policy of military posturing.

There are, however, some factors that could still rain on Putin’s parade. Celebrating the end of a western-dominated era might turn out to have been somewhat premature. The Euro-Atlantic community, while slow to react to Moscow’s encroachment, will eventually intensify its policy of Russian containment.

Sooner or later, Putin will have to pick a side in the competition between the United States and China, with either option being nothing short of disastrous. By now, Russia is starting to ponder its fate as the junior partner to Beijing, and all the risks to its sovereignty that would entail.

The Moscow Snare

Russia is also facing a more immediate challenge: the enduring efforts of Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko to secure his political survival by stoking a conflict with Europe and dragging Moscow into it.

 On the one hand, Putin can scarcely afford to let Belarus out of its sphere of influence; on the other – backing Lukashenko come what may could ensnare Russia in a conflict with the European Union, for which Kremlin is not ready.

Ukraine remains crucial for preserving Russia’s imperial self, and for nudging the West towards providing a path to resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In the article on “historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples” Putin penned last year, he reasserted his fixation on Ukraine as the lynchpin of the Russian state. His declared mottos are: “Russians and Ukrainians are but one people”; “we’ll never accept (Ukraine as) anti-Russia”; “only in a union with Russia can Ukraine ever be truly sovereign.”

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It is due to this set of priors that Kremlin could never accept a pro-Western, sovereign Ukraine, nor is it willing to “freeze” the seven-year-long conflict with Kyiv. Making use of the disarray among the United States and its allies, Moscow is trying to establish their interpretation of the Minsk Protocol of 2014 as the accepted norm. Moscow interprets Joe Biden’s desire to defuse the tensions in Russo-American relations as willingness to “understand” Russia’s position. Much like China, Russia will seek to strike a grand bargain with the West: “we help you to resolve strategic challenges – climate, decarbonization, COVID – and in return you accede to our demands over Ukraine.”

Great trials await the world’s liberal democracies. Until they rediscover their core values and close ranks, autocracies will remain the prime movers across the globe. Transitional countries with a Soviet past will find the coming times trying and turbulent.

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