Determined to ensure that in retreat, he imposes the maximum pain on others, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin is making the most of the increasingly unforgiving constraints of his environment.
The unruliness of Khabarovsk and Belarus, the ‘anarchic’ defiance of Ukraine, the deepening estrangement of Germany and the unexpected burst of hostility to Nord Stream 2 within Germany itself amount to a weighty inventory of worries . Rather than compartmentalise these issues, Putin is displaying a characteristically Chekist penchant for connecting them, aggressively and to his opponents’ disadvantage. Yet already he has made one strategic miscalculation, and he might make others.
Khabarovsk was one of four Russian regions to upset Putin’s template of election management in 2018, when the ‘technical’ candidate from Zhirinovskiy’s LDPR, Sergey Furgal, defeated the incumbent governor from United Russia by a handsome margin. In the other cases, Putin weathered the challenge with only minor damage. But the defiance of Khabarovsk has demanded a more patient and concerted effort. The stimulus for its defiance, the detention of the ‘people’s governor’ on 15-year old charges by the SK (Investigative Committee) and FSB on 11 July, his abrupt transfer to Moscow and his incarceration in Lefortovo prison, was only the last straw. The cause that brought an estimated 85,000 onto the streets is the Federal leadership’s evident contempt for the region’s sensibilities and interests. From this perspective, the substance of the charges against Furgal is immaterial.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s wily response to the protests — menacing but not heavy-handed — orchestrated by Putin’s plenipotentiary for the Far East, Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Tretnev, has dissipated much of the energy behind them. Furgal remains incarcerated; his ‘interim’ successor, Mikhail Degtyarev, has taken up his post and is keeping the spotlight on the protestor’s alleged demands — secession from the Russian Federation, with foreign support — instead of their real ones — the trial of Furgal in Khabarovsk rather than Moscow. Putin has even secured a bonus: the embarrassment of his troublesome, unofficial ally, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who groomed Degtyarev for promotion without anticipating the methods that the Kremlin would employ to secure it. The affair continues to ‘stink like sod in the oven’, but so far, a fire has been averted.1 There is no crisis.
‘No crisis’ was also the message from Russia’s voters in the electoral contests that took place in 41 of Russia’s 85 oblasti [regions] between 11-13 September. The strong show of support for regime candidates and their allies was not the result anticipated by Russian or Western commentariats, who assumed and doubtless hoped that the cumulative impact of the Khabarovsk protests, the deteriorating economy, COVID and, not least, Alexei Navalny’s poisoning would expose the raw nerves of the implacable politico-administrative apparatus. It did not. Still, the opposition did find some reason for encouragement. Where contests were properly monitored, anti-regime candidates did noticeably better than in places where election technology was unchecked; United Russia lost its majorities in Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city) and Tomsk, and their loss was partially Navalny’s gain. But these are meagre desserts. Where the stakes were high — notably, in the 18 gubernatorial elections — pro-government candidates won hands down, a distinctly better result than in the pre-COVID year 2018. One can blame superior vote-rigging for this discrepancy. But the more telling factor remains the imbalance between the resources of the regime and its opponents.
Nevertheless, the potential for greater trouble in the regions as the 2021 parliamentary elections approach has made its mark on the authorities, and this fact along with Navalny’s exploitation of it is what gives his poisoning its macabre logic. There is no certainty that Putin or somebody close to him ordered this act, but the burden of proof is on those who would argue otherwise, especially given the Kremlin’s extraordinary inability to do so. The greater mystery is the timing of Navalny’s transfer from Omsk to Germany and the decision to transfer him there at all. Dmitriy Trenin is possibly correct in his judgement that Putin ‘was probably expecting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to cooperate’, especially given the assurances of Russia’s toxicologists that all traces of Novichok would have disappeared by the time he arrived at Berlin’s Charité Hospital.2 Had he died in Russia, no one would have given Putin the benefit of the doubt. Better that he be removed as well as dead.
