Staunton, June 26 – By the middle of August, Boris Pastukhov says, “the Ukrainian conflict will have exhausted itself as a mobilization tool” for the Kremlin, one that gives “the appearance of national unity.” And consequently, “at that moment, new steps will be taken by the Kremlin directed at maintaining” the current level of “mobilization activity.”
Those steps, the London-based Russian analyst continues, may be further aggression in Ukraine, attacks on other countries, or the launch of an expanded campaign against internal enemies. Vladimir Putin has “a large choice,” but ginning up a new foreign threat to which he can respond is “the most probable”.
Despite efforts to present Russia as so different that normal social and political forces do not operate, Pastukhov says, it “is not the only country which uses nationalism as a means of social mobilization during difficult periods for the political regime, and the algorithms of this type of mobilization have been investigated quite well.”
Faced with rising anger among the middle classes in 2011 and 2012, an anger directed “not so much toward ‘a legal state’ as toward ‘truth’ (social justice in the broadest sense),” Putin responded first with the Olympiad and then with Ukraine in order to prevent his opponents from “mobilizing the inert part of the population” by mobilizing it himself.
Sochi helped, but “only the full-scale confrontation with Ukraine allowed the regime to finally break out of the ‘corner’ into which the opposition had begun to push it,” Pastukhov says. This war had the effect of winning popular support and thus depriving the opposition of a broader social base.
But “the experience of other countries shows,” the Russian scholar says, that this is typically a temporary solution rather than a permanent one when there are deep-seated problems in the first place. Indeed, in most cases, the sense of unity in the face of a common enemy “in contemporary society lasts approximately six to eight months” and no more.
Over time, people become insensitive and lose interest and the regime, if it wants to use this method of maintaining support, has to come up with something new in order to keep the patriotic “bubble” inflated.
Otherwise, an authoritarian state is likely at some point to face one of two kinds of a revolution: a Durkheimian one in which the leader and the led are united in support of a common set of ideals, gain power in a relatively bloodless fashion, and quickly form a government after a brief period of time, or “a fragmentary revolution,” which is entirely different.
For a Durkheimian revolution to take place, Pastukhov says, the society has to be more organized, the government too weak to respond to an initial challenge, and local and regional elites have to be part of the anti-regime movement rather than separate and in pursuit of their own goals.
When those conditions are not present, he continues, then one can expect the second kind of revolutionary change, a “fragmentary” one. In that kind, political and ideological divisions among the opposition and population are large, each group has its own goals, and in the absence of “a common enemy,” they each go their own way.
That leaves the country “without a single leadership,” and that in turn means that the economic and political crisis which led to the possibility of revolutionary change only deepens, albeit over a longer period of time. The authority of those in power continues to decline, and the revolution extends over a longer period.
Many in Russia in 2011-2012 hoped for a Durkheimian revolution, but Putin’s actions in Ukraine are pushing the country on the way to a deeper but slower “fragmentary” one. It is difficult to say when it will be completed, Pastukhov says, but he does suggest one intriguing possibility: “more than 80 percent of all revolutions and coups in authoritarian countries take place on national holidays” when people are in the streets and when it is harder to control them.