The trajectory of the current Russian regime was predictable from the first weeks of Putin’s reign. It is immediately apparent that the absolute priority of the budding system is control. First the control of the elites and then the control of the society. It soon becomes clear that this ambition of control does not stop at Russia: the “near abroad” and the rest of Europe are also targeted by the Kremlin.
The obsession with control drives President Putin’s main economic choice: to stake everything on the sale of oil and gas, as well as other raw materials also under the control of the ruling group, to export in such a way as to build a two-fold dependence, that of the Russian and foreign oligarchic elite authorized to take part in this fruitful business on condition that they serve the Kremlin; and that of the buyer countries, where a highly paid pro-Russian lobby propels itself to the top of the state and finds itself in a position to block all decisions deemed undesirable by Moscow and to push through those deemed desirable.
At the same time, the choice of basing the economy on the export of hydrocarbons and raw materials has an additional advantage from the point of view of the ruling power. By favoring imports of consumer goods, Russia does not need to encourage the development of a class of entrepreneurs who would be independent of the state and in position of making political demands. Prosper de Barante, the French ambassador to Russia under Louis Philippe, perceptively noted that Tsar Nicholas I was ready to sacrifice the material improvement of the condition of his subjects if it would lead to the weakening of autocracy: “If the development of internal prosperity would bring as a necessary consequence a greater independence of the subjects, I believe the emperor is quite ready to sacrifice commercial growth. He prefers that Russian merchants become rich by remaining humble and in servile adoration of the sovereign”1. Further on, he summarizes the eternal Russian dilemma: “The problem that the emperor is trying to solve is to develop trade and industry in Russia, in order to increase the state budget and to show himself equal to Europe by managing without it, but at the same time to preserve the obedience, humility and ignorance of Russian merchants”2.
For a while, the system works admirably: the oligarchs get rich in Russia and invest their assets in Western countries where property rights are guaranteed. As such they are not interested in improving the rule of law in Russia: on the contrary, they take advantage of the arbitrariness that allows them to build huge fortunes. They make up for it in ostentatious Orthodox religion, sponsoring “patriotic” projects against the West. The more the corruption of the elites becomes blatant, the more the flight of capital accelerates, the more patriotism and great power ideology are put forward by official propaganda, and the more the confrontation with the West is presented as the raison d’être of Russian foreign policy. This is where the Putin system innovates compared to the Yeltsin system: the plundering of Russia is now carried out with patriotic slogans. The Russian people are willing to tighten their belts because they have been persuaded that the Kremlin’s Men, while filling their pockets, work day and night to restore the greatness of Russia that had been “on its knees”.
The first shadow in the picture appeared in 2008, when the development of shale gas made the United States the world’s leading gas power. Russian leaders understand that their ability to exercise gas blackmail on Europe is diminishing and have decided to develop other instruments to extort the international community and Europe in particular. Putin launched a vast program to modernize the Russian army. This could only have been achieved with the contribution of Western technologies. Hence the encouragement of the “reset” policy sought by President Obama and the European leaders despite the first open Russian aggression in the “near abroad” in the summer of 2008, that resulted in the partial occupation of the Georgian state. France and other Western countries embarked enthusiastically on a “partnership for modernization” of Russia touted by the amiable President Medvedev, which, in fact, had no other purpose than to help Russia acquire the “doomsday weapons” with which Moscow will threaten the West from 2014.
However, even the Potemkin thaw of the Medvedev presidency began to cause rifts within the Russian elite. The oligarchs of the Yeltsin era were in favour of a second Medvedev term, as were some of the regime’s early architects, such as Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky. Vladimir Putin realized with horror that his control over the elites was less absolute than he had thought. The protests of late 2011-early 2012 exacerbated his panic. The choices announced by the Kremlin leaders at the time of the election campaign in 2011-2012 were indicative of their priorities. The national education budget is to be cut in half (from 1.1 % GDP in 2009 to 0.5 % in 2013), while the military budget was increased by 60 % by 2013. Reelected to the presidency in May 2012, Putin had only one idea: nationalization of the Russian elites and preparation of the great confrontation with the West. “United Russia” deputies were forced to personally sign drafts of liberticidal laws in order to isolate them from abroad by blacklisting them. In May 2013, a law was passed that banned senior officials and their families from holding bank accounts, stocks, and treasury bonds abroad; henceforth, real estate had to be declared and the income from which it was acquired had to be accounted for — a blow to many Russians who amassed fortunes primarily to settle abroad.
