In recent years, Kremlin-watching has emerged as something of a Western hobbyhorse, not least because the object of our persistent fascination (the Russian state’s political rationale) remains, as in Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, ever beyond us, something deliciously arcane and impenetrable.
Small wonder, then, that the prognoses of geostrategic eggheads have tended towards outright fetishism – beginning with egoistic postulations (‘what does Putin want?’, ‘what is Putin thinking?’), they promptly degenerate into quasi-scientific incoherence, complete with attempts to tease psychological blood from the Presidential stone. The casting of Vova as a maestro, a diplomatic savant of some unspecified variety, is irritating and unhelpful in the extreme.
Once again, Ukraine finds itself on the brink of war; Russian troop movements (in Crimea, Transnistria and on the eastern border), coupled with what appears to be a Gleiwitz-style psyop, hint at an imminent escalation of tensions. As in previous stand-offs, observers have swooped in to pick at the logical fragments (with some limited success – the assertion that Moscow might be seeking to extract concessions from the G20 bears reasonable merit), and their analyses have, once again, exhibited a lacklustre quality, the discourse dominated by the usual suspects.
Media outlets have ceased to treat the ongoing barrage of crises (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria) as a phenomenon with a real historical essence; one could be forgiven for taking Putin to be an immortal, for viewing the ‘Russian threat’ as a given, something immutable and permanent. The personalism of non-indigenous approaches to Russian politics is at the expense of a more thorough, holistic commentary; such would lead us to radically different conclusions. In truth, Putin is simply the public face of a geopolitical experiment spinning rapidly out of control.
Putinism is not so much an ideology as a machine. The cult of personality that currently pervades seems to represent a purely practical development, the surplus of post-2014 moves towards the militarisation of everyday Russian life, rather than a defining feature of Putin’s rule. He is a master of reinvention, able to champion himself one week as a defender of ‘old’ European values before turning to align himself with the Ayatollahs the next. The prospect of drawing Soviet parallels is one seldom neglected by Kremlinologists, but Putin is no Lenin, no intellectual with a philosophical consciousness, and his association with ‘Eurasianist’ ideologues, whilst of academic interest, should be judged as opportunistic.
What, then, is the nature of the beast? At first glance, Russia’s internal order bears much in common with that of China’s authoritarian mode of governance, a ‘capitalism with Asian characteristics’, but there is a crucial difference. The success of Chinese capitalism is predicated upon its capacity to deny the populace their own subjectivity – hence the state’s claim to act as an all-knowing arbiter apart from the rabble, a guarantor of Confucian ‘Social Harmony’ in the face of a citizenry predisposed towards ignorance and hooliganism.
The fate of the Putinist machine depends upon the politicisation of ordinary Russians, their integration into a national framework in a manner conducive to the interests of the despotic elites. Central to this project is the utilisation of civilian institutions (i.e. the mass-media) in the manufacture of spectacles, both real and erroneous; this enables the regime’s totalisation of itself as an entity synonymous with (rather than answerable to) the public. Political capital is made of even the most serious incidences of repression – the murder of Boris Nemtsov, conducted in broad daylight, was employed as the basis for a smear campaign targeting the Chechen administration of Ramzan Kadyrov.
The paradox of this ‘democratic dictatorship’ is that, in rendering itself an ostensible instrument of popular will, Moscow forfeits absolute control over the narratives it creates; the lines blur between that which might genuinely advance the state’s interest, and those actions which lack intrinsic value beyond propaganda concern. The Syrian engagement has all the hallmarks of a Russian military catastrophe in the making – attempts to withdraw from the quagmire in March collapsed in a U-turn that can only be attributed to the magnitude of Putin’s P.R. investment there (the Russian naval facility at Tartus, oft-cited as the Kremlin’s stake in the region, is hardly even functional). In effect, the government must engineer an endless succession of existential crises to sustain itself.
For all its idiosyncrasies, the present recession has shaken the Russian system to its core, decisively crippling Putin’s long-term superpower aspirations. If a second war erupts in Ukraine, we should not hesitate to locate its underlying purpose: the mobilisation of the masses in the shadow of looming, across-the-board disaster. Moscow’s ‘frozen conflicts’ are showing themselves to be hopeless drains on the prosperity of the very class waging them, with worse yet to come.