May 23, 2018

Putin 5.0: Running Between Stalin and Brezhnev

During the Russian election, people had the chance to use a mobile ballot box to cast their votes, which are seen here about to be counted in Ryazan.
During the Russian election, people had the chance to use a mobile ballot box to cast their votes, which are seen here about to be counted in Ryazan.

Estonia is part of the West under the protective shield of NATO’s Article 5. It is better to be a well-defended front-line state than a defenceless small country in no man’s land. On the other hand, we are still Russia’s neighbour, and some degree of bilateral cooperation is still possible and necessary.

This article was inspired by Rein Tammsaar’s experience as a member of the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission to the Russian presidential election in Chelyabinsk.

Re-election of President Putin, 18 March 2018

After the problematic 2012 election in Russia, the country’s leaders gained additional legitimacy through Crimea’s annexation and incorporation into the Russian Federation, actions which are not recognised by the rest of the world, including Estonia. Moreover, the so-called Crimean Spring brought even greater benefits for the Kremlin—a monopoly on domestic nationalism and patriotism. As many observers have noted, the annexation of Crimea sparked new interest in politics and Russia’s welfare among the country’s citizens. People feel better, because they believe that the country is doing well—even economically (although the reality begs to differ). On 18 March, most Russians gathered to “rally round the flag” and the much talked-about Crimea-fatigue was not really in evidence, at least not in Chelyabinsk. Thus, the 2018 presidential election can be seen as the legalisation of the annexation of Crimea by a referendum, which it looked awfully like. This was also an attempt to share the government’s responsibility for the annexation of Crimea with the entire population (just as was done in retrospect by the Duma and the Federation Council), regardless of whether the voters realised it or not.

As the ODIHR admits in its preliminary conclusion,1 the legal and technical aspects of the election were administered well, rather than badly, although there were some serious violations (which were nicely caught on polling station cameras). Nevertheless, everything that concerns the pre-election political process—or, more precisely, the lack thereof—is met with harsh criticism. As Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov eloquently put it, even though the 2018 election featured seven candidates, President Vladimir Putin only competed with previous versions of himself (2000, 2004 and 2008).

The Russian media reported that the authorities’ aim was to secure the president at least 50% of all votes (the number of registered voters was about 109 million; president Putin received some 56 million votes). This was ensured by the 70%+70% formula, in which the first figure expresses the voter turnout and the second support for Putin (back in the day, Dmitri Medvedev received 49% of the votes). According to the business daily Vedomosti, the forecasts set the bar too high and the goal could not have been reached without some interference. In addition, it suggests that up to 9% of the votes received by the president were forged. If that was the case—and considering the factor of administrative resources, which accounted for 92% of the votes in Tuva (94% turnout) and 91% in Chechnya (92% turnout)—the actual result might have been 43–48% in favour of Putin, according to the newspaper.

A Russian mathematician, Sergey Shpilkin, calculated that eight million voters were added to the electoral roll in order to make the turnout appear higher than it actually was. According to various sources, between 1.5 million and six million people voted elsewhere than their assigned polling station, but this is difficult to prove. Be that as it may, the number of voters this extensive nationwide mobilisation effort managed to lure to the polls beat the 2012 turnout by only 3%. This was achieved through a carrot-and-stick approach that resulted in the organisation of concerts, lotteries, children’s sports competitions and street surveys on regional development and education in the immediate vicinity of polling stations. Music was played and stalls served food, while the elderly had their blood pressure checked free of charge and people insured their children against tick-borne encephalitis—mandatory for attending a summer camp. The pressure applied by the US and the UK—and skilfully exploited by Moscow—is also said to have played a part in this. Still, the greatest progress was made with the help of television propaganda and the administration’s ruthless determination during canvassing. (Apparently, this is where the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, Sergey Kiriyenko, curated the election by using his valuable experience in mobilising people in remote towns, gained during his time as head of Rosatom, the state nuclear energy corporation.)