Since the crisis of 2009, the Russian leadership has realized that Russia will be unable to catch up to developed nations. Instead, the Putin regime has advanced the slogan of the “Russian world” and the integration of the large Eurasian space around Russia. An autarkic project is gradually taking shape. Propaganda hammers away that only thanks to an authoritarian power will “the gathering of the Russian lands” be possible. The French traveler Frederic Lacroix, who visited the Russia of Nicholas I, had already highlighted this link between a siege mentality and autocracy: “It is important that the empire presents the image of a camp, whose leadership rests on one man. Once these conditions are realized, the implementation of the autocratic regime becomes easy; each citizen considers the whole country as under siege, and seemingly subjected to the rigors of a permanent war cabinet, acts under the impression of a constant terror […] In the long run, all works in the State as in a citadel, and the enslavement of the people is complete.”3 And it is expansionism that justifies this organization of the country as a military camp: for Russia, Lacroix observes, “conquest [is] almost a condition of existence.”4
The Kremlin having decided to forget about the development of Russia, it now identifies power with how much territory is controlled. Russia wants to barricade itself in a closed space, protected from the harmful influences of the West. But to be comfortable in this territorial cocoon, Russia must strive to make it as large as possible. Any project of autarky presupposes conquest and expansion by military means. Nazi Germany decided to conquer a Lebensraum as soon as it turned its back on free trade and the market. From the moment that Putin undertook to cut the umbilical cord between the Russian elite and the West so that his control over this elite was total, imperial expansion became a priority. For nations unconcerned with or unable to produce wealth, the plundering of conquered territories becomes an indispensable source of income and co-optation of elites.
The project of the Eurasian Economic Union began to take shape in 2010. Its mission was not only to reintegrate the ex-Soviet space around Moscow. It aimed to take over European states once the EU had been dissolved and once pro-Russian “sovereignist” parties had taken power in Europe. In 2010, Putin formulated his proposal for a “united economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok” in an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. According to him, this united space had to be built around a “common industrial policy”, a “common energy infrastructure”, a “strengthened cooperation in the scientific field” between Russians and Europeans, and finally the liquidation of the visa regime between Russia and the EU. On April 28, 2015, Sergei Narychkin, then president of the Duma, published a remarkable article in which he called for a merger of the Eurasian Union and the European Union: “Zeman [the very pro-Russian Czech president] has not ruled out the integration of European Union countries into the Russian Federation. Our country has often proposed merging the Eurasian Economic Union with the EU”. Narychkin was referring to an interview with Zeman in which Zeman called for the integration of the Russian and European economies, emphasizing their complementarity, as Russia has the resources and Europe the technologies.
Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu and Patriarch Kirill at the dedication ceremony of the Temple of the Armed Forces. September 2018. Photo : kremlin.ru
In the minds of the Kremlin leaders, the intermediate step towards this Eurasian Union is the “Russian world” project, i.e., the fusion of Belarus and Ukraine with Russia. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first step in the realization of the Lebensraum expansion program. Interestingly enough, Putin distributed to his favorite oligarchs (mostly from the secret services) the exploitation of the most profitable tourist sites and places in this conquered region, not to mention the lucrative construction of the Crimean bridge, exactly as Tsar Ivan III had allocated to those who served him the lands of defeated and devastated Novgorod. Today we already see the Russian Presidential Administration starting to share the spoils of the land taken from Ukraine.
