20 years under Putin: a timeline

On May 14, the American Enterprise Institute held a conference entitled “Putin’s Russia: How It Rose, How It Is Maintained, and How It Might End.” Nine prominent Russia experts discussed the main challenges that Putin’s regime faces today and expects to confront in the next few years.



The economic crisis currently sweeping Russia will last at least until 2016, and when the country begins to recover a few years from now, a wave of public discontent will rise up, as it did in 2011–2012. This will provoke an unpredictable reaction from Vladimir Putin’s regime as it tries to stabilize the situation and retain power. Within a few more years, the regime will likely collapse as a result of internal instability.

This is a composite vision of Russia’s near-term future as imagined by nine prominent experts who gathered on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, to present a collection of academic papers entitled Putin’s Russia: How It Rose, How It Is Maintained, and How It Might End. The book covers topics such as the evolution of Russians’ attitudes toward the government, the contrast between political sentiments in Moscow and those in the regions, and the tenuous rise of civil society in Russia.

Most of the experts (see below for the full list) agreed that Putin’s high approval rating is not strictly a result of state propaganda. Instead, they said, Putin’s annexation of Crimea played on a real and abiding desire in society for Russia to regain its superpower status. Nevertheless, despite this public approval, Putin’s regime will become unstable and he will struggle to maintain his rule because the government lacks a clear plan for economic development. The absence of a system of succession will increase social anxieties, especially among elites. Putin will likely compensate for this stagnation and uncertainty by stirring up more fears of foreign enemies and possibly by embarking on another military adventure.

Here are some of the highlights of each expert’s speech at the event:

Mikhail Dmitriev (economist and president of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research from 2005 to 2014): The annexation of Crimea provided an outlet for social tensions that had been building since late 2013 as a result of the government’s inability to spur economic development. Now, as the euphoria over the regaining of Crimea passes, the public is beginning to refocus on domestic issues and economic growth, and the Kremlin will need to respond.

“The government is faced with a challenge: It has to deliver the fastest possible exit from the crisis.... But [economic recovery] may not necessarily diffuse the tensions,” Dmitriev said. “Basically what’s happening is, the shock is really deep—consumption has declined much more than ever before since 1998. We may expect a high propensity for economic protests. More intense economic protests outside the capital, in the regions and locations which have been most affected by the crisis, [are] quite possible.”

Lev Gudkov (sociologist and director of the independent Levada Center since 2006): By initiating the conflict in Ukraine, Putin’s regime put aside new ideas about future development and put the priority back on restoring the country’s superpower status and initiating a confrontation with the West. In doing so, Putin is playing on a longstanding desire of Russian voters, who for 20 years have consistently wanted the government to take steps to recover the country’s position on the international stage.

“Politicians and sociologists really underestimated the power of the trauma inflicted on the national psyche by the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Gudkov said. “The annexation of Crimea has led to a wave of serious and, I believe, long-lasting consolidation of power, which has brought back some of the most essential elements of Soviet identity: a closed and isolated society that is trying to resist this aggressive influence from the outside. This also allowed the regime to discredit the political opposition by portraying it as traitors, enemies, and foreign agents.”

Sergei Guriev (economist and rector of the New Economic School from 2004 to 2013): According to most economic projections, the recession will continue into 2016, and the Russian government will exhaust its reserve fund by the second half of 2016. Unless something changes, such as a rise in the price of oil, the second half of 2016 will be a time of reckoning, and the government will be forced to take some sort of action. One possibility is that it will seek another “rally round the flag” event like the annexation of Crimea. Citing a recent paper he coauthored with University of California—Los Angeles professor Daniel Treisman about the viability of authoritarian regimes over time, Guriev said he thought it was extremely difficult to make an accurate prediction about the future of Putin’s government.

“There is a [type of] regime and an equilibrium in which a popular leader can preside over falling living standards and his popularity will still grow,” Guriev said. “This may go on for a while—this regime may survive for many, many years. I think that there is a possibility that [Putin’s government] will survive for 10 or 20 years. But that regime can also collapse overnight.”

Natalya Zubarevich (regions expert and professor of geography at Moscow State University): The upcoming economic crisis will not hit the country suddenly, but in a gradual, step-by-step manner. Investment is dropping, but the effects of this will be delayed. Industrial spending has been partly maintained because of the government’s increase in military outlays. And the depreciation of the ruble has benefited the resource-extraction sector, which rests on export revenues in stronger foreign currencies. Market services in big cities are suffering the most of all, but the situation in the villages and small towns in the periphery of the country is much the same as ever: people are struggling just to survive.

Kirill Rogov (political analyst and senior research fellow at the Gaidar Institute): There are three main pillars of Putin’s popularity. The first and most important is economic performance. The second is the “rally round the flag” effect from the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and now Ukraine. The third is the “supermajority effect,” which is the outcome of the attempt by Russia’s ruling authorities to create the impression that they have overwhelming public support in order to make people think that they are strange outliers if they don’t support the government.

Rogov also said that Putin’s political calling card has become an emphasis on defending the nation from external enemies, instead of maintaining stability. “In the 2000s, his agenda was the idea of stability, which is the basic condition for economic growth,” Rogov said. “Now it is the agenda of aggressive anti-Westernism. It’s not about stability within the country but about the outside threat and the struggle with threats that could undermine the existing order.”

Boris Makarenko (political analyst and chairman of the board of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies): Despite the difficult economic situation, the political elite will not split easily. They may be unhappy with what is happening and have doubts about the future, but they are in their positions because they remain loyal and “play by the rules.”

“I believe it will get worse before it gets better,” Makarenko said. “The main problem with the regime is that it has absolutely no vision for the future. Its best vision is ‘yesterday’ or...‘today.’ At some point, this will develop into a major problem.”

Alexei Malashenko (political analyst and chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security program): Islamic extremism is spreading to other parts of Russia besides the North Caucasus, such as Tatarstan and even parts of Siberia. Despite the Kremlin’s hard-fought attempts to keep central Asia within its orbit, Russia will lose out to China.

“Russia is losing the post-Soviet space and will lose it forever,” Malashenko said. “The Eurasian Union, despite all declarations and expectations, will stay as a form of bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and Russia.”

Yevgeny Gontmakher (economist and deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations): Russia is not truly a federation because there are no common institutions among all Russian regions—not the rule of law, not observance of human rights, not democratic principles. Each region is ruled according to its own set of particular rules. As a result, even if Putin had adequate information about all the different regions, he would not be able to make effective federal policy decisions.

Dmitry Oreshkin (political analyst and head of the Mercator Group): Public opinion data do not accurately reflect people’s opinions about the government because of the massive impact of propaganda and the difficulty in formulating proper questions as a result of this propaganda. For example, when Russians are asked, “Do you support Putin?” they hear, “Do you love Russia?” because of the way the media portray the president as the embodiment of the nation.

“Russian society will become isolated in a kind of propaganda fantasy in which Russia is a superpower and the world is full of enemies,” Oreshkin said. “That’s why the propaganda really works, because this imaginary world is so much better than reality. But in the end, we will all crash down from this imaginary cloud that we find ourselves on and hurt ourselves badly.”