To sum up the election: we do not know whether the high turnout and large number of votes for Putin and the non-existent number of protest votes is indicative of how far mass-mobilisation can go in contemporary Russia or the Sovietisation of the voting process, where numbers lose their meaning. If the Russian government interprets the election results as given it carte blanche for six years, the authorities actually received a mandate for stagnation, as several experts on Russia have put it—according to surveys conducted by the Levada Center, Russians got through 2017 hoping that the situation would not get any worse.

Annual State of the Nation Speech, 1 March 2018

President Putin did not participate in pre-election debates; instead, the public could get an overview of his political plans for the next six years in his annual State of the Nation speech on 1 March. In the first part of this, he paid great attention to socioeconomic development, including the need for a developmental leap, which could even be considered as a reference to some elements of the theses of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin. This part of the speech was probably aimed at the more intelligent and liberal members of the audience. By contrast, the second part was belligerent. Still, the flurry of missiles and warheads found their target in the part of the Russian audience that longs for Great Russia and thinks about the rebirth of its homeland in Stalinist industrial terms, hoping that heavy industry and the military-industrial complex will manage to change the dynamics of the country’s economic development, just as in the Stalinist era. This part of the presentation was also the “public” favourite. Naturally, it was also aimed at the foreign audience and its main message was roughly as follows: we want to cooperate, but we will not sacrifice our achievements and our way of doing things for Western technology and economic growth. Relieving tension at the expense of Russian interests, as it is known in the Kremlin, should not be expected. In terms of military prowess, Russia is ahead of the rest of the planet and it is not afraid to use its weapons when challenged.

As Russian journalist Alexander Baunov wrote, from a certain perspective, there is no fundamental contradiction or tension between the first part of the presentation and the second, because it makes Russia appear a nesting doll—inside it is digital, sporting hipster glasses and a short jacket, but on the outside, it is wearing combat camouflage. It seems that, during its next term of office, the Russian government under president Putin is not really interested in cooperation with the West, but rather the opportunity to create a successful technological and economically efficient development model similar to that of the West, while remaining true to the classic sovereignty à la Russe in terms of military and foreign policy. How this kind of combination of apples and oranges is going to kickstart the economy remains unclear without the help of the Russian mystery device “nooscope”.2 As an observer, it seems to me that the postulated and essentially new arms race and the theses of Russia’s techno-economic leap are mutually exclusive. At the very least, the first greatly limits the second.

Russia’s economic welfare is not as fundamentally significant to the Kremlin as Western Europe and the US like to think, while the fact that technological underdevelopment may prove fatal to Russia is becoming clearer these days even to the Russian government, the president included. Nevertheless, in addition to the usual strife between liberals and siloviki, there is also a fierce fight going on between industrialists and post-industrialists/monetarists on the economic and financial front. Industrialists think that the Russian economy can only be dragged out of the slump by the Military-Industrial Commission and state monopolies that require stable funding. The other school of thought believes that the solution to everything lies in financial and tax policy measures, which in turn require a certain openness towards the West. The Minister of Economic Development, Maxim Oreshkin, an apologist for maintaining the current economic policy, is of a different opinion altogether and is probably convinced that the government must forcefully continue to implement import-substitution measures. This third option, maintaining stability instead of introducing reforms, is believed to be president Putin’s favourite, too, which does not rule out combining individual elements of the proposals made by Kudrin, Sergey Glazyev or Boris Titov to be used at the state level.

Nevertheless, most observers still believe that Russia will face long-term stagnation due to slow economic growth that will continue until the introduction of structural reforms. Economic growth is also constrained by low oil prices and the current sanctions. Tax reform—an extra burden on Russians that would only transfer the little money the country has from one pocket to another—alone cannot combat the structural problems in the Russian economy. It is hard to believe that significant long-term economic growth (5% for six years) is even feasible in the closed atmosphere of inefficient state capitalism and unchanging oil prices, not to mention a post-industrial high-tech leap. However, as the Russian government knows, openness can destroy the system, just as in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed the power of perestroika, glasnost and other reforms. A vicious circle …

However, this ultimately means that Putin’s desired Stakhanovite growth will forever remain a pipe dream. As a compensatory mechanism, the hostile rhetoric is likely to continue along with the strong values-based antagonism towards the West, which is taking increasingly more blame for Russia’s problems in the—perhaps even sincere—eyes of the Russian government under the pressure of omnipresent propaganda. President Putin’s 80% approval rating during his previous term was largely due to an aggressive foreign policy, not economic success and focus on domestic policy development, and unfortunately the situation is not likely to change now.

