We Have to Talk about… Vladimir Vladimirovich

After four years during which the Washington-Moscow relationship served as a testament to Donald Trump’s ludicrousness—both policy and performative—the reset of American global diplomacy that took President Joe Biden from Cornwall to Brussels to Geneva over less than a week in June came to Vladimir Putin on June 16th. Policy foreign affairs sage and former Canadian Ambassador to Russia Jeremy Kinsman places the Biden-Putin bilateral in the context of Putin’s tenure.

Jeremy Kinsman

In the wake of the remarkable bilateral between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16th, hereby some background for context.

After two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia has gone from a wobbly start-up democracy to become a flat-out repressive autocracy. Western media see Putin as all-powerful. To them, Russia is Putin. The Kremlin plays to that conflation. It enables portrayal of opponents to Putin by Russian media as traitors to Russia, even as “terrorists” who may expect the harshest punishment from the all-powerful state, as Alexei Navalny’s fate illustrates.

But Putin may not be the all-powerful decider that he seems. In Weak Strongman, The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, Timothy Frye describes a “sistema” of governance of “extreme delegation,” based on a “host of informal rules and personal relationships that balance the interests of different elite networks.”

Putin has to make constant trade-offs: enough repression to keep opposition down but not so much as to provoke mass protest; sufficient corruption to keep the rewards system lubricated but not to the point it becomes publicly repulsive. To placate and reward the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, who quashed Islamist rebellion, Putin tolerates his vengeance contract murders of his enemies, including probably Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov.

Disgusted foreign reaction has little impact on Putin, so long as the Russian people get the composite message that resistance is futile, and opposition useless. But such messaging to Russians may be increasingly unproductive. 

When he succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2000 as president of a country on the verge of breakdown, Putin declared a bargain: Russians would “quiet down” and he would deliver order, security, and stability. Russian incomes and Putin’s popularity rose with the price of oil and a victory over violent Chechen separatists. The deal held for a decade.

US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin shake hands at their first summit meeting in Geneva on June 16. TASS photo

But by 2010, a revived educated and professional class had travelled enough to see how “normal” countries worked. They chafed under their confinement in a state of political infancy. After his two allotted terms as president, Putin had become prime minister. His casual revelation that he and seat-warmer Dmitry Medvedev had cut a deal to bring Putin back to the presidency in a “non-consecutive” new mandate angered a lot of people. Clumsily rigged 2011 parliamentary elections compounded the insult, shocking Putin with the biggest protests since the1990s. Once back as president, he doubled down on the authoritarian playbook, ordering laws that severely limited protests and imposing harsh penalties for unauthorized demonstrations.

His steady, incremental subtraction of democratic space and obliteration of checks on his power fuelled growing pushback, including against crony corruption. Navalny became the shaper and face of a highly organized movement for “Russia without Putin,” that became the acknowledged, if electorally ineligible, opposition.

Putin has occasionally spoken of his traumatic reaction (as an embattled KGB officer) in Dresden to the vast crowds that took to the street in the 1989 revolution against the East German regime. Once he became President, he took to telling Russians they needed a Great Russia, not a revolution. In 2014, the pro-democracy Maidan uprising in Kiev ousted Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych. It also spoiled Putin’s Great Russia showcase, the Sochi Winter Olympics. He saw it as a “Western” conspiracy against Russia. He feared the anti-corruption agitation in Ukraine could be contagious. He improvised a retaliatory grab of traditionally “Russian” Crimea that diverted critical attention. His popularity again soared.

But Navalny kept his foot on the gas, as sanctions and a sagging oil price slowed the economy down. State support for ragtag self-proclaimed Eastern Ukraine separatists was costly. By 2020, Levada polls showed that 82 percent of Russians felt Ukraine should be an independent state.

Polling by the Russian Academy of Sciences revealed Russians cared less about the great power status Putin championed than they did about economic development. The Russian intervention in Syria launched in 2015 to save the Assad regime from rebel groups, including ISIS, had succeeded but didn’t impress Rus-
sians much. 

The Putin playbook aims to induce public apathy, a form of resignation based on the belief that efforts to change the political environment would be wasted. The wild attempt to fatally poison Navalny was meant to scare the opposition into submission. Dictators who maintain control by keeping people scared run the risk of seeming scared of the people. Seeming cowardly is not a popular look. 