In the event, Russia’s toxicologists were mistaken, and Navalny is, once again, very much alive. Yet he is no longer the issue. Germany is now the issue, for it has been shaken by the Navalny affair, and there is little doubt that its tone and policy will change. But Trenin’s claim that Germany ‘will no longer follow a special policy toward Russia’ takes matters one step beyond reality. That ‘special policy’, uninterrupted since the days of Mikhail Gorbachev, has stabilised relations between Russia and Europe, which even at their worst have never tipped over the edge. Indeed, its fundamentals, deterrence and dialogue, have been holy writ since NATO’s Harmel Report of 1967. In succeeding years these principles and their eventual corollary, Ostpolitik, not only became a geopolitical catechism, but a matter of domestic consensus, institutional culture and national psychology. The annexation of Crimea did not dislodge them, neither did the hacking of the Bundestag and Merkel’s parliamentary office in 2015; nor did the FSB’s murder of a Chechen refugee last August in Berlin. It is unlikely that the poisoning of Navalny will do so either.
But changes are now inevitable. Russia will no longer be treated as an estranged member of a family, but as a foreign jurisdiction subject to the same rules as any other, and the same will be true for Russian business. The relationship is likely to become significantly more transactional, and the carefully nurtured mechanisms of local, regional and ministerial cooperation, already pared down in 2014, could lose much of their distinctive character. Quietly, Germans are recognising that their investment in cultivating Putin has been for nought. But changes will be incremental rather than revolutionary.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s response to Germany’s attitude has been both indignant and irate. Its démarche in response to Germany’s refusal to meet its demands to hand over its data on Navalny’s diagnosis and treatment —a ‘gross and hostile provocation’— resurrected some of the worst language of the Cold War.3 The Kremlin has profoundly misjudged German sentiment. But it is fair to say that it was not widely forecast elsewhere. Having upheld the integrity of the Nord Stream 2 project in the wake of Crimea’s annexation and the invasion of a sovereign state, few could have anticipated it would be called into question over a purely internal matter, albeit a shocking one that happens to violate the Chemical Weapons Convention and hence, international law. Speaking with illuminating candour, Germany’s ambassador to Ukraine said, ‘Navalny seems to have been kind of the last drop. The fact [that] he’s treated in Germany made it closer to us.’4
The stakes therefore are greater than Nord Stream 2, but that does not make the fate of the project insignificant. The logic behind its construction was never absent, but it was always dubious; at several points since its inception, the project might have been abandoned to Europe’s net advantage. Yet, with 97 percent of construction completed, this is no longer the case. The legal and reputational implications alone make a moratorium an unlikely proposition, especially for Germany, which is ponderously punctilious about upholding the sanctity of contract and the rule of law. The opposition Green Party’s attempt to suspend the project was roundly rebuffed by the Bundestag earlier this month. The US sanctions of December 2019, which have stoked Russia’s defiance and embittered Germany in equal measure, are most unlikely to halt the project. Gazprom is determined to bring it to fruition, on its own if need be, whatever the delay and regardless of cost.
The stakes in Belarus and Ukraine are assuredly greater. At long last, the truth is dawning in Berlin, even in Paris, that Russia has no interest in reaching any agreement worthy of the name. But what this realisation portends for Ukraine’s Normandy process or the future of Belarus is far from clear. At least in Ukraine, Europe has considerable leverage, albeit often misused. In Belarus, it has very little, and it is uncommonly difficult for the Europe of good intentions to accept that in this affair, it is neither a determinant actor nor respected by Russia, which is. Europe is doing what it knows how to do: issue condemnations, offer its assistance and devise sanctions. None of this is likely to matter.
Nevertheless, clarity is needed about the nature of what is taking place. Belarus is in the midst of two struggles that overlap but are not identical. The first is about the fate of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. The second is about the survival of Belarusian statehood. For the majority of Belarusians, Lukashenka’s removal has become an absolute necessity; for the Kremlin, it is of purely instrumental importance. The only absolutes are that Russia and Russia alone be the arbiter of the terms of his survival and the terms of his departure. What it will not accept is another outbreak of popular sovereignty in ‘post-Soviet space’. Those who wage the first struggle but ignore the second might be on the right side of history today but could find themselves on the wrong side of it tomorrow.
