President Putin’s current mandate runs out in 2018. It has long been expected that he will go for a second six-year term – after two four-year terms from 2000-2008, followed by the Medvedev interregnum from 2008-2012. This would keep him in office until 2024, when he would attain the ripe old age of 72 or 73, depending on the month when the elections would take place. This is incidentally just a few years less than the age that Generalissimo Stalin attained at his death in 1953 – most say peacefully, some say aided on his way to another world.
There are several reasons to assume that Putin’s time may be well shorter than this roadmap suggests.
First, after presiding over several years of strong economic growth, as now everybody knows who reads a daily newspaper, Russia’s economy is in a tail spin. The oil and gas prices that have fueled this growth have fallen by over 50% since the beginning of 2014. The ruble has experienced a similar fall. Western sanctions have made it difficult for Russian firms to raise credit which means they will be hard-pressed to meet their upcoming payback obligations for existing debts. Experts are predicting a contraction of the economy in 2015 to the order of 4 to 5%.
Putin is not responsible for the fall in energy prices on which his budget so importantly depends. That said, the buck has stopped at his desk in two important respects. It was the failure of his administration to use Russia’s energy wealth to build a diversified economy that has now put the country in a pickle as energy prices have fallen. And it was his scarcely veiled expansionist policies in Ukraine that led to the imposition of Western sanctions that have since exacerbated the impact of the energy price collapse.
Putin went on record in his latest State of the Union speech to the effect that while Russia would experience difficulties over the short-term, in two years or so it would return to growth. Oil prices would rise, so he claimed. But it hard to see happening this unless Saudi Arabia or Iran, or both, descend into chaos (something for a former KGB agent to work on?).
Another argument that has been advanced to suggest that Russia would manage to deal with the energy price conundrum has been that a concentrated effort to promote domestic industry and agriculture would reinvigorate the economy. So Putin would manage to produce autarchic growth where French President Mitterand failed in the early 1980s, and rather quickly had to reverse course? And of course, Russia’s pivot to Asia would support this autarchic effort. Maybe, but if you want to do business now with Russia, its would-be partners understand that you might have to go Dutch. As I have argued elsewhere, China needs Russia to create just enough instability in Europe, so that it will have a freer hand in Asia. But I assume that there are serious limits as to how far China would go to underwrite the Russian economy, especially as its own growth rate has stalled.
The second reason things do not look good for the Russian President is that his great Russia approach increasingly appears to be built on sand. The overwhelming majority of my Russian friends and acquaintances applauded the Crimean coup, notwithstanding their reservations about the methods used. Russian actions in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have had to be carried out quasi- clandestinely, quite simply because the vast majority of Russians do not favour using force to resurrect the former Soviet Union or some semblance of it. This means that the notion of championing foreign expansion to compensate for internal difficulties in Russia is not going to fly if it is to be based on any kind of significant public support. There remains, then, the option of enhancing the repressive policies that Putin has championed since his return to the Presidency in 2012, and creating a fully-fledged dictatorship. But this will not engender the kind of environment that spawns growth and development, certainly not in the twenty-first century. Putin faces a catch-twenty-two situation.
And third, Putin’s political clock is ticking. With now ten years at the helm, he is running into that time warp that even the most accomplished of politicians must confront. A decade at the top in a globalised world with its modern communications systems is just about the max. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that even in Soviet times, the notion of a term limit had started to make its way. Nikita Khrushschev, so the story goes, was given a ten-year term in 1954, and when he wanted more in 1964, the Soviet Communist Party balked.
Putin’s only serious hopes for counter-balancing the challenges Russia now faces are three-fold. First, he needs westerners to continue to buckle. Two of the key jobs in the European Commission are held by geostrategic lightweights: EU Commission President, the Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker, and his Italian colleague Federica Mogherini, who serves as High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, have both argued for an easing of the sanctions regime. Syriza, with its electoral victory in Greece – note that 64% of voting Greeks did not support it – and its subsequent dithering on the sanctions front represents another potential ally. Then there are the Americans, who have thus far hesitated to provide any help to Ukraine other than blankets, medical equipment and the like at the same time as Moscow has continued to move sophisticated hardware, and people that can use it, into the combat zones in Ukraine. And the Canadians? Well, their Prime Minister has had a very big mouth on Russia’s transgressions in Ukraine while carrying a very slender stick.
