The Putin obsession and the problem of Russia

James Sherr
OBE, Senior Fellow
Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, International Centre for Defence and Security
Tallinn, Estonia

In the early 1990s a great lady asked me, “why do you disagree with me about Yeltsin?”  My reply provoked a pronounced pause: “I don’t disagree with you about Yeltsin; I disagree with you about Russia”. “What do you mean to say?”, she asked. My answer then is one that I would repeat now: “If Yeltsin cannot change the interests and outlook of the elites and institutions that govern Russia, he will fail, however reformist or radical his aims are”.

On the face of it, the rise of Putin’s autocracy vindicated my prognosis. But it also reproduced the mythology it sought to discredit. Today ‘Putin’ has displaced ‘Russia’ in public discourse. The view that everything in Russia is decided by one man is endlessly repeated. To those transfixed by images of Security Council members quivering before the President, it is self-evident. Yet the perspective is deeply flawed.

Vladimir Putin is not an existential phenomenon, but the product of a historical experience and an institutional milieu. That his outlook and methodology were shaped by the KGB is widely accepted. Yet he also is the product of the ‘chaos’ of the 1990s (which he excoriates) and a member of the ‘new class’ that it produced:  monied, self-confident, nationalistic, ‘pragmatic’ (which in Russia is synonymous with ‘unprincipled’) and freed from any nostalgia about Communism. And like much of this milieu, he is also in fair part a product of Russia’s criminal world (as Alexei Navalny’s videos amply demonstrate).

Moreover, he was what Russians call a ‘project’. Listen to Metropolitan (now Patriarch) Kirill’s speech to the military collegium in January 1992, well before the all-powerful Putin was known even to himself. There you will hear the leitmotifs of ‘his’ political theology: the Motherland, erected on the pillars of ‘Orthodoxy, army and state’, obshchnost’ (the ‘historical communion’ of its peoples) and not least, the ‘common baptism of Kiev’.  To say that Putin was ‘specially selected’ as perestroyka and the USSR were collapsing and Russian democracy barely established is not to deny him agency or even the power at his disposal. But it does explain how he became president of Russia, and it helps to explain the consolidation of his authority from that moment onwards. For want of a simple alternative, the author devised the term  ‘the collective Putin’: ‘the Russia of grievance, ambition and resentment…that was born the day the Soviet Union died’. In the view of the Russian historian Andrey Zorin, its seeds were planted well before, during the era of Brezhnevite ‘stagnation’.

Therefore, to understand ‘Putin’, we need to understand the diverse establishments and elites that make up the Putin system, and we need to understand a large portion of Russian society as well.

This contention stands in marked contradiction to a second myth, articulated by President Biden in his Warsaw speech: the myth of ‘the Russian people’. Yet these people are not an ‘anti-Putin’. As Igor Gretskiy has painstakingly documented, they are in the main subservient supporters of ‘strong’ leadership and a ‘strong’ Russia’, but they also embrace a diverse assortment of interests, aspirations and apprehensions, with pronounced divergences across social and generational lines. Moreover, as Biden doubtless knows, these people find themselves in a psychotropic information environment. Where, then, does Biden’s faith in ‘the Russian people’ come from?

Given this assortment of factors, we are obliged to ask what ‘regime change’ actually means. The fulfilment of Biden’s wish — ‘this man cannot remain in power’ — would represent an essential prerequisite of regime change, but a great deal more would have to take place before its consummation. Well before the USSR collapsed, the Soviet elite had become frayed and demoralised. Yet under Putin, the opposite has occurred; elites have been pruned, purged, narrowed and consolidated. Only that part of the business establishment that derives its wealth from the West diverges from the premises of the reconsolidated Putin system that emerged after 2012 — and far from all of them.

Today of course, views regarding Ukraine are especially salient. Putin’s views are little more than a doctrinal restatement of the ideology formulated by advisers to Nikolay I and Aleksandr II. Some of the tenets of Putin’s orthodoxy are word-for-word plagiarisms. Yet there is a difference between the views of these tsarist advisers and those of Putin. In the nineteenth century, not to say the eighteenth, the ‘common’ identity of Ukrainians and Russians had to be created. Catherine the Great’s absorption of the territory that became known as Novorossiya was, like many of Russia’s imperial wars, what we have called ‘a war of narratives and arms’. As she defined it, the aim of the war was to ‘eradicate from memory’ the period of the Hetmans. But by the time of Gorbachev’s perestroyka, this ‘common’ identity was taken for granted by the Russian establishment. From this ideational and ‘moral’ perspective, the views of Yeltsin and Putin are indistinguishable. As Yeltsin stated in 1997: “We cannot get it out of our system that Ukrainians are the same as we are … It is in our hearts that Ukrainians are our own people. Our identities are inseparable.

It will be objected that by then, Ukraine was recognised internationally (and by Russia itself) as an independent state. Nevertheless, Yeltsin’s reformists assumed (in the words of his State Secretary, Gennadiy Burbulis), that ‘there is a logic’ that would lead Ukraine to pursue close integration with Russia, and that the West would encourage this process. By the end of Yeltsin’s tenure, he understood that this ‘logic’ would not prevail without pressure and ‘independence’ from the West itself. From the outset, Putin was resolved to make this pressure irresistible. Nevertheless, its ‘logic’ did not produce submission but resistance. By 2014, the only tool left in Russia’s tool box was war.

Therefore, the view that Putin’s departure will produce ‘normal’ relations with Ukraine is possibly the greatest fallacy of them all. History from the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, perhaps Russia itself, would have to be reinvented for this prognosis to make any sense. To be sure, a case can be made — and the author has made it himself — that a different successor to Yeltsin, and a different leadership group, might have gradually accepted Ukraine’s independence with disgruntled civility; indeed, in these circumstances, Ukraine might have had no need to abandon the ‘multi-vector’ policy that Leonid Kuchma made his own. But on the morrow of Putin’s departure, we will be left with his leadership group and the elites they empowered: autocratic, predatory, messianic and embittered. The ‘logic’ in this case does not point towards a comforting ‘normality’ but a new time of troubles and strife. At the least, as we wrote in 2013, Russia’s internal order will remain ‘in a state of tension with its international surroundings’. The West will need a policy for Russia as well as its leaders.

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