Rejuvenation of the Power Vertical, or Cadres Decide Everything

Some Russia experts believe that the concentration of power known as the “power vertical” has run its course and has clogged the system. There are also those who are convinced that the opposition political activist Alexei Navalny has pressured the previously impermeable Kremlin-controlled system into letting in a breath of fresh air. The Decembrists “awakened” Herzen and, analogously, Navalny “awakened” presidential candidates Pavel Grudinin and Ksenia Sobchak, who would not have had the slightest chance of participating in the presidential campaign had it not been for Navalny’s constant pressure on the regime.

Others (such as Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky) claim that the whole system has been overrun by alternative politics that can no longer be managed from the Kremlin or that Russia has already reached the post-Putin development phase. At first, the latter may seem an exaggeration, but it is true that representatives of civil society and the opposition, inspired by local elections in Moscow, are quite hopeful about the 2018 elections for Moscow’s mayor, for instance. It is also thought that the re-election of president Putin cannot obstruct social change in Russia in the long term.

The second and even more important aspect influencing the stability of the power vertical is the leader’s ability to continue and to be accepted as an arbiter and a bringer of balance. In this respect, there are many doubts, such as the trial of former Minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukaev—in which the Chairman of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, seemed to prevail, even though it was more akin to a Pyrrhic victory—or, according to several Russian observers, the increasing autonomy of the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, which is said to have culminated in the murder of the opposition activist Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow and action taken in support of the Rohingyas (to date, the federal authorities has had the monopoly on foreign policy),. A new example of the internal strife is thought to be the arrest of the Magomedov brothers, who are said to have a close relationship with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who in turn is the confidant of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In any case, the clock started ticking on 18 March, and president Putin’s closest entourage—labelled “Politburo 2.0” in a report by the consultancy firm Minchenko Consulting—will become increasingly fidgety because, until now, their future has been inextricably linked to that of Russia’s leader. In any case, the unity and loyalty of the elite is an important factor when resources are limited, and a successor is needed and may even become a decisive factor in a certain situation within the next six to 12 years. While president Putin’s task for that period is to consolidate his power and perhaps transfer the power he controls to someone else, the elite longs to remain in control even after Putin has left. These two objectives may not be compatible. To this we can add the interests and fears of those people and groups directly affected by Western sanctions and/or connected to the annexation of Crimea, the crash of flight MH17 and the murders of Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, (very likely) Sergei Skripal and many others.

Bearing this in mind, and the closer we get to 2024—when power should be handed over, according to the Russian constitution (officially, the incumbent president cannot run for a third consecutive term)—the more the maintenance of president Putin’s popularity and finding a successor becomes an end in itself. Several observers think the variable of a successor is increasingly starting to change the behaviour of Russia’s leadership and leader. Unless he/she is a temporary, politically unambitious technocrat or a weakened prime minister, whoever is appointed to lead the government will still be a potential successor in the eyes of the elite. According to the Russian media and experts, Putin must find a way to transfer power to his successor in a way that allows him to remain in control and ensure his own personal safety and that of his immediate circle. The parameters of such a model are far from being fixed, and perhaps it is too early for that. When it comes to the duration of his term, the newly re-elected president has overtaken Brezhnev and Stalin, but he still has a long way to go to beat Catherine the Great.

