20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Vladimir Frolov argues that Putin’s foreign policy is in fact an updated Brezhnev Doctrine; Alexander Arkhangelsky contends that politicization is inevitable in Russia; Alexander Rubtsov explains how the idea of reforms has been hijacked; Alexander Kynev details how the arrests of regional officials have shaken the balance of power; and Sergey Aleksashenko analyzes Alexei Kudrin’s reform program. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Alexei Kudrin, deputy chairman of the Presidential Economic Council, speaks at the 2017 St Petersburg International Economic Forum at a panel session titled "The Digitalization of Critical Infrastructure and Strategic Consortia." Photo: Yegor Aleyev / TASS.



Republic: 70 Years Backwards. How Putin Renewed the Brezhnev Doctrine

  • Author: Vladimir Frolov, expert in international affairs.
  • At the recent economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin’s speeches clearly signaled that the two pillars of Russian foreign policy remain unchanged: that the West is impeding Russia from becoming a world power, and Russia will continue to respond as it sees fit.
  • The intensity of the confrontation, which is part of a zero-sum game envisioned by Putin,  tends to vary. But in his last speech, the Russian leader appeared ready for a conditional détente (but not reconciliation) with the West. This would include lifting sanctions, accepting Russia’s geopolitical status and no longer “interfering” in Russia’s domestic affairs.
  • Putin’s offer has a distinct 1970s flavor, including references to ideas of the Helsinki Accords and concepts (albeit reworked) of those times, e.g. “legitimate interests” and ‘full sovereignty’.
  • Frolov argues that accepting this offer could be a slippery slope for the West: Crimea as a “legitimate interest” now; tomorrow it’s Donbas, next year Venezuela.
  • “Full sovereignty” can be similarly dangerous, because it assumes a two-tier system whereby some states conduct foreign policy with impunity (Putin puts India, China, Brazil, Russia, and the U.S. in this category). On the second rung are NATO countries including Britain, France, and Japan.
  • This concept is also that Moscow has its own lower-tier “vassal sector”—an idea borrowed from the Brezhnev Doctrine, but in this case driven by anti-Westernism rather than the Soviet desire to spread socialism.
  • However, this worldview can only exist on Russian television: the reality of international relations is more dynamic and complex, notes Frolov.
  • Besides, the modern political system may not allow for foreign and domestic policy to be separated from each other. Though attractive, a “back to the 70s” approach may be difficult to reconcile with the reality of the outside world.

Republic, Назад в 70-е. Как Путин обновил доктрину Брежнева, Владимир Фролов, 5 июня 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: The Jaws and the Gap. Why Politicization Is Inevitable in Russia

  • Author: journalist and political commentator Alexander Arkhangelsky.
  • The author believes that Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine and the regime’s response led to unexpected results: by including the public in the political discourse of “national unity,” the authorities unintentionally made politics a tool of self-identification for the Russian people.
  • As the post-Crimea euphoria wore off, political subjectness remained. This political shift resulted in the 2017 protests when the younger generation of Russians, who had been branded “Putin loyalists,” took part in mass anti-corruption protests.
  • In Putin’s Russia, politics has long been concealed from the public eye and replaced by the concept of “power” (or “geopolitics”). Within this framework, patriotism equals loyalism.
  • Another way of concealing politics was boosting the Soviet nostalgia, which also had an unintended effect. Instead of being passively nostalgic, people took a more active approach. Today, being Soviet (or rather “Soviet 2.0”) no longer means lacking one’s own views—it has become a label referring to a certain political position.
  • Essentially, the Kremlin is caught up in a zugzwang position: no matter what it does, it politicizes people.
  • The author notes that since Russian propaganda is forced to tolerate opposition, whose existence is aligned with democratic principles, it creates a paradox—the “gap between the jaws of Leviathan.” This gap is the discrepancy between the authoritarian tools employed by the regime and the formally democratic basis of the Russian state.
  • Moreover, the current politicization in Europe and America feeds into Russian politicization, and vice versa. Russian politics has transformed European politics into a conflict between good and evil, old and new.
  • The regime can still capitalize upon politicization. Moreover, conspiracy theories hold that politicization is exactly what the Kremlin is looking for in its efforts to legitimize Putin’s fourth term. “Politicization in return for trust.”
  • However, Arkhangelsky argues that this shift is larger than the Kremlin’s manipulations—it is reminiscent of 1986, the beginning of perestroika, when the former Soviet masses fragmented into thousands of politicized actors. And this means a different Russia.

Carnegie.ru, Челюсти и зазор. Почему политизация в России неизбежна, Андрей Архангельский, 2 июня 2017 г.


