How Putin’s domestic audience explains Russia’s behavior

March 13

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014 (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from West Virginia University political scientist Boris Barkanov.

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With the unexpected eruption of a major crisis in Ukraine reminiscent of the Cold War, there has been much speculation about President Putin’s intentions.  For political scientists, foreign policy making is never just about one individual.  Putin is very important and Russia is not a democracy, but the popular view of Putin as a “dictator” (also here) is a caricature of how Russian politics actually work.

Russia is a hybrid system that combines elements of authoritarianism and pluralism.  State-sponsored repression, though now growing, has been selective and relatively limited.  Intense elite competition, elections, and public opinion are managed, but they matter more than the conventional wisdom holds.  This means a successful solution has to accommodate an attentive public, as well as domestic elites’ various security, economic, and ideological interests.

Massive protests in 2011-12 prompted a strategic electoral turn to the right – nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy – during an intense electoral campaign that Putin won.  A more conservative governing coalition emerged and one result was that federal policy became homophobic.  Previously, this had been a significant social problem manifested largely at the local level, but this nuance has been entirely missed by most American observers.

Accommodating nationalists and Orthodox believers, who had limited influence before 2012, also meant revising foreign policy.  Ukraine (Kiev especially) is at the very heart of the origin myth of the Russian nation and civilization.  An analogous case is the significance of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa Mosque) in Jerusalem to Jews and Muslims respectively.  This means that for Russian and Ukrainian nationalists, Ukraine is what UC Berkeley political scientist Ron Hassner has called a “sacred space.”  It appears indivisible, but has to be shared to avoid conflict and violence.  The same is true for Tatar, Ukrainian, and Russian nationalists regarding Crimea.  Defusing such conflicts requires thoughtful, innovative solutions that empower moderate, rather than radical, political forces on all sides.

In order to understand the likelihood of de-escalation, we need to take into account these features of Russian domestic politics.  After months of exaggerated public narratives about a neo-fascist and radical right-wing threat to Russian interests and ‘ethnic kin’ in Ukraine, it is implausible to believe that Putin can simply back down.  He must substantively address what in reality is an extremely unstable and complicated political situation that has immediate repercussions for Russia’s interests as understood in Russia.

Putin’s governing coalition also includes statists and economic groupings, which means that Russia will likely insist on a credible commitment that Ukraine not move closer to NATO (also here) and some sort of economic accommodation between the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood and the Eurasian Union (beginning in 2015).  There is some indication that a compromise through tri-lateral negotiations among Russia, the EU, and Ukraine might be possible.

Some have suggested that Putin may be a new Hitler. A better historical analogy is to think of him as a 21st century Russian Bismarck.  My research supports former Secretary Henry Kissinger’s view that Putin is an intelligent, rational, strategic actor who views politics through a realist lens that is informed by his view of Russia’s history.  He began as a neo-liberal statist who has gradually drifted to the right for political reasons.

International relations comprise a dynamic context in which leaders respond to external developments.  The pattern of Russian behavior suggests that its Crimean intervention was a tactical response to dramatic and unexpected developments in Ukraine.  Russia had genuine, if overblown, concerns over instability and violence, and needed leverage for the future diplomatic defense of its interests.  This is inconsistent with the argument that Putin is ideologically driven toward territorial expansion, whether due to Eurasianist philosophy and illiberalism (here) or a yearning to gather ‘compatriots’ in neighboring states  (here and here).

Ukraine does not have to be partitioned or descend into a tragic civil war that could escalate into a regional, and even more ominously, a great power confrontation.  But solving the crisis will require thinking of Putin as a strategic actor motivated by domestic concerns.

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Here is a summary of our past coverage on the Ukraine crisis. More recent posts are:

Mara Kozelsky: Don’t underestimate importance of religion for understanding Russia’s actions in Crimea

Richard Maass: Why Washington and Moscow keep talking past each other

Erik Voeten: Who predicted Russian intervention?

Marc Beissinger: Why we should be sober about the long-term prospects of stable democracy in Ukraine

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Mara Kozelsky · March 13