The third aspect concerns the need to update the content and form of the system/power vertical, which the Kremlin clearly understands. Here, the old slogan “cadres decide everything” has gained a new meaning. In addition to the children of VIPs ending up in leading positions due to their dynastic connections, a new generation of technocrats are being systematically included in the power vertical (both in federal subjects and in ministries, and in the Kremlin). The Kremlin sees young loyalists as the resource that will ensure the consistency of the system in a new era under the guidance of an aging national leader. It is also clear that the 20 new regional leaders and governors introduced in 2017—13 of whom are currently under 50 years of age—are part of this rejuvenation plan. It is too early to tell whether the successor will come from the younger generation of leaders, although this has been speculated. (For example, Dmitri Trenin3 has suggested the Governor of Tula Oblast, Alexey Dyumin; the name of Viktor Zolotov, Director of the National Guard, has been mentioned; and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is also still in the running).


The diplomatic and cognitive schism between Russia and the West is becoming more severe, paving the way for even stronger opposition. Unlike in the Cold War era, we no longer live in a bipolar world and, while the opposition is not so ideological, it is more unpredictable and pronounced, because one side knows well what happens when it yields to the other. This is largely due to structural issues, as already discussed, but it is also a result of Russia’s foreign policy, which has become more aggressive since the annexation of Crimea. There is no reason to expect that this will become noticeably friendlier in the next six years. Indeed, there is a risk that things will get worse before they get better. We do not yet know how bad the situation will get, even though the case of Deir ez-Zor in Syria gave us some idea. The unprecedented expulsion of spies operating under cover of diplomatic immunity following the attempt on the lives of the Skripals is clearly only a hint of what is to come.

One the one hand, this was a sign of Western unity and decisiveness, yet the less optimistic explanation is that the West, sensing that Russia is attacking it from all sides by different means, is baffled but does not yet wish to apply the strictest measures. The countries have not yet reached agreement on this, either. The understanding that Russia is toxic is clearly making its way from the US to Europe, which increases the desire to contain Russia. However, it is not clear what form this will take or how extensive it is going to be. While three or four years ago the West’s approach to Russia could have been described with the proposition “containment where necessary, engagement where possible”, it now seems more like “containment where possible, engagement where necessary”.

As far as Russia’s development is concerned, it seems that the divide between its global ambitions and internal stagnation, corruption and disorder is growing, as the cases of Volokolamsk [toxic fumes from a landfill processing Moscow’s rubbish] and Kemerovo clearly showed. While dozens of hapless children were choking and being burned alive behind the locked doors of a shopping centre in Kemerovo, the television channel Russia-1 was showing Vladimir Solovyev’s major propaganda film Miroporyadok-2018 (World Order 2018). Unfortunately, this gives the impression that the Russian government needs a leap in development in order to prevent the country’s socioeconomic underdevelopment from affecting its global military ambitions, rather than to improve the well-being, dignity and security of its people. Perhaps we can seek solace in the fact that, in contrast to the national mythology—which sees Russia as having reclaimed its status of a proud global superpower—the Deputy Governor of Kemerovo Oblast, Sergei Tsivilyov, got down on his knees in the city’s main square to beg forgiveness for what had happened. If this was not done out of fear, then all is not lost.

As to Estonia, we are part of the West that is under the protective shield of NATO’s Article 5. It is better to be a well-defended front-line state than a defenceless small country in no man’s land. We must remain alert and flexible in the face of hybrid warfare and propaganda—a broad approach to national defence seems an appropriate place to start. On the other hand, we are still Russia’s neighbour, and some degree of bilateral cooperation is still possible and necessary. Moreover, expertise in Russia is our daily bread and butter, both in Europe and on a global scale, and we need to keep a tight hold on that. In the future, we should probably focus more on personal relationships to support that part of the Russian younger generation that sees friendly relations with the West as being as desirable and natural as social media and iPhones.


1 See

2 Nooscope: “a device that scans transactions between people, things and money“ (Viktor Sarayev, an award-winning economist and businessman quoted by the BBC at

3 Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.



Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu)

Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000, Russian presidential elections have essentially become referendums that provide a controlled assessment of the leader’s activities. This was also the case on 18 March 2018.

What opposition existed to the current regime had either been stifled by force, as in the case of Alexei Navalny, or murdered, like Boris Nemtsov. Russian society lacks a critical mass of people who wish for radical change.