RBC: The Draught of Change: How Russian “Reforms” Became Victims of Propaganda

  • Author: Alexander Rubtsov, head of the Center for Philosophical Study of Ideological Processes (Russian Academy of Sciences).
  • Rubtsov argues that the idea of reforms in Russia has been hijacked as a result of the work of three institutions: the Presidential Administration, propaganda and, surprisingly, sociology. People have come to associate reforms with losses based on previous experience and now prefer to opt for stability.
  • Rubtsov contends that linear, primitive questionnaires developed by pollsters have produced an illusion of public indifference to the reforms. Over time, this notion has become commonplace, as propaganda fanned it back to the public and the elites, thus creating a loopback.
  • The paradox is that in the early 2000s, reforms (e.g. debureacratization and deregulation) were implemented quite successfully. Mutual trust and understanding were established between the government and business.
  • However, certain elite groups decided to take over the reform process, either by taking credit for the results or jeopardizing them. As oil prices skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, the process stifled due to “jaded laziness,” a sense of “stability achieved,” and these groups’ incapability to finalize the reforms.
  • Consequently, the modernization reforms announced during Medvedev’s presidency failed for the same reasons. However, Rubtsov notes that the new presidential election and the prospect of a fourth Putin term have revitalized demand for a future vision, renovation and reform.
  • How this demand will be addressed remains to be seen, but the author concludes that if Rosstat (Russia’s statistics service) is subordinated to the Presidential Administration, the goal of building a “digital economy” can be achieved more easily and cheaply. 

РБК, Сквозняк перемен: как российские «реформы» стали жертвой пропаганды, Александр Рубцов, 5 июня 2017 г.


Vedomosti: Imprisonment of Officials and Political Results

  • Author: Alexander Kynev, associate professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics.
  • Arrests of regional governors have been an almost daily occurrence around Russia of late. The number of arrests—which have happened in quick succession—is unprecedented. The reasons, according to Kynev, are threefold.
  • First, it’s “payback” for the fact that in recent times governors have gained more institutional power (as part of the “purges” in the political space that eliminated other players, such as opposition parties, NGOs, etc.).
  • Second, it’s the Kremlin’s attempt to co-opt the anti-corruption agenda recently championed by Alexei Navalny and the opposition (i.e. to fight populism with populism).
  • Third, it’s the result of the overall tilting of the political system toward the siloviki, who have been strengthened by Russia’s militaristic turn following the annexation of Crimea and the Bolotnaya protests.
  • Kynev further details the results of these developments.
  • Firstly, the governing system has been demoralized. Bureaucrats, especially lower down the pecking order, are realizing that the state will not protect them. As a result, civil servants will be less diligent and less dedicated, since they feel vulnerable and undervalued. The system of informal requests and favors will break down.
  • Secondly, this campaign will unlikely improve the authorities’ image, as the public will see the subsequent court cases as evidence of endemic corruption.
  • Thirdly, the imbalance of power will become more pronounced. According to the author, the system of repression is unraveling. It has taken on a life of its own, and may even turn against those who set it in motion.

Ведомости, Посадки чиновников и их политические всходы, Александр Кынев, 6 июня 2017 г.


Republic: What Would Please You, Sir? Is Kudrin’s Program to Reboot the Economy Realistic?

  • Author: Sergey Aleksashenko, nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution, former deputy chief of the Central Bank of Russia.
  • Aleksashenko analyzes the summary of the highly anticipated program prepared by Alexei Kudrin’s team and presented to Vladimir Putin at the end of May. The full text is not available to the public.
  • The program’s key aim is allegedly to achieve an economic growth rate above the global average by 2021-2023 (the second half of Putin’s fourth term), but the author doubts the feasibility.
  • Aleksashenko challenges the logic of the key threats facing Russia today as laid down by the program:
    • the loss of “status as a technological power” (the very definition is arguable);
    • a GDP rate lower than global growth (it has already happened);
    • low standards of living as a result of slow growth (look at Europe or Japan where growth is slow, but no one complains of poor quality of life).  
  • For Aleksashenko, it is Russia’s over-militarization which hurts normal citizens. But clearly, within Putin’s system of values, it’s military might that is the measure of great power.
  • Based on these factors, Aleksashenko concludes that the authors were compelled to alter the content of the document to fit with the strict parameters of Putin’s ideology, against their own wishes.
  • One of these parameters is the idea that “life should carry on as normal under sanctions.” To this end, the document hardly mentions the devastating effect that sanctions have had on the economy, because Russia is not prepared to review its policy in Ukraine.
  • Although increasing the volume of capital is out of the question, two-thirds of the desired economic growth is projected to come from raising productivity through unlocking the potential of Russia’s existing technology. The program doesn’t square these issues, however.
  • The document also lacks proposals for political reforms: no mention of elections or an independent media. Creating a federal system, with increased powers for “certain regions,” is mentioned but only in passing.
  • Aleksashenko concludes that the program is thus nothing more than an intellectual exercise tailored to please the master, not a viable strategy. It has all the right words and lots of promises, but offers no real change—only a glowing prognosis. 

Republic, Чего изволите? Реалистична ли программа Кудрина по перезапуску экономики,  Сергей Алексашенко, 6 июня 2017 г.