20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s Western media highlights, Anders Åslund explains in the American Interest that the West needs to revive Kremlinology, a Soviet-era analytical approach to deciphering and understanding the opaque practices of Russian politics. Meanwhile, in the Russian media, Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that despite the popular view, Russia’s “lost decade” is not the current one, but was instead the first ten years under Putin’s rule. And sociologist Aleksei Levinson writes that state television does not control the Russian public mind; in fact, it’s the Russian people who choose self-censorship.


 Russia's president Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with the government members at the Kremlin. His now former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov sits to his left, thus showing the high level of his influence in the country, according to Kremlinology. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / ТАСС


From the West

Why We Need Kremlinology Again

Anders Åslund, The American Interest

In this week’s article for the American Interest, Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, argues that a return to the “Kremlinology” approach to analyzing Russian politics may prove useful at a time when the political landscape is becoming increasingly opaque. Åslund defines Kremlinology as “the formalized study of hard facts in a closed society, observing appointments, organization, decrees, and formal speeches.” This approach, now seen as a relic of Cold War era Russian Studies, could help Western policymakers and experts interpret the unexpected and often mysterious appointments and dismissals that have taken place over the past few years in the upper echelons of the Russian power structure. The author points out that recent photographs of top-level Kremlin meetings suggest a protocol resembling the strict fashion in which senior Soviet officials would arrange themselves by rank during governmental engagements, and that this protocol could in fact tell us more about the status of Putin’s ruling party than Kremlin propaganda would have us know. Åslund suggests that through the lens of Kremlinology, Russia’s Security Council could effectively oust Putin, and that the significance of this institution is often ignored by Western analysts. In an atmosphere of perpetual disinformation, could a return to Kremlinology be the key to understanding who governs whom in Putin’s Russia?


Russia’s Nuclear Paranoia Fuels Its Nuclear Propaganda

Jeffrey Lewis, Foreign Policy 

In his insightful piece for Foreign Policy this week, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middleburg Institute, takes on deciphering some of the “disinformation” that defines much of Western public opinion, as well as official Russian propaganda. Lewis calls the Kremlin’s bluff on claims that the United States is moving nuclear weapons from Turkey to Romania—claims that sparked controversy among many in the West and served as an excuse for further nuclear advancement in Russia. He also notes that the circulation of such unfounded reports by anonymous sources picked up by the West’s own “useful idiots” have been greatly effective in perpetuating hysteria. He argues that in reality, the Russian leadership genuinely fears the technological superiority of the U.S., and fixates on a “funny sort of paranoid fantasy” that the U.S. could carry out a “decapitation” of Russian leaders using precision weaponry. This paranoia naturally gives way to the suspicion that the U.S. is in fact intending to place precision nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Lewis challenges this accusation, quoting John Krempasky: “the easiest way to figure out what the Russians are up to is to look at what they are accusing the United States of doing.” The author suggests that in the midst of this panic, the West must put all its cards on the table and work toward building mutual confidence. Both sides must show that it is in no one’s interest to convert precision defense systems into nuclear-armed offensive weapons (speculation that this is America’s plan is becoming increasingly prevalent in Russia), and to demonstrate that reinforcement of the INF treaty would be beneficial to everyone.  


Brexit’s Gifts to Putin

Elizabeth Buchanan, Foreign Affairs

As Britain prepares for its departure from the European Union, the latter faces one of its biggest crises in modern history. Elizabeth Buchanan of the Centre for European Studies at Australian National University writes in Foreign Affairs this week that “despite the obvious economic challenges associated with an EU mired in crisis, Russia will no doubt use the opportunity to enhance its bilateral economic ties with European nations.” One of the arguments often voiced by the Remain camp was that Brexit could play directly into Putin’s hands. The author contends that this could indeed be true, citing three ways Putin might benefit from Brexit. First, Brexit was a domestic win for Putin, as Kremlin propaganda portrayed the Russian leader as a strongman against the backdrop of a disintegrating Europe. Second, it reinforced Putin’s divide-and-conquer approach to Europe’s policies. With Britain out of the picture, a weaker and more divided EU would be more reluctant to adopt a harsh stance against Russia, while the Kremlin could enhance its economic ties with Europe and further lobby the controversial Nord Stream-2 project, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Finally, in terms of the sanction policy, Putin can benefit as well: preoccupied with sustaining the EU, European leaders will be paying less attention to anti-Russia sanctions. Buchanan concludes that Britain’s split with EU will take a few years, and Putin will take every opportunity to “seek to exploit the division, dangling trade, and security.”


