20 years under Putin: a timeline

For centuries, Russian rulers have sought to maintain a physical buffer zone between themselves and any potential foreign invader. Even today, this historical characteristic of Kremlin psychology is cited as an explanation for Moscow’s attempts to maintain implicit control over political developments in independent Ukraine and Belarus. In a modern context, however, it is not the encroachment of NATO tanks, airplanes, or missiles that poses the greatest existential threat to Russia’s ruling class—it is the spread of free and fair elections.

 

Despite personal dislike of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko (right), Vladimir Putin helps him stay in power in order to keep Belarus in Moscow's orbit Photo: kremlin.ru.

 

There is a long history of foreign armies trying and failing to take Russia by force. In 1708, after conquering the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish emperor Charles XII crossed the Vistula River at the head of 40,000 men. Russian Tsar Peter I utilized a scorched earth strategy to lure the invaders south, leading to Muscovy’s ultimate triumph at the decisive Battle of Poltava eighteen months later. In 1812, following the Pyrrhic victory of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée at Borodino, Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov abandoned Moscow, strategically withdrawing his troops into the agriculturally rich lands around Kaluga. Napoleon found himself stuck between a well-fed Russian army to his south and war-ravaged countryside to his north. Unable to feed his men and with winter approaching, the French emperor had little choice but to flee for Paris—with Russian troops following him all the way home. In 1941, between June 22 and early December, Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa captured all of modern-day Belarus and Ukraine and brought Wehrmacht soldiers into the villages north of Moscow. A Soviet counterattack denied the Germans the capital, however, and the invaders’ advance across the southern steppe was ultimately halted at Stalingrad. In early May 1945, the Red Army secured Berlin.

All of this history is true. None of it is relevant to the security of the Russian state in the 21st century. Since August 1945, the Kremlin has not faced the plausible threat of a land invasion. Yes, as the Cold War arms race developed and intermediate-range nuclear missiles faced off from opposite sides of a divided Germany, the everyday possibility of nuclear apocalypse turned the maximization of the physical distance between metropolitan Moscow and the nearest NATO battery into a matter of life and death for the Soviet leadership. However, after the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1988, the military logic for Russia maintaining a physical buffer zone only diminished further. Even as the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO expanded eastward, Russia’s continued nuclear deterrent capability rendered the thought of another million-man march from Vilnius to Moscow unthinkable. In 2013, one year before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the number of American tanks deployed on European soil stood at precisely zero. Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin cited “NATO enlargement” as one more item in a long line of implausible ex post facto justifications for the first forced transfer of European territory since the end of World War II.

Putin is not wrong to interpret the eastward expansion of Western institutions as a threat—to his rule. Individual members of the Kremlin’s inner circle have been credibly accused of delusion and corruption, but few have ever been called naive. A ruling regime confident in its popular legitimacy does not need to poison dissidents, persecute independent media, or openly manipulate election results. While Putin’s approval rating has remained relatively high throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the government’s failed rollout of the Sputnik V vaccine and high vaccine resistance rates testify to much lower levels of public trust in government. Despite the vaccine garnering a stamp of approval from The Lancet and testimonials from nearly every foreign correspondent in Moscow, only 37 percent of Russians have chosen to become fully inoculated. This does not mean that a silenced majority of ordinary Russians is clamoring for the chance to vote for Alexei Navalny in the 2024 presidential election—they’re not. It does mean that, if given an actual choice, they may well turn against their incumbent president-for-life.

The Kremlin has no desire to find out for sure. Russia’s recent authoritarian turn is not the result of the presidential administration feeling stronger and more secure, but of previously unnecessary risks developing into the best available option for the ruling elite. A regime that views free and fair elections as an unnecessary evil does its best to keep democracy as far away as it can. In Russia’s case, that means actively intervening against the democratic development of its closest neighbors, Belarus and Ukraine. 