The Western sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in the Donbass were quite toothless. But even so they provided a pretext for Putin to introduce counter-sanctions on August 6, 2014, an embargo (selective, because Russia continues to import military technology, especially from France and Germany) on imports from countries that have sanctioned Russia. From this period onward, the slogan of “import substitution” took a prominent place in the official propaganda. The march towards autarky accelerated, as did the military preparations for future aggression. The parallel taming of the elite continued. In 2015 Putin created a special, highly secret structure, independent of the FSB, controlled by him alone, which is responsible for launching a large-scale purge in the country, especially among regional elites and within the United Russia party.
The failure of the “import substitution” program is obvious from 2015. It became clear to the Kremlin that the project of an autarkic space must include Western Europe at all costs. Aleksandr Dugin had been advocating it since 2014: “Annexing Europe is a grand design worthy of Russia… We will take their technologies in one fell swoop: no more need for gas and oil to get them piecemeal. This is the modernization and Europeanization of Russia. Soft power will suffice: find a fifth column, propel to power the people we control, buy advertising specialists with Gazprom’s money…”5. On September 23, 2015, Medvedev wrote a long article entitled “A New Reality: Russia and Global Challenges”, in which he reaffirmed Russia’s European vocation and advocated the creation of a “united economic space” on the European continent. Igor Morozov, a former KGB officer turned senator, explained the Russian plan: “Since the United States cannot be the guarantor of European security, Russia and Europe must unite, with Russia as the decisive element”. Moscow’s goal was above all to drive the United States out of Europe. Hence, the systematic policy of humiliating America practiced by the Kremlin during the Obama years: “The longer the Americans pretend that nothing has happened [by enduring Moscow’s insults and provocations], the more numerous will be their vassals — so-called allies who have long since grown tired of this dependence — ready to blatantly ignore American ambitions and defect into the camp of the rising world power. Finally, even the status of one of the centers of the multipolar world may become out of reach for the United States. For not only Asians, Africans and Latin Americans, but even Europeans will gladly take revenge on this former hegemonic power for past humiliations.”
As opposition to change was imposed internally, the obsession with projecting power externally intensified. Putin was preparing for war and confrontation with the United States. On April 6, 2016, he announced the creation of a 400,000-strong National Guard that could be deployed abroad (it was to be the bulk of the intervention force in Ukraine in the Kremlin’s initial plan for its “special operation”). The maneuvers in late August 2016 show that Russia had returned to the mass mobilization that had been practiced in the Soviet era. It was also a test of the ability of industrial enterprises to switch to military production. That autumn Putin ordered the sequestration of all oil revenues exceeding $40 per barrel. The central bank began to accumulate gold stocks. The Russian president was clearly building an economic and information fortress. In April 2019, the Duma passed a law to create a “sovereign internet” in Russia that would be isolated from the world’s major servers.
In an article published on February 11, 2019, Vladislav Surkov proclaimed that “a new type of state” that had been built in Russia was only in its infancy. Russia “has returned to its natural state, the only one possible for it, of a large community of expanding peoples that collects land mass.” It is an openly “military-police” state that follows the three previous successful models of the Russian state, that of Ivan the Terrible, that of Peter the Great, and that of Lenin. This “machine of power has allowed the continuous rise of the Russian world for centuries”. Surkov concludes that the Putin regime “has a considerable export potential” because it is the reign of blatant force.
In 2021, Putin came to believe that he is finally in a position to realize his plan to expel the United States from Europe and secure a hegemonic position on the continent. The U.S. debacle in Afghanistan and the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline suggested that the United States was weak and pulling back all around the world, while the Europeans would be controlled by their dependence on Russian gas. He imagined Gazprom closing its taps and the gas shortage bringing the Europeans to their knees, while America would be paralyzed by its duel with China. These premises are at the origin of the ultimatum of December 17, 2021 that he issued, which bluntly put the United States on notice for NATO to retreat to its 1997 positions or risk military measures. After the ultimatum was rejected, Putin launched his “special operation” in Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
The pretexts invoked to justify the invasion of Ukraine were stripped away one after the other in the space of a few weeks. They were, successively, the need to “denazify” Ukraine, to prevent a “genocide” of Russian speakers, to prevent the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, to overthrow the unjust international order in which “an economy works for a million people or even for the ‘golden billion’“, as the Russian president had declared in Davos in 2021. The latest one has just been formulated by Putin: it is to “recover” the lands unjustly taken from Russia by its enemies and to rebuild the Russian empire. The array of these justifications, the ease with which Putin discards them and adopts new ones, show that none of them comes close to the real motivations of the Russian president.