From Russia

Which Decade Russia Actually Lost

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Slon.ru

Experts of the Higher School of Economics have recently claimed that if Russia’s economic growth remains close to zero in the next two years, we can conclude that the country’s last ten years were a “lost decade.” However, Vladislav Inozemtsev, head of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, argues that such a conclusion does not reflect reality. The problem is that in order to “lose” something, the country needs to have gained something, and Russia by the late 2000s had “nulled its opportunities and advantages,” and as a result, its economic growth would have stopped anyway, regardless of sanctions and low oil prices. The author suggests that it was the first decade of Putin’s rule that was “lost,” despite the popular characterization of this period as “the economy of hope.” It was during these years that all the country’s resources were wasted on “consolidation of the Soviet-type economy with a complete rejection of integrating international production chains, with the one exception of Russia’s role as a commodity supplier.” As a result, the chance for a breakthrough, and with it the chance for normal development, was lost. The situation wasn’t saved by high oil prices, and unwise foreign policy made it even worse. Inozemtsev concludes that Russia faces the exhaustion of the commodity-based economy model, and today the country doesn’t need economic growth—rather, it demands structural transformation.


A Frame for the Minister

Alexander Rubtsov, Vedomosti

Philosopher Alexander Rubtsov comments on the appointment of Olga Vasilyeva as the new head of Russia’s Education and Science Ministry and suggests it’s important that analysts draw a distinction between her appointment and the larger education situation in Russia. According to Rubtsov, judging from the new minister’s statements, the ministry will primarily focus on education, while science will be set aside as a separate body. Some of Vasilyeva’s claims have already sparked controversy, especially when she spoke of Stalin’s special role in consolidating the nation, and exaggerations of mass repressions under his rule. The author argues that these claims are just words; because radical Stalinism and conservatism are not advantageous to the Russian authorities, such topics will be reserved for the propagandists and will not become part of the official policy. Finally, the new minister mentioned the potential introduction of teaching Orthodox Christianity in school from grades 1–11, but Rubtsov contends that the chance of this happening is very small, as it might encourage disintegration in such a multiconfessional country as Russia, an outcome that would again run counter to the Kremlin’s interest amid increasing political turbulence in the country.


The Most Important of All the Arts: How Television Shapes Russian Consciousness

Alexei Levinson, RBC

Levada-Center sociologist Aleksei Levinson writes that despite having access to various sources of information, Russian society prefers the “informational monocentrism” provided by state television. According to recent polls, 86 percent of Russians get their news from television; and even those who use the Internet to search for news still cite television as their primary source. The author notes that people choose to turn away from the Internet: “out of ten publicly accessible TV-channels, the majority of Russian citizens select three to receive current information.” This self-censorship manifests not only in peoples’ rejection of other sources of news, but in distrust of the news as well (only 59 percent of those who watch television say they trust it). The correlation is as follows: the more they watch, the more they trust. But there is a psychological paradox in those who don’t trust television: stating their mistrust, they allegedly liberate themselves from glaring lies and imposed opinions, but they are incapable of filling the vacuum with their own judgments. Thus, the political goal of all the major TV channels is to flood the information space with the same controlled content, which can be expressed in various formats and genres. Levinson concludes that contrary to popular opinion, Russian television doesn’t “own” the public; rather, the public dictates what’s shown on TV.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.