Putin’s Russia is all we feared it would be
For years, experts have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his country from the nascent democracy that emerged in 1991 at the end of the Soviet Union to a revanchist, revisionist power seeking to aggressively reassert the Kremlin’s primacy — both in the world and at home in Russia. Individual flashpoints over the last decade pointed to this, including the invasion of Ukraine, hybrid warfare against the West, and political repression at home that increasingly suffocates Russian civil society. Today, we see each of these issues escalating and showing exactly what a more fully formed revisionist power looks like on the world stage.
The most important political development in Russia over the last two decades is Putin’s effort to take Russia backwards while experimenting with new ways to exert authoritarian control over a society. Experts and decision makers need to be clear-eyed about Putin’s Russia as it is — not as they want it to be — especially as those same authoritarian tools work their way outside of Russia and into the West by way of illicit money and the corruption of credible leaders as well as information warfare that fuels our own political turmoil.
Putin has used the power of the Kremlin to shore up his rule, often by making Russian politics more predictable, while sowing chaos abroad to prevent a unified international community from standing together against his abuses.
The world was outraged when it saw Putin’s domestic repression on full display in the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was first poisoned by the security services, then arrested on spurious charges when he returned home to Russia from recovering abroad. While Navalny has been serving out his sentence in a penal colony, the Kremlin has declared his network an “extremist organization” on par with ISIS and worked to dismantle it.
The Kremlin even enlisted American tech giants in its repression. When the remnants of Navalny’s network tried to make recommendations for who Russians should vote for in this year’s parliamentary elections, the Russian government exerted massive pressure on Apple and Google to censor the content. Facing threats to arrest local employees, the companies relented.
While not going so far as the Chinese Communist Party, which has created a virtually separate internet, the Russian government has started flexing its muscles to block Russians from seeing what it deems undesirable. It has experimented with throttling social media sites like Twitter and talked about outright banning YouTube. At the same time, independent news organizations across the country are being designated “foreign agents” for their reporting, many being forced to shut down. An unrelenting state media steps in to fill the void, and the result is an increasingly bare information ecosystem that Russians live in, with far less access to reliable independent information.
The latest blow has been to a longstanding pillar of Russian civil society: Memorial, an NGO founded to preserve historical memory of atrocities committed under the Soviet Union, is under intense new pressure as authorities work to shut it down. Condemnation of this was swift, but ineffective. Putin saw an organization dedicated to refusing to forget injustice in the past as a threat to injustice in the present. By shuttering Memorial he is seeking to remove any contradictions to the heroic version of history he prefers Russians to have — regardless of whether that version of history is real or imagined.
Putin kicked off the decade by changing the Russian constitution to allow him to continue holding the presidency until 2036, which would make him the longest Russian ruler since Stalin. He is slowly but fundamentally reshaping Russian society to remove the normal checks on a ruler’s power — going after those who disagree with him and who expose government corruption, while changing the way people understand the world around them and the history of what came before.
The effect may not be a totalitarian hellscape, but it is certainly a more closed country that elites can use as their personal playground, plundering wealth for themselves and punishing any who wish for an alternative.
But Putin, reportedly the richest man in the world, is less concerned nowadays with the riches. He wants to cement his rule as one of the most definitive and grand leaders in Russian history, on par with Tsars and Tsarinas whose names end in “the Great.” As Melinda Haring recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, Russian rulers tend to measure their greatness in land.
Ukraine, above all, would be the greatest prize for Putin to cement himself in history.
When he invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014, Russians hailed the return of what they saw as a historically Russian holding, regardless of the Ukrainians who protested the capture of their land or the Crimean Tatar minority that now faces political persecution.
Around 100,000 Russian troops have now massed in occupied-Crimea and along Ukraine’s borders, and the world watches to see if they will roll in. Plainly, few understand what could come of the buildup. While the apparent invasion force is massive enough to defeat the Ukrainian military, it is not enough to conquer the country and hold it through the brutal insurgency that would follow.
As Michael Kofman observes, one likely aim could be the swift crippling of the Ukrainian state and the forcible change of regime to one more compliant with Moscow’s demands.
In the years since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Putin has crafted a system to maintain his rule, disappearing dissent at home, supporting strongman leaders and wannabe-authoritarians wherever he can, and stoking chaos within the democracies most likely to oppose him.
Whether it is poisoning opposition politicians or seizing territory by force for the first time in Europe since World War II, Putin’s actions all hinge on the assumption that voices in the West will not be clear in their condemnation and ultimately will give him what he wants in order to de-escalate the crisis he instigated.
If leaders are clear-eyed, Putin’s outrageous acts fit into a pattern. If leaders are honest, they will admit the pattern shows the acts simply will not stop on their own. As President Biden reportedly plans another meeting with Putin, while warning Moscow not to escalate with Ukraine, it is essential that leaders in Washington stop treating the Kremlin’s various aggressive acts as if they are unrelated.
Doug Klain is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @DougKlain.