Staunton, April 2 – Vladimir Putin is driven less by the “imperial syndrome” some are pointing to than by his own sense of the weakness as a result of his continuing reliance on the export of natural resources and his opposition to “the internal West” which wants Russia to modernize, according to Kirill Rogov.
As a result, the Kremlin leader has thrown the dice in Crimea, showing himself willing to sacrifice the interests of his own country by moving toward autarchy and what Rogov calls “the Iran-ization” of Russia in order to maintain himself in power, a risky bet that will have fateful but still unclear consequences for all.
In an essay in Novaya Gazeta yesterday, Rogov argues that Russians are not that much more unhappy with the loss of empire than have been other peoples who have gone through the same process and notes that even during periods of heightened tension with Ukraine, few Russians have favored using force and almost no one had viewed Crimea as a place Russia should retake that way.
He points out that a Levada Center poll two weeks ago highlighted what he calls “the extraordinarily contradictory opinion of Russians about the Ukrainian events.” Moscow’s propaganda effort had convinced many Russians that their co-ethnics were at risk in Ukraine and needed defense, but the share of Russians opposing intervention was no smaller.
To justify his moves, Rogov writes, “Vladimir Putin loves” to conflate Crimea and Kosovo, and his propaganda machine has achieved “the devilish trick” of creating “’a virtual Kosovo’” out of Crimea in their minds. But the deviltry is not in the disinformation but in the actions such a conception is being used to justify.
That is because, by pointing to the support the West has offered Ukraine just as it offered in Kosovo, Putin used Crimea to create a divide between “the average Russian, on the one hand, and the ‘internal’ and ‘external West, on the other.” The “internal” West, of course, consists of those who oppose Putin’s choice to rely on natural resources rather than modernization.
The Kremlin leader’s intention, Rogov argues, is that the current conflict will allow Putin and his associates an opening for the launch of a program based on a new “autarchic” system, one that will lead to “the Iran-ization of Russia and a return to totalitarianism” of the Soviet space.
The “historical paradox” of such an effort, the Novaya Gazeta commentator, says is that “this project of Iranization is a response to the shift in [Russian] society in a directly opposite direction.” Thus, what Putin is doing in Ukraine, “despite its brutality,” in fact reflects his “sense of weakness and not of strength.”
In the past, Putin “was able to support internal consolidation and conduct more or less successful negotiations with the West,” Rogov suggests. But now, given the difficulties Russia faces as a raw materials exporter and “of [that] internal consolidation” that he had achieved, “relations with the West have to be sacrificed.”
Support for Putin, despite some high poll numbers now, “had not simply fallen in recent years,” Rogov says. Instead, there has been among Russians an increasing dislike of the Putin program of the power vertical, centralization, and stability, and growing support for the alternative program of modernization associated with Dmitry Medvedev.
Viewed from this perspective, Rogov argues, “the Ukrainian revolution was not simply a Putin loss in the specific arena of geopolitical influence but a clear and worrisome indication of the systemic crisis of post-Soviet regimes” like his own that have relied on the sale of raw materials rather than modernization.
As long as these regimes could boost incomes by the sale of natural resources, their fundamental weaknesses were minimized or obscured, but “now, with the end of the period of rapid growth,” the arrangements on which regimes like Putin’s and some others are being called into question.
What Putin is trying to do is based on his own fears about such prospects, and to defend himself and his kind of regime, the Russian president is using the “quite deep distrust which the Russian population feels toward the West” as long as any conflict with the West does not involve too high a price at home.
So far, most Russians do not feel that it does, but Putin’s radical goals may provoke more Western actions and lead Russians to rethink their position. Indeed, Putin’s “project,” according to Rogov, is so “radical” that its implications represent a real “turning point” for Russia, one that in the name of “stabilization” may in fact destabilize the situation far more radically.