The following is a guest post from historian Elizabeth A. Wood of of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 has put Vladimir Putin in a bind, evidence that he has unleashed forces in Eastern Ukraine that he cannot entirely control. But he may have also unleashed forces in Moscow, which, while still not very strong, are beyond his control. The liberal Russian intelligentsia, which has been grumbling for months on Facebook, now seems to be marshaling an all-out attempt to persuade the regime to change course.
On Tuesday, independent journalist Evgenia Albats led the charge by appealing to political elites with access to the president, urging them to remind him that the future of the nation hangs in balance. She called her article “The Fight for Putin.” (For a fine overview in English, see Paul Goble’s summary.)
Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky described the split in the elites (English summary by Goble) between what he calls the “global kleptocracy” and the nationalist one. Even leaving aside his use of the inflammatory term “kleptocracy,’ he makes it clear that Putin can no longer continue to sit on both chairs at once as the two elites are diverging. While the nationalists would be happy to return to a Soviet era with closed borders, the globalists have been quietly expressing their terror that Putin will make Russia a complete pariah in the international world.
The economists, including and especially Alexei Kudrin, are saying that sanctions would wreak havoc on economic growth in Russia from its already low point of 1.3 percent to 1 percent. Lest that seem too abstract, he has also said, in terms that should be comprehensible to most Russians, that if the country has to re-arm to keep up with NATO, they could see a 15-20 percent decline in their standard of living. Both of these arguments were published in the official news agency ITAR-TASS, suggesting that they have the support of at least some major players in the Kremlin.
Historians, meanwhile, not to be left behind, have implicitly criticized the saber-rattling of the nationalists by reminding readers that Joseph Goebbels could rouse the masses to ecstasy only because he worked in a repressive regime with the concentration camps at his back. (Putin, it will be remembered, praised Goebbels as “a talented man,” only 10 days ago when speaking to the world Jewish leaders in Moscow. While it’s true that he spoke ironically, it nonetheless does not seem an accident that that is someone he is thinking about.) A historian has also published Rasputin’s letter to Tsar Nicholas II exactly 100 years ago warning of the dangers of “total war.” In that case the war was World War I, and ultimately one of the main outcomes of the war was, in fact, the fall of not only the tsar himself, but the entire Romanov dynasty.
In Russia, rulers do not fall easily. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that Nikita Khrushchev fell in large measure because of his overextension into Cuba. In 1990-1991, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to maintain a delicate balancing act between westward-looking liberals and isolationist hardliners, an attempt that directly contributed to his downfall when the hardliners decided to overthrow him in the August coup. In the end, the internationalists with Boris Yeltsin at their head were able to come to the fore, but it was the attempt to placate both sides that fatally weakened Gorbachev. In each of these cases (Tsar Nicholas, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev) public figures warned the rulers that they had overextended themselves. What the Kremlin leaders today will decide to do is anyone’s guess at this point, but it appears that Putin is once again in the spotlight within Russia as Russian elites themselves choose to focus on the dire consequences of continued war, even as much of the country succumbs to war hysteria.
Prior posts from the Monkey Cage on the Ukraine crisis can be found here. Recent posts include:
Heidi Hardt: Is there a role for NATO in Ukraine?
James Goldgeier: MH17 is a tragedy, not a game-changer
Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich: Why the Ukraine separatists screwed up
Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing
Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?