That is the sort of scenario Navalny was working on until the state tried and failed to assassinate him and then jailed him, banning his organization and prosecuting associates as “terrorists.” No doubt many Russians are intimidated, but it has cut into Putin’s credibility and popularity, probably by 20 percent. The United Russia party he founded but from which he has now detached, is polling at 24 percent. Yet, for many in Russia, life overall has become pretty good, at least in the cities where professional opportunities are plentiful enough. North Americans are unaware of improvements to infrastructure, services, and cultural and entertainment amenities that have vastly enhanced lifestyles. The economy is flat but the effect of Crimea sanctions has been well managed, with no state debt, and a huge reserve fund.

By Putin’s measures of success, there is a lot in this to celebrate. Instead, so much communications energy goes to over-the-top competitive disinformation against “the West.” RT and other sources systematically defame western liberal democracies as false, failing, and weak in an apparent effort to refute the notion that objective truth even exists. While relentlessly interfering in other peoples’ democracies, Russia portrays itself
as victimized. 

Putin’s adolescent posturing, interference in democracies, and tolerance—if not direction—of hacking and ransomware attacks from Russia, have made Russia unpopular. In December 2020, Pew reported that only 16 percent of Swedes, 19 percent of Americans, 24 percent of Britons, 33 percent of Germans and 30 percent of Canadians held a positive view of Putin. The Kremlin lauds its close relationship with China, but that makes a lot of Russians nervous. Indeed, a 2020 Levada poll revealed that 67 percent thought that Russia and the West should be partners and only 16 percent saw them as rivals.

Meanwhile, COVID’s effect has been mixed. Sputnik V was an early vaccine achievement. But fatalistically-inclined Russians are unusually vaccine-reticent. Civil registry data show 475,000 excess deaths over 2019, far more than the official COVID death count. Moscow buzz is that Putin’s isolation inside a remote bubble during COVID has cost him his touch with people. He wouldn’t be the first fading populist dictator to lose it. Like aging bullfighters’ eyes, it’s usually what goes first. 

Nor would Putin be the first autocrat to grasp that he has no contract for a comfortable retirement. He bought time via revisions to the Constitution that will give him another 12 years. But he needs to keep control; he can either lighten up on repression, or double down. The way he played Navalny’s threat and global surveillance-state trends in anti-democracy datelines indicate he favours the latter.

As to whether Putin is less in sync with his public than he thinks, there are competing assessments:

• he is just so self-confident and indifferent to others’ opinions, he can do what he wants;

• actually, he’s not in charge of everything at all, but trying to manage all kinds of free-lancing interests competing against each other, or

• both are partially true, inducing a mix; he’s erratic because he’s running scared. 

Putin’s absurd defence of the January 6 rioters at the US Capitol, arguing along with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a few fringe Republicans that “those people (who) had come with political demands” were being “persecuted”, and his comedic support for Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in the wake of the state hijacking of a civil airliner betray an imperative to reinforce anti-democracy interests, wherever they exist. It was revealing too of Putin’s basic inexperience with the wider world which he appraises via the echo chamber of insularity in which he lives.

Surely, Putin can get a better grip on credibility with a more impressive message. That was a point President Biden inferred when they met in Geneva June 16. A big unknown for this June 16 Summit was which Putin would show up? The sardonic, resentful, spoiler? That act is losing its appeal for Russians tiring of the ex-martial arts champion’s constant need to win every bout.

Putin was still semi-sarcastic after the meeting. But he was businesslike in the meeting; respectful, professional. He showed cooperative instincts on foundational multilateral issues of global warming, global health, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and on the Arctic, and Afghanistan. 

Both leaders came to Geneva to manage risks. Biden wanted to encourage Putin’s better instincts but make sure he understood Biden’s obligation to respond to interference and aggression. 

He willingly concedes Putin’s enduring grievance that it can’t be a US-run world. But Biden won’t accommodate Russian cyberattacks and disinformation that Putin prizes as a cost-effective way to compete. He made the point that it’s not working, abroad or at home.

We’ll see if Vladimir Vladimirovich gets that and where it goes from here.  

Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian Ambassador to Moscow, former Ambassador to the European Union and former High Commissioner to London. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Canadian International Council.