For Vladimir Putin, there are two near givens and one uncertainty. The first near given is that if he plays his cards well, Russia will win even if Lukashenka is removed. That is because two of the highest profile Belarus’s opposition leaders, Viktar Babaryka and Valeriy Tsepkalo, are well connected in the Russian political and economic establishment and share a number of its premises and interests. Whilst the third contender, Syarhei Tsikhanouskiy, is more of a maverick, he also is a vocal defender of the ‘Russian world’ project and has made little secret of his support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea (which he visited in 2017) and the ‘cause’ of Donbas.5
The second near given is that, whatever happens to Lukashenka, Ukraine will lose. In diminished form, Belarus’s re-inaugurated president will be far less able to insulate from Russian pressure the hitherto solid relations he has maintained with Ukraine. By exploiting and possibly orchestrating the discord over Belarus’s detention and then release of 33 Donbas veterans from ChVK Wagner, Putin is making him less willing.6 The noisy falling out between Lukashenka and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky over the affair is not the latter’s first failure to spot a trap when it is set. Moreover, if and when Lukashenka departs, Zelensky could find himself side by side with a Belarusian president who has no sympathy for the view that Ukraine is not part of the ‘Russian world’. In defence terms, Ukraine will have to face (and resource) the contingency that its northern border will become a front.
The uncertainty for Putin is how to devise an algorithm that will position Russia as an upholder of ‘constitutional legitimacy’ but not an enabler of repression, extract the maximum dividends from Lukashenka whilst he is still in place and secure his orderly withdrawal when the time is right. That effort will require time. But realities on the ground might not give him as much as he would like.
There is little controversy in stating that Putin’s room for manoeuvre is contracting. But his skill at manoeuvring might prove to be more telling for those who have to match their interests against Russia’s. Putin and the power elites around him are legatees of a tradition about ‘struggle’ that did not die with the USSR. These elites have learnt that a retreat on one front can be a sign of advance somewhere else, that an ally can be as dangerous as an opponent and that ruining an opponent’s victory can produce as many dividends as his defeat. Putin has suffered reverses where he has been complacent — in believing that Ukraine is an artificial state and in failing to grasp that, even in Germany, there are limits to sympathy and patience. Like many others, he also is someone who despises the truths he does not know. These failings in empathy and understanding, strategic in their implications, will undo him in the end. But for now the baleful system he constructed remains fit for purpose and able to cause harm.
1 ‘Two months have passed since Furgal’s arrest. What has changed in Khabarovsk?’ [S aresta Furgala proshlo dva mesyatsa. Chto izminilos’ v Khabarovske?] BBC Russian Service, 11 September 2020 https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-54106363
2 Dmitri Trenin, ‘The Final Page: How the Navalny Affair Changed Relations between Russia and Germany’ [Poslednyaya stranitsa: kak delo naval’nogo izmenilo otnosheniya Rossii iGermanii] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/82690 There is also an English language version, which misses some resonances of the original: https://carnegie.ru/commentary/82713
3 ‘Concerning the summoning to MFA Russia of the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the FRG in Moscow, F von Geyr’ [O vyzove v MID rossii Chrezvychaynogo i polnomochnogo posla FRG v Moskve F von Gayera] 9 September 2020. https://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4329721
4 ‘German Ambassador Anka Feldhusen: Berlin reassessing relations with Putin’, Kyiv Post, 25 September 2020.
5 ‘The leader of Belarus’s protest movement, Sergey Tikhanovskiy, has illegally visited Crimea’ [Lider belarusskogo protestnogo dvizheniya poseshchal Krym] (InformNapalm, OSINT, 20 July 2020) https://informnapalm.org/48998-lider-belorusskogo-protestnogo-dvizh/
6 For an analysis of alternative explanations, see Kseniya Kirillova, ‘Ukrainian Reverberations of the Wagner Arrests in Belarus: Russian Disinformation?’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Washington: Jamestown Foundation, Vol 17, No 126, 14 September 2020.