20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, Mary Dejevsky argues in the Independent that the West’s attempts to blame Brexit on Vladimir Putin actually exaggerate his power. And Mark Galeotti writes for Open Democracy that Russia’s recent military exercises do not necessarily mean it’s preparing for an imminent war. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, analysts discuss the country’s economic reforms and their viability in the current political climate.


Union Jack flags dropped on the ground after the United Kingdom surprisingly votes for Brexit on June 23, 2016. Photo: Julien Mattia / NurPhoto via ZUMA Press / TASS


From the West

If You Believe the Remain Camp, Putin Is the Bogeyman of Brexit – But It’s Not Actually That Simple

Mary Dejevsky, The Independent

In her piece for the Independent, British writer and broadcaster Mary Dejevsky argues that the West has been exaggerating Putin’s power and authority by perceiving him as a “master strategist, striver after world domination, and latter-day tsar.” The latest claims made by the Remain camp in Britain that Putin is the mastermind behind Brexit is one such exaggeration. The truth is that neither Putin, nor any members of his immediate circle, has expressed sympathy for Brexit. When asked about Brexit at the international economics forum in St. Petersburg, Putin in fact denied that Brexit would be in Russia’s interests. The claims about Putin’s involvement in Brexit have only exposed a fundamental misunderstanding that “bedevils the UK’s relations with Russia.” According to Dejevsky, Putin’s top priority is security and stability along Russia’s borders—that’s why he got involved in Ukraine—but supporting a move that might lead to the breakup of the entire European Union is “something else.” While Putin is the one to blame for an illegal annexation of Crimea, and for creating a corrupt climate within Russia, blaming him for a position he has not taken clouds the real issues and threats, and discredits Putin’s critics more than it does him.


What Russia’s Olympic Ban Means for Vladimir Putin

Kimberly Marten, The Washington Post

Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Columbia University, discusses the implications of Russia’s Olympic ban for Putin’s regime. She argues that on the one hand, the ban will not affect Putin’s popularity and approval ratings, because Russian officials and media have already framed the ban as “one more example of the West unfairly beating up on the Russian state.” On the other hand, though, the ban has put Putin’s two major leadership goals—to go down in history as the man who restored Russia’s glory, and to hold on to power for as long as possible—in conflict with one another. The problem is that in order to not go down in history as the man who spoiled Russia’s great Olympic legacy, Putin will have to start cleaning up corruption in Russia’s Sport Ministry. However, given that that the circles of corruption in Russia are complex and intertwined, exposing corruption in one ministry might result in incriminating other crucial state actors, including the FSB, and thus undermine the very foundation that secures Putin’s place at the top. It’s hard to predict how Putin will act. But, according to Marten, “Putin will not be able to restore Russia’s Olympic luster while maintaining the underpinnings of the regime as we now know it.”


No, Russia Is Not Preparing for All-Out War

Mark Galeotti, Open Democracy

Mark Galeotti, professor of global studies at New York University, argues that Russia’s latest snap mobilization drills do not imply the country’s willingness to start a war. NATO has also launched large-scale military exercises in Poland, but this does not mean it is preparing for an offensive operation. According to Galeotti, Russia’s military exercises are simply prudent preparations because the military is the state’s final option. It’s highly unlikely that Russia will “tangle with the most powerful military alliance in the world,” given that much of the Russian military is still in poor shape. Though the Kremlin is constantly talking about modernization, the army still relies on Soviet-era weapons. Russia’s reserve system is also broken. It makes more sense to perceive the Russian military as “part fighting force, part marketing gimmick.” Galeotti argues that the Kremlin nevertheless poses four serious risks to the West. The first risk is that some Western leaders might be cowed by Russian saber-rattling and soften their position on Russia. The second risk is that the West might become obsessed with the “mythical military threat” and divert its attention from reals issues, such as Russian espionage, subterfuge, and subversion. The third risk is what Galeotti calls a “nightmare scenario,” in which either side sees a direct military threat where there is none and reacts. And the fourth risk is that confrontation could become an end in itself. Putin perceives Russia’s relationship with the West as a zero-sum game, and there’s a danger that the West will also return to the simplistic dualism of the Cold War period.


From Russia

No One To Talk To: Why a “Consensus of Elites” Is Impossible in Russia

Vladimir Guelman, RBC

Political scientist Vladimir Guelman weighs in on the debate with economist Alexander Auzan and argues that it will be impossible anytime in the near future for Russia to realize the idea of a “consensus of elites” (on the strategy and tactics of governance and the direction of Russia’s political course). Guelman refers to the few historical precedents of successful agreements within a ruling political class, including England’s “glorious revolution” of 1689, Spain’s Moncloa Pact of 1978, and Poland’s “roundtable” of 1989. Based on these examples, he concludes that the key to their success was wide public support of the political opposition to the ruling elites. Also, the alternative for the elites was a much worse option than negotiating an agreement. In modern Russia, elites have already tried in vain to reach a consensus: according to the author, participants of the “consensus of elites” perceived agreements as a temporary tactical truce and breached them at the first sign of a change in the balance of power. Given that the Russian opposition has been marginalized and the public is not ready to support it, the elites have no one to talk to, let alone a reason to abide by the agreements.


Andrei Movchan: “The Kremlin Needs Kudrin to Oppose Siloviki With Authority”

Yevgeny Andreyev, Novaya Gazeta

Director of the Economic Policy Program at the Moscow Carnegie Center Andrei Movchan speaks about the current economic situation in Russia, noting that the country’s economy, having absorbed the shock of a sharp decrease in oil prices, remains in recession despite subsequent price stabilization. Movchan argues that one of the key risks is the weakness of a Russian banking system “that suffers shortage of live capital,” which could result in its collapse if the Central Bank doesn’t pursue sensible policies. He points out that as the discussion on economic reforms in Russia gains momentum, the question of why Vladimir Putin decided to bring former finance minister Alexei Kudrin back to the Kremlin takes on a political tint. Movchan assures us that Kudrin’s return has nothing to do with the reforms. Putin’s strategy can be boiled down to two components—maintaining long-term economic stagnation and preserving political stability. “Reforms are quite dangerous for the authorities” says Movchan, and the Russian elites are not interested in them. Comparing two competing reform plans (proposals put out by Kudrin and another economic advisor, Sergei Glazyev), Movchan concludes that short of any demand for reforms per se, the government, as usual, will take the “middle” path—sensible monetary policies with no attempt at liberalization. The Russian economy has sufficient reserves to allow for the annual loss of one or two percent of GDP for years.


Anticipating the “Duma of Redistribution”

Alexander Kynev, Vedomosti

Alexander Kynev, an expert in regional politics, dissects the main trend of the parliamentary elections campaign recently launched in Russia. He argues that “the future [parliament] has every chance to become not the ‘Duma of Change,’ [which would focus on] renovation and development, but the ‘Duma of Redistribution and Social Paternalism’” in which state employees would become the key actors, not jurists or economists. A number of factors have confirmed this trend, including the decision to hold the elections in September instead of December, which threatens to cause a low turnout and, as a result, benefit the conformist, state-dependent electorate. The regime’s goal is to mobilize the so-called “offline” social groups and to endorse their candidates, such as presidents of universities, hospital administrators, school principals, etc., “complementing them with symbolic figures, like cosmonauts, sportsmen, and TV anchors.” Results of the ruling party’s primaries confirm the author’s assumption.


Nini Arshakuni helped compile this week's roundup.