The huge hall was packed, and the event was carefully choreographed. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first to step on stage. He proposed that President Dmitry Medvedev head United Russia’s party list at the upcoming Duma election. Then came Medvedev: grateful for the honour, he said he would be happy to engage in the practical work of governing and called on the party congress to support Putin as a candidate for the presidency. “We already discussed this scenario back when we first formed a friendly alliance”, he admitted.
This United Russia party congress on 24 September 2011, at which Putin and Medvedev announced their job swap, was a defining moment for Russia. In domestic politics, it launched an unprecedented string of protests. The Kremlin’s support base was decimated: Putin lost the sympathy of Russia’s urban intelligentsia, which never properly recovered. The political regime started its slow journey from co-optive to coercive.
In foreign policy, that day put an end to the Western debate about Russia’s political trajectory. There had been a sharp split between those who viewed Russia as democratising and Westernising, albeit with setbacks and detours, and those who saw an authoritarian regime consolidating itself. Now, the debate was replaced with silence – as the truth was visible, but inconvenient to spell out. Putin, though, seemed to have sensed the change of mood. “They have all ganged up against me”, he said to a visitor in early 2012, referring to Western leaders. Upon his return to the presidency, he redefined Russia as a “non-Western power”: a country whose chief foreign policy aim was no longer to find ways to anchor itself in the West, but that saw its aims elsewhere – and often in limiting the West’s influence.
Of course, the Kremlin also had problems with civil society and differences with the West before 2011. But, on that day in September, the direction of the travel became constant. Ever since, the Kremlin has been purposefully marginalising and stigmatising parts of Russian society – ever bigger parts, and ever more harshly, as time passed. And, ever since, Europe has been struggling to formulate a new policy on Russia – which, by refusing to become a like-minded partner, as was the hope in the early 1990s, rendered obsolete all cooperation and communication formats built on that premise.
In the past ten years, Russian society has come full circle. The Kremlin’s most transformative response to the wave of protests in 2011-2012 was to introduce legislation that restricted Russian organisations’ access to foreign funding – the so-called ‘foreign agent laws’. This was a blow to NGOs, some of which were forced to either re-register, limit their operations, go into exile, or even shut down altogether.
But Russian society adapted, generating a tidal wave of homegrown organisations: vigorous indigenous initiatives that have never received foreign funding and might even be highly suspicious of the West, but that have served as agents of democracy in Russia all the same. By 2021, these homegrown upstarts had become so powerful that the Kremlin felt the need to go after them. Foreign-funded or not, in the run-up to the last Sunday’s Duma election, dozens of these organisations were labelled by the Kremlin as undesirable or extremist, forcing them to close or move abroad.
That election took place in an environment that was probably more restrictive for political debate than at any time since the mid-1980s. But, if the Kremlin’s hope was that early sanitisation of socio-political landscape would prevent the need for outright vote-rigging – which triggered the protests in 2011 and that, as a result, it has been trying to avoid ever since – this may not have worked. It is too early to say, and one will never know for sure, but the manner in which the results came in and the projected outcome of the vote suddenly shifted suggests that some machinations probably took place – all with the aim of stretching the seat count of United Russia to achieve a constitutional majority (two-thirds of Duma seats).
The Kremlin now has the supermajority it desires. It is also likely that no major protests will follow: the people who could organise them are either in jail, abroad, or cut off from their communication channels; the wider population is apathetic and had probably ‘priced in’ the falsifications to begin with. But none of this really matters. In a country such as Russia – historically centralised and top-down, but nowadays highly educated, egalitarian, and with strong intellectual traditions – suppressing unrest ‘below’ inevitably affects lives ‘above’. The government’s emphasis on coercion has an impact on not just the opposition and Kremlin-critical NGOs, but also the party of power, state institutions, and state-backed organisations: in all these, caution replaces creativity; loyalty trumps professionalism. The frozen political landscape not only blocks entry points for the opposition – it also leaves loyalists with few career opportunities and little upward mobility. The oxygen that enables life ‘above’ does, in fact, come from ‘below’ – so, if the links between the two are severed, or if the ‘below’ goes extinct, then the days of the ‘above’ are numbered too – even if it might not seem so to start with.
This is something that the Moscow political class senses. One does not need to talk to the opposition to see the tiredness of the political system – which has been palpable for some years now. The need for a transition is not even an open secret but an acknowledged fact. Therefore, the question now for the political class is how the Kremlin views its most recent electoral ‘victory’. If it sees the two-thirds majority as a buffer that will allow it to safely prepare for a transition at the top – the way it seemed to intend when it first introduced the idea of constitutional change, in winter 2020 – then the political system might still find a way to evolve. But, if it views the result as confirmation that the system works just fine, the victory really is a Pyrrhic one: the cost further down the line will be high, paid in the vitality and even viability of the system.
If Russian society has come full circle since 2011, Western policy on Russia has largely been at a standstill. Russia’s annexation of Crimea may have crystallised Western countries’ view of Russia as a challenge, not a partner. But they – or at least Europe – are none the wiser on the question of what to do about that challenge.
To be fair to Europe, this standstill originates as much in global developments as in Europeans’ lack of imagination or political will. The European Union became a foreign policy actor in a world where its rules and norms were expanding; spreading them was its chief instrument of foreign policy. The EU now needs to learn to act effectively in a world where those norms are becoming less common. Russia is a particularly hard case in this respect: the whole framework of the EU’s relations with it, based on the concept of like-mindedness, is obsolete – but, for the time being, it is impossible to replace it with something equally comprehensive but more up-to-date. The volatility of the global order makes Russia’s and the EU’s future political weight uncertain – and encourages wait-and-see attitudes, at least in Moscow. “It is impossible to lock the relationship of two moving targets against a moving background”, said one of Russia’s pre-eminent thinkers on foreign policy, referring to the fact that both Russia and the EU have to undergo internal transitions while the global order is in flux.
Domestic unease about the Duma election has made Moscow excessively sensitive about the West. The Kremlin has read antagonistic intent into actions where there was none – such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s hospital treatment in Berlin and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s February 2021 visit to Moscow. With two-thirds of Duma seats secured, the Kremlin may relax a little. Analysts in Moscow have predicted that this autumn will see a slight détente in Russia’s relations with the West. Although the sides have incompatible worldviews, there may be an opportunity for them to discuss some isolated topics – such as strategic stability with the United States, and maybe climate with the EU. This might be the most that the West and Russia can manage at the moment.
In the long term, though, the EU will still need to rethink its view of Russia. In fact, this will be even more necessary if Russia finds a way out of its political dead end and revitalises its political debate and procedures. Then, the West would have to face up to the currently obscured fact that it is not just Putin that prevents Russia from being like-minded – rather, the country as a whole, society as well as elites, disagree with Europeans on a number of matters. One cannot turn the clock back to the hoped-for like-mindedness of the 1990s. But the differences there are can be managed, and they can even be healthy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.