The revolution in Putin’s head

In Moscow, the ideological, geopolitical and economic rule book is being rewritten.

When Ukrainians took to the streets to protest their government in late November, they hoped to launch a revolution. What they didn’t realize when they toppled President Viktor Yanukovich in February is that a larger revolution would be in Vladimir Putin’s head.

While the president of Ukraine has been replaced, most of the people running the country are part of the permanent political class. The chances of a major break with the past are small. In Moscow, in contrast, the ideological, geopolitical and economic rule book is being rewritten.

Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.

1) Putin confronts Western utilitarianism with a newfound ideological fervour. In the 24 hours before Yanukovich’s fall, Putin was contemplating two options, according to a political operative. One was setting the Ukrainian president up as a “legitimate government in exile” in the eastern town of Kharkiv. The other was annexing Crimea.

Putin was drawn to the potential of ethnic nationalism in Crimea. He knew its power and he feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would. Once Crimea had been reclaimed, Putin became a prisoner of that nationalist fervour as much as he benefitted from it. He now needs to meet the expectations he has set in motion. What may have started as a tactic to ensure his political survival has transformed into a mission that will secure his place in Russian history.

Putin’s new ideology seeks to combine ethnic nationalism with a neo-imperial project of building a “Eurasian Union.” The result is an explosive combination that has allowed Putin’s regime, which had been steadily declining in popularity, to ride high on a wave of mass mobilization.

One of the pollsters I spoke to said that the only parallel to today is Putin’s surge in popularity when he launched the war in Chechnya shortly after becoming president in 2000.

2) Putin has a revolutionary belief in his own agency. He does not believe that history just happens — he thinks that people make it happen. That is why he genuinely suspects the West of being behind the protests that toppled Yanukovich.

Putin will do all that he can to ensure that Ukraine’s elections on May 25th are seen as illegitimate. “Expect to see the spirit of the Maidan in the East,” a Kremlin operative joked, implying that Russia will organize enough popular protests to create chaos in Ukraine. The operative explained that the experience of dealing with Yanukovich has left Putin fearful of dealing with local interlocutors, so Russia will need to organize the protests itself.

Putin does not trust local political leaders to protect Russia’s interests. This explains his decision to push for talks with the West in Geneva. For the Kremlin, the purpose of these talks is not the stabilization of Crimea, but its disintegration — either violently through protests or peacefully through negotiations for a federalized state.

The recent escalation in eastern Ukraine will not necessarily lead to an annexation. Putin would prefer the West to pay to keep Ukraine solvent, while he keeps his levers for undermining the government in Kiev, making Ukraine a failed state like Bosnia.

3) Putin is using his unpredictability to increase his leverage over the West. He knows what Western countries will do to stop him (to be more precise, he knows what they won’t do). Not a single person I spoke to in Moscow had anticipated the annexation of Crimea. After being so badly wrong-footed, they are wary of placing any limits on what Putin will do next — in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or anywhere else in the post-Soviet world. As one foreign policy adviser put it, in today’s world, “exceptions have become the rule.” The foreign policy order has been exhausted by Kosovo, Iraq and Crimea.

Putin has made domestic politics equally uncertain. An academic who was tapped to write a speech for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last year was — in an unconnected event — interrogated by the Public Security Bureau. “In the old days,” he said, “you knew where you were. Either you were in with the regime or you were interrogated. No one knows where they are any more.”

Putin has introduced the language of “foreign agents” and “fifth columnists” to make illegitimate the intellectual elite who are skeptical toward his regime. The favored phrase in the Kremlin at the moment is “manageable chaos.” Putin has travelled a long way from the stability of his “managed democracy.”

4) Putin is seeking to answer Western attempts to contain the costs of the Ukraine crisis with a domestic ethic of sacrifice. Russian economists talk dismissively about Western sanctions. They stress that in the short term, the devaluation of the currency, import substitution and “patriotic” consumption could provide a stimulus to the economy. In the long term, the sanctions might force Russia to move beyond a carbon-based economy, pivot from an over-reliance on the West to develop Asian markets, devalue the rouble and take steps to reindustrialize the economy.

Politicians close to the Kremlin argue that if the United States boots Russia out of the global economy, the BRICS will show solidarity with Moscow. A Kremlin sympathizer said that the U.S. and Europe no longer speak for the world. “The international community is not the same as the West,” he said.

Pugnacious politicians talk of “modernization against the West” in an echo of Russia’s policies in the 1930s.

Moscow is preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the West. After years of defending the status quo, Putin seems to have decided that he is better served by overturning it. Russia has a genius for revolutions. It was convulsed by political change in 1905, 1917 and again in 1991. But while the earlier revolutions were about changing the leadership of the country, Putin’s revolution aims to correct the order around him.

This article was first published by Reuters.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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