Vladimir Putin’s regime emerged and has existed for more than a decade by relying to a large extent on the suppression and elimination of «enemies» threatening the country’s national interests and strategic positions. The construction of «enemies» was a natural and uncontested requirement for the regime, its way of life, where an acute sense of its own vulnerability prevailed. But now, after Ukraine and Syria, the model has changed: Defensive tactics are being ousted by an increasing game of playing at being a superpower. What kind of consequences might this have?
How enemies have multiplied
Russia is the victim of foes who are cynically and ruthlessly exploiting all the opportunities available to them to weaken the country, dismember it, and reduce the population to a state of total degradation. It was from this premise that Vladimir Putin’s term of office began in 2000. It was precisely the ability to present himself as a defender that enabled Putin to crank up his rating from 5 percent to 30 percent in the fall of 1999. At that time the country needed such a leader, who immediately undertook to «whack in the shithouse» the Russian people’s real and illusory «enemies.»
To begin with the first and main «enemy» was Chechen separatists and terrorists, whose elimination, as Putin put it, saved the country from destruction. Very soon the oligarchs and Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, who bore the collective responsibility for the injustices of the 90s, became «enemy» number one. The rules of the game were rewritten and the regime became monopolized by the Kremlin.
«Color revolutions» took place at almost the same time — to begin with in Georgia, then in Ukraine. A regional geopolitical conflict led to the intensification of the global rivalry between Russia and the United States. The 2007 Munich speech marked the official opening of a new and broader front — against the West, which, as the regime put it, was dreaming of smashing Russia, which was making tentative attempts to get up off of its knees.
The basis of the antiterrorist, anti-oligarch, and anti-Western rhetoric alike was always the internal vulnerability of the state, which was experiencing critical difficulties in functioning harmoniously. Separatists were threatening integrity and security, oligarchs and regional elites were eroding the «vertical axis of power,» and also, as the Kremlin saw it, the United States was intruding into a zone of traditional Russian interests — the post-Soviet area. As we can see, everywhere the Russian regime felt that its status comprised being under attack and incapable of defending its own interests.
In 2000-2007 we saw the establishment of a model of political leadership based on the logic of enforced defense against stronger and unscrupulous rivals: We could not defeat them, we reviled them, we traded with them, but we did not dare to «go to war,» or likewise to concede too much. From 2008 through 2011 the regime retreated significantly in this context: No matter how much he may be mocked today, Medvedev switched from a confrontation with notional «enemies» to a model of cooperation. And this applied to both internal and external «enemies.» Putin could not put up with this for long, rapidly coming to an arrangement for the capitulation of his successor and relinquishment of his post.
Switch to the offensive
The annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in the Donbas [Donets Basin] totally changed the regime’s perception of itself and the algorithm governing the operation of its model. An aggressive reflex was the consequence of the feeling of vulnerability turning into a feeling of total license: If you cannot compel more powerful opponents to play by your rules, there will no longer be any rules. For the Putin regime this was the first experiment in setting the direction of travel for the development of the situation as opposed to actions within the framework of prescribed (seen as imposed) restrictions.
At the same time the policy remained specifically defensive in terms of rhetoric (although it was increasingly tricky to explain this): All of Russia’s key moves in the Ukrainian context were positioned as countering a new fascist threat. Admittedly this was much more far-fetched by comparison with previous threats.
The model of protecting the people and the state against external and internal «aggressors» definitively collapsed as the model for the functioning of the Putin regime after the beginning of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Whereas in Ukraine Russia’s involvement in the conflict was largely of a spontaneous and enforced nature (if there had been no revolution in Ukraine, there would have been no Crimea as part of Russia and no DNR-LNR [Donets’ka People’s Republic-Luhans’ka People’s Republic] in the Donbas, in Syria the Kremlin was itself acting as an «aggressor,» and not against enemies of Russia but against potential selected enemies according to the objectives associated with them. Until September 2015, when Putin proposed at the UN General Assembly the building of a coalition against ISIL [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] (which is banned in the Russian Federation), the threat of Islamic terrorism was a profoundly peripheral challenge for Russia. From August 2015 through August 2016 the number of mentions of ISIL increased sixfold in comparison with the previous year.
The objective of the Russian campaign in Syria was to establish a format for hauling the country out of international isolation and to impose enforced cooperation in the fight against terrorists on the West. What was found was not an enemy of Russia, but an enemy in combating which it would be difficult for the West to refuse the Kremlin, which was extending a hand to it. The only thing is that by that time Moscow’s motivation was already very multilayered. The attempt to break out of isolation turned out to be not the only reason for going into Syria. The military and the siloviki, who were rapidly increasing their clout, were pursuing totally different objectives linked to Russia’s geopolitical expansion. Vulnerability as a sense of weakness and a source of protective and defensive responses got lost in growing military and foreign-policy ambitions. Appetite comes with eating: As time passed, the campaign in Syria acquired for Moscow a value of its own which was no longer linked in any way to Ukraine.
It was specifically from 2015 that external and internal enemies started to be transformed from «aggressors» into targets, resources, or a handy tool used by Russia for a preemptive offensive. The United States, which had for decades been accused of violating international law and interfering in sovereign states’ internal affairs, is being converted in Russian propaganda into a hysterical country characterized by nervous breakdowns and clumsy rhetoric. Moscow is now teaching Washington lessons.
The feeling of vulnerability is abating, while a feeling of impunity and anything goes is increasing. Sanctions? They are benefiting us. Isolation? It did not work! «Nothing you have done has worked» is what Putin thinks whenever he looks into the eyes of an Angela Merkel or an Obama threatening to lean on the Russia. Russia’s response to the Boeing-777 investigation — torpid, indifferent, unemotional, and impassive denial, without even particular concern for logic and persuasiveness — was also indicative. It appears that the military, deputies, senators, and the DNR-LNR are each being left to step up to the plate to the extent possible in the absence of a «general line» from the Kremlin, which has washed its hands of the situation.
2015 was the turning point: It changed the model for the functioning of the regime from defensive to offensive. Protection against «aggressors» as a way of life is changing in favor of an endless search for «enemies.» This means a crisis in terms of real enemies and the flourishing of invented enemies, which also demanded a supremely powerful system of identification: «foreign agents,» «pedophile» exhibitions [allusion to controversial Jock Sturges photo exhibit in Moscow], abortions, a lack of spirituality and morality, spies, a «State Department» opposition, and revolutionaries. It is precisely now, in the conditions of a crisis involving real «enemies,» that the regime is intuitively developing «friend or foe» and «patriot or traitor» identification mechanisms. Are you in favor of abortion? That means you are a covert revolutionary. Do you like Sturges’s photographs? That means you are a potential traitor. This is the ideological matrix for identifying «regime loyalists.»
2015 also overturned the logic governing internal development: Conservatism as a means of minimizing domestic political risks is no longer appropriate. The regime’s atrophied capability for change is being replaced by an instinctive universal mobilization, a recalibration of control mechanisms, and the discarding of elite ballast. Internal fear in the face of insurmountable geopolitical barriers is being driven out by the euphoria of unimpeded expansion. It is in this kind of situation that the state is becoming separated from society: The latter is turning from an object of (albeit largely manipulative) protectionism into a regime vulnerability. The trust that the population places in the regime is no longer seen by it as a voluntary social upfront payment but is turning into a robust demand noncompliance with which is deemed to be hostile.
Russia is entering a new era of historical development: The regime is starting to consume [assets] and go on the offensive, losing all sense of moderation and failing to understand the main thing — that a superpower’s privileges require corresponding resources. And the state will have to try to find these resources, if not from the bowels of the earth then from individual and corporate pockets.