Putin was educated by both the mob and the KGB. As a result, he is unable to think in political terms. He does not take into account society or opinion, which in his eyes are totally manipulable by elites. He does not understand what a state is, nor an empire, because the rule of law is absent from his mental categories. His logic is that of a gang leader. His vision of the international scene is that of a jungle where dominant males fight each other. His vision of empire is that of an exclusive space of plunder and predation. For him sovereignty is synonymous with impunity. He recognizes only one crime: to defect and come under the control of a rival dominant male (notably the president of the United States). Traitors, those who have joined the ranks of a rival gang, must be punished with gruesome death. Hence the spectacular assassination of Litvinenko, the attempted assassination of Skripal. A clear message to the Russians: foreign capos will not shield you from the sentence I have pronounced against you. The crime committed by Ukraine in the eyes of Putin is of the same nature as that of a Litvinenko: she was part of his gang, she defected to put herself under the protection of a rival leader. This explains the destructive fury, the rage of devastation that Putin has unleashed on this unfortunate country. The real motives of the war against Ukraine are revenge and a warning to others: everything else is just rhetorical cover. Putin is a gangster, he thinks and acts like a gangster.
The martyrdom inflicted on Ukraine is an integral part of the Kremlin’s taming of European elites for the creation of the “united economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Putin wants to show that Biden can do nothing for those who rely on his protection. He expects that the European leaders, paralyzed with fear, will come under Moscow’s rule and keep their people subjected to Russia. Since, despite the Kremlin’s rantings, the sanctions are having an effect, the Russian leaders are more convinced than ever that all of Europe must be included in their large autarkic space, otherwise they will be unable to maintain their military-industrial sector, the only one that matters to them. It is not by chance that Putin has recalled Peter the Great: he was the tsar who had the idea of recruiting Europeans to forge the tools of Russian power.
Today the Kremlin leaders are convinced that they will have their cake and eat it too. They expect to annex Ukraine and resume business as usual with the Europeans. The misguided calls to “not humiliate Russia” (Macron), and not to “respond to violence with violence” (Scholz) can only encourage them in this direction. Here is how commentator Guevorg Mirzayan explains Moscow’s offers of peace negotiations: “This will push the West in the direction Russia wants. Because more and more Western politicians understand that the West is losing the Ukrainian campaign and are ready to engage in a reconciliation dialogue with Russia, accepting the cession of Ukrainian territories. Until now, we are talking only about Crimea, the LPR and the DPR — however, Sergei Lavrov clearly stated that the terms of the agreement will depend on the situation on the ground. And now this situation implies that the regions of Kherson and Zaporozhie will also leave Ukraine. Many Russian officials are talking about this, as well as about when Moscow will cross the point of no return — by distributing Russian Federation passports to residents of these regions on June 12. A similar ‘extraction’ awaits other territories of Ukraine, which will be liberated by Russian troops. This means that the West, driven by an awareness of its own defeat and Moscow’s willingness to negotiate, will adapt to the new situation.”
That is why any sign of Western wavering during these dramatic days, when the Ukrainian people are desperately fighting for their survival, can only encourage the Kremlin to up the ante. We must make it clear from now on that the sanctions will only be lifted when Russia has evacuated all the territories stolen from its neighbors. No Russian blackmail should make us give in on this point. Only the prospect of the collapse of its arms industry as a result of Western sanctions can shake the Putin regime, whose sole raison d’être is the exercise of power. The arsenal of sanctions deployed places the West in a position of strength. The West must not forget this for a moment.