Contrary to Western misconceptions, Russian youth forms the most conservative and most pro-Putin segment of society. The fact that about half of Russian school-age boys dream of working for the security services speaks volumes.

Instead of free media there is propaganda that manipulates the masses with the aim of solidifying the autocratic regime that has over centuries become an inseparable part of Russia.

Putin sees Russia as a country with a 1,000-year-old history and an independent civilisational power that stands up to the pressure of the West’s soft force, which values freedom. It is therefore understandable why the leitmotif of his activities since he took office has been animosity to the West, especially the US.

Over the years, Putin has constantly raised the stakes in his relationship with the West. In 2007, he declared at the Munich Security Conference so that everyone could hear: “I will stand up to the US”. This caused a stir at the time, but the West was quick to forget it. Nobody would have believed that the economically inferior Russia could surprise them.

But this is what happened. Russia did it by keeping NATO away from Georgia, dividing up Ukraine, saving the war criminal Assad in Syria, interfering with the US election and using extremist forces in the West to his advantage. The information war against the West is happening all the time and Russian special services have had plenty of time to turn this into a science on its own.

The West can only respond by staying united, following the defence principles of the free world and using deterrence measures to show Russia that its chosen path does not lead anywhere.


Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute

Rein Tammsaar provides an excellent summary of the prospects for Russia’s internal development and future relations with the West after the so-called election of 18 March. The falsification of results was not the main shortcoming of this pseudo-election. Nevertheless, I would like to make one addition to the article’s considerations: the Finnish journalist Jussi Konttinen described in Helsingin Sanomat how he spent election day in Yamal at the door of the Muravenko polling station and counted 1,514 voters, many of whom did not wish to reveal their chosen candidate. However, according to the official results, there were 2,249 voters, 94% of whom supported Putin.1

One can only agree with Tammsaar’s dismal conclusions and make them even more pessimistic by adding that things are going to get even worse at first and there is no use hoping for the situation to improve later. The article refers to the assessments by many Russia experts, which generally predict deepening stagnation and an increasingly hostile foreign policy.

The epilogue addresses the West’s slight confusion, even though it could be said that the West has managed to stand up to Russia’s activities in a more forceful and unified manner than expected. I would like to highlight four aspects that help dissect the West’s approach to Russia and are also mentioned by Tammsaar (a detailed analysis of these would require a separate article). The first is military defence. So far, this has been done more or less successfully and it will continue like this. It is clear that the odds are in the West’s favour, which restricts Russia’s military efforts. The second aspect concerns so-called hybrid warfare, which is difficult to defend against and whose influence is hard to measure and prove—as the US presidential election clearly showed. Nevertheless, the West has started to take this topic more seriously. Russia’s achievements in influencing Europe have not been very impressive.

The third aspect concerns countermeasures; for example, the sanctions that are designed to limit or contain Russia’s activities—i.e. it is not as much about defending oneself from the blows, but about reducing the opponent’s ability to strike (naturally, our own defence capability and deterrence measures have a subduing effect, too). As the article says, the strictest measures are yet to be applied.

The fourth is cooperation and personal contacts, which are part and parcel of the analyses of all European diplomats as a mandatory “soft” element (and Tammsaar’s article is no exception). Every now and then, we hear Russia’s friends in Europe say that there is a need for more communication, not stricter sanctions and hostility. This kind of polarisation should be avoided, and this article does exactly that: it does not offer communication and cooperation (within limits) as an alternative to strong countermeasures and increased defence capability. Unfortunately, the idea of supporting the Western-minded part of Russia’s younger generation is becoming increasingly difficult to put into practice and dangerous for the target group.


1HS:n toimittaja Jussi Konttinen vietti viime sunnuntain siperialaisen äänestyspaikan tuulikaapissa ja vertasi presidentinvaalien virallisia tuloksia näkemäänsä – ‘Järkytyin’, hän kirjoittaa”, Helsingin Sanomat, 25 March 2018.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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