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Opinion | Putin's game: What is next in line for Russia?

By Keary Iarussi
On April 7, 2014

On March 18, in a speech rivaling those of former Soviet leaders in its detachment from reality, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the end of the post-Cold War era; no longer would Russia attempt to integrate with the West; and more importantly, Moscow will play by its own rules in what it considers "its" historic sphere of influence, i.e. the former Soviet Union.

Putin's Anschluss (the German word given to Adolf Hitler's dubious "reunification" of Nazi Germany and Austria) of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea came as a shock to the West because of its seamlessness, belligerence and pure disregard for international law and norms.

However, the West and Russia were on a collision course since the mass demonstrations throughout Russia following the 2011 parliamentary elections - universally accepted as having been rigged - and Putin's subsequent illiberal (not like Putin ever had much Trudeau in him), authoritarian turn. With the Russian economy on the precipice of an extended period of anemic growth, the outlook for Putin's regime didn't look great, particularly in the mid-term. Putin was essentially in a catch-22. He could modernize Russia's political and economic systems, entailing closer association with the West - which would also carry risks to his system and power-or he could replicate Aleksandr Lukashenko's model in Belarus: a nationalistic, autarkic, authoritarian, kleptocratic state. Putin, now completely excluding more liberal elements from the decision-making process, opted for the latter.

Putin's plan has worked splendidly thus far. He has accomplished all of his goals: the regime's domestic popularity has soared, Moscow is now (foolishly) seen both by Russians and even some abroad as a legitimate world power that must be given its "due respect," Crimea is officially a Russian territory (at least as far as Russia's concerned), Ukraine is collapsing and gripped by a state of terror with Moscow intensifying economic pressure and keeping tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, in and of itself constituting a warning to other former Soviet states thinking of integration with the West. Moreover, the fissures in the West over how to deal with Russia have become painfully apparent. And now, Christmas may come early for Putin if President Obama bows to Russian demands over the future of Ukraine.

To say that Putin didn't know the risk of his Anschluss of Crimea would be foolish, in my opinion.

He was prepared for a Western response and may have even desired it, although he guessed - correctly, as we see now - that Europe had no stomach for seriously punishing Russia because of their pathetic reliance on Russian natural gas and corrupt money. The harsher U.S. response, involving financial sanctions for Putin's innermost circle - including many who've profited handsomely under Putin and/or abet high-level kleptocratic activity - may lead to the "deoffshorization" of the Russian elite, i.e. bringing officials' corrupt money home in order to reduce Moscow's exposure to Western economic pressure.

This would likely be the prelude to a serious and broad anti-corruption campaign, fundamentally changing the modus operandi of the Putin regime from one of an exchange of unquestioning loyalty to the regime for the latter turning a blind eye to corruption, to one where loyalty is given based on charismatic, revanchist populism.

In Putin's head, cracking down on corruption - objectively one of the main obstacles to Russia's economic growth - would inevitably lead to the return of foreign capital, even in a more autocratic Russia (see: China). Sure, in the meantime the Russian economy will be a dumpster fire, but now all Russia's faults can be blamed on the conniving, Russophobic, decadent West and its allies in Russia ("national-traitors" in the Putin lexicon).

Another populist measure may be ordered up, possibly another campaign in Russia's historic "sphere of influence" to protect "Russian speakers" and/or "ethnic Russians" (both loaded terms), as was ostensibly the reason for Russia's invasion of Crimea.

Ultimately, the end game is the continuation of Putin's regime in the long-term through the creation of a Belorussian-style, more conservative, anti-Western Russia which the states of the former Soviet space will naturally gravitate towards.

There's much reason to doubt that this will happen, starting with the vital question of whether Putin can successfully crack down on corruption while retaining the loyalty of the elite based on new rules. Furthermore, Western sanctions and the sizeable economic fallout from the Anschluss of Crimea may fatally weaken the Russian economy to the point where enough citizens stop believing in the regime and abandon it. It must be noted as well that Russia's relations vis-à-vis its former Soviet co-republics just suffered immeasurable damage. And this is truly just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the long-term damage Putin's actions in Ukraine have done to Russia. Nonetheless, one thing's for certain: Putin's Russia will chart a new, different, and more dangerous course to the future.

The author is a junior fellow at the Miami University Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.


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