In 2020, Belarusian society demonstrated its readiness for political change—then the Kremlin intervened. In the runup to last year’s presidential elections in “Europe’s last dictatorship,” businessman Viktar Babaryka was widely seen as the most likely figure to unseat local president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko. Far from being any sort of pro-NATO American puppet, Babaryka was so well-connected and well-respected in Moscow that Lukashenko attempted to tar him as “the Kremlin’s candidate.” A Babaryka administration in Minsk would have presented no challenge to Russia’s geopolitical or economic interests in its geographically western neighbor. And yet, when Lukashenko’s KGB arrested Babaryka on politically motivated money laundering charges two months in advance of the vote, Moscow remained silent. It was not until after election day itself—when the Belarusian Central Election Commission announced an official Lukashenko victory of 80 percent—that the Kremlin finally saw fit to intervene in the form of security assistance, economic aid, and outright propaganda, all in support of the dictator taking up truncheons, tear gas, flashbang grenades, and live ammunition against the hundreds of thousands of his own citizens incredulous at the results. Why? Because Vladimir Putin would rather live with a problematic figure next door than worry about the possible personal consequences of the Russian people getting the idea that all it takes to oust an autocrat is one day of smart voting followed by a few weeks of peaceful protest.    

Ukraine presents a different order of battle. Oligarchic pluralism is not the Platonic ideal of democracy, but the preservation of competing power centers in Ukrainian politics nevertheless allows for a vibrant free press, an active civil society, and a throw-the-bums-out attitude to democratic transition. Until 2014, candidates backed by Kremlin-friendly Donbass power brokers always held enough political power in Kyiv to prevent the country from successfully reforming itself. After the Maidan revolution sent Viktor Yanukovich fleeing for Russia, however, the Putin regime made every effort to ensure that the overthrow of a fellow uncharismatic Russophone kleptocrat was not seen to lead to general prosperity. For all its realpolitik blather about “red lines” and “spheres of influence,” the Kremlin behaves as if it understands the existential danger emanating from Kyiv perfectly well: Ukraine’s primary threat to the Kremlin is not as an unsinkable American aircraft carrier, but as a potential template for the successful democratic reform of a major post-Soviet state. This is why, for the past eight years, Russian domestic propaganda has treated viewers from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka to a daily dose of “news” about their southern neighbors’ transformation into an impoverished, neo-fascist, NATO place d’armes. So long as ordinary Russians remain convinced that they are engaged in a geopolitical struggle with the West, they might not notice that their real enemies live just off the Rublevka Highway.

The conclusion Western policymakers should draw from this reality is not that Western concessions toward Ukrainian “neutrality” or “Finlandization” would improve relations with Russia, but that no meaningful agreement can be reached with a side that refuses to acknowledge the fact that its neighbors are independent, sovereign states. Under the circumstances, the West has a responsibility to publicly make any and all promises that it can plausibly keep. For Kyiv, such a package must include the assurance that Ukraine’s continued progress in the spheres of political openness, anti-corruption reform, and military professionalism will be met with reciprocal diplomatic, economic, and military support. For Moscow, it must be made clear that any incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine past the current line of contact in the Donbass will be met with SWIFT bans, diplomatic isolation, and increased pressure on European customers of Russian natural gas to find alternative sources of energy. For Minsk, it must be communicated that the Lukashenko regime’s next manufactured crisis will not lead to sanctions relief either.

Even if no thaw in the West’s relations with Moscow is possible in the short term, maintenance of the status quo ought to be taken as a cause for celebration throughout the democratic world. Every day that passes without a major escalation in the Donbass conflict, Ukraine takes one small step toward a European standard of living, while Russia and Belarus simply move twenty-four hours closer to their respective dictators’ inevitable demise. So long as the elected leaders in Kyiv continue to strive for partnership with the West, it is in the enlightened self-interest of the elected leaders in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels to give it to them. As the Kremlin has long understood, the example of a free, prosperous, Western-oriented Ukraine is the transatlantic alliance’s most powerful weapon in its struggle against post-Soviet autocracy. Eventually, the threat will find its way across the Russian border.

 

* Michael Wasiura is a political analyst based in Moscow. 

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