Secondly, westerners need to continue to believe that Putin is wildly popular, with his approval ratings of over 80% being taken at face value. Putin’s numbers are based on opinion polls that are mainly carried out over the telephone. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Russia knows that Russians are extremely careful about expressing their political opinions openly. They know from history that this can have a price.
But here is another argument. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the generally recognised saviour of his country in World War Two, whose fiftieth anniversary of his death was celebrated just recently, lost a general election in 1945, winning only 36% of the votes to the winning Labour Party’s 48%. Putin should be more popular among Russians in 2015 than Churchill among Britons in 1945? – give me a break.
A third argument is that if you think Putin is bad, just wait until you might have to deal with his successor. This approach supposes that Putin is the best deal in town and that it may even be possible to turn him from his present course. This is wishful thinking. Putin cannot change course. He is a dead man if he tries, and precisely because of that, he will not go down this road. There is little likelihood of Putin being outflanked on the foreign policy front by someone who takes more radical anti-Western positions. Putin is as radical as it gets: he can and will take positions that are much more radical still if he sees this as being necessary.
On balance, my assumption is that if the West can get its act together – more robust sanctions, serious defensive weaponry for the Ukrainians and the like – Vladimir Putin’s days as President are numbered. My second assumption is that his most likely successor will be an anti-Putin figure, inclined to change Russia’s course but having to handle a great deal of difficult baggage in the process. The challenge for the West is to craft a political message that will ease the shift of the Russian political discourse into a mutually acceptable direction. This political message could have the following components.
For ten years, i.e. to 2025, there would be no decision on Ukraine becoming a member of NATO; if this issue was still active ten years hence, it would be subject to a referendum, internationally supervised, preceded by an extensive public debate about the pros and cons in which all those who so wished could express themselves, and subject to strict rules ensuring the neutrality of local security sector actors in the process. This would probably require a UN-sanctioned international presence.
Within two years, a referendum would be held on whether Crimea would be part of Russia or of Ukraine. In distinction to the referendum Moscow organised for Crimea in 2014, this would observe the conditions outlined under the first point above.
There would be EU-Ukraine-Russia talks on the implications of Ukraine moving closer to the EU or the Eurasian Union, and countervailing measures to smooth any transitions. The talks might be based on the notion that Ukraine’s destiny would be to exercise a bridging function between the two unions – why should it not be members of both in time?
The talks would also address the issue of the status of Russian and other minority languages in Ukraine and the corresponding measures to be taken to protect the interests of minority language speakers. A key consideration in this regard would be the need to ensure a common legislative approach for Russia, where Russia’s twelve million Ukrainians enjoy generally less protection of their language than native Russians do in Ukraine.
There would also be constitutional revisions designed to put relations between Kiev and Ukraine’s regions on a level at least equivalent to those prevailing between Moscow and it regions, if not significantly more so. Russia’s regions are grossly under Moscow’s thumb. Ukraine’s should be empowered. This is the only way to deal with the country’s diversity.
A further key consideration would be an energy price guarantee that would protect Russia’s interests and those of Ukraine and other EU states.
Last but certainly not least, there would be an end to the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, supervised by UN peacekeeping forces, with the withdrawal of all foreign forces and equipment – in the spirit of the Minsk agreement.
Putin would not be able to accept such a package. He represents a fading concept of a Russia that may have a few more glorious moments but whose underlying narrative belongs the past. No, this is an offer to those Russian politicians who understand that Russia’s destiny lies in a radical rethink of its strengths and weakness but who also need a period of transition to make it work, one in which the time-honoured argument of the threat from the West can be relativised, downsized and disappeared. This is a huge challenge to a society that has known invasion by French, Poles and Germans during past centuries. Nonetheless, it is one that can be defanged.
At the same time, by virtue of this deal, Putin’s successors would have to respect Western and international norms in a joint effort to put as much as possible of Ukraine back together again. They would also have to accept that what Russia demands for Ukraine, it must also expect of itself.