Conference Report The Putin System and the Kremlin’s influence in Europe / Berlin, March 13 Written by Nikolaus von Twickel, edited by Ralf Fuecks
How does Putin’s system function in Russia, how does it influence Europe and what can Europe do about it? The theme of the Center for Liberal Modernity’s first major conference last Tuesday in Berlin was not chosen by accident: The Center was set up in November as a think tank directed against growing populist and anti-liberal tendencies in Europe, a trend that many have linked to Russia, where President Vladimir Putin was re-elected for a fourth term on Sunday.
The conference’s aim was to understand the political and economic aspects of the Putin System and to raise awareness about the real nature of the regime. Another aim was to discuss realistic policy options for the West: “There is this timid, undecided feeling in western capitals – they do not look because they are afraid of what they might see” – the Center’s co-founder Marieluise Beck said in her opening remarks. Ralf Fuecks, its director, explained that the Center would deal with antiliberal challenges from within and outside. Russia is no longer an external power but an effective political actor inside Europe.
The Putin System’s Character
Is Russia a moderate fascist state in formation? Or is it a rent-seeking corporation with Putin as its CEO? Is it an authoritarian system with a clerical-conservative ideology, or is it a deeply pragmatist government with no convictions, held together just by the will to stay in power? Does the regime have strategic aims or does it see political power just as a tool for its own enrichment?
These are some of the theories that Kremlinologists debate in 2018. Deciding what is right is not easy. One common denominator that scientists, experts, politicians and NGO workers could agree on is that it is a hybrid regime that combines elements from different systems. A major difficulty is, as one eminent sociologist put it, the habit in contemporary Russia to “say one thing, think another while doing a third”.
On interesting discussion is about the room for maneuver left to the individuals at the top. One theory called “sistema” in Russian argues that the elite’s private interests and systemic inertia is prone to take hostage even reformist leaders with good intentions.
Conference participants largely agreed that Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy with systemic corruption, a revisionist power that aims to rewrite history and change the geopolitical order. Add to this that its government shows little care about ethical and legal constraints and incorporates informal networks of former and current security agency members (the “Chekists”).
Plus, Moscow has not only become a party to deadly wars in Syria and Ukraine (despite vehement denials), it is also widely seen to use dubious means like Internet trolls and state propaganda to influence western decisionmakers and public opinion to promote its own goals – a huge issue at least since the meddling accusations in the 2016 US election.
But Russia’s ability to influence and manipulate has more to do with western weakness than with Russian strength. Rather than exaggerating Moscow’s capabilities, western
policymakers should focus on strengthening and educating their own societies and start a wider debate.
Despite claims made by Russian state media, the West isn’t exactly plotting to overthrow Mr Putin. Not least because the risk of an abrupt regime change is widely seen as too high.
And yet it is important to ask questions about the future for Putin’s rule, which has entered its 19th year already. Alas, the answer is not as easy as you think.
Russia’s state pollster VTsIOM said last week that Putin’s rating is 70 per cent, and few were surprised when Sunday’s election delivered 76 per cent for Putin and a turnout of 67 per cent. Election fraud was actually largely unnecessary since there was no serious contender on the ballots after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from taking part. The second strongest candidate, Communist Pavel Grudinin got only 11 per cent, while the liberal Xenia Sobchak finished fourth with just 1.6 per cent.
However, political ratings are highly controversial in Russia. The independent Levada Center has been barred from publishing them under Russia’s controversial foreign agent law. And opposition activists say that conducting opinion polls in an authoritarian state is meaningless anyway because people fear saying the truth. Which, in turn, justifies their preparations for the end of Putin’s rule.
When this will come, is another matter. Some say that a peaceful palace revolution could happen, if Russia’s economic stagnation and international isolation continue. But nobody knows, if many people would take to the streets to defend Putin. It is also unclear if a regime change can lead to a reformist government at all. Proponents of the above mentioned “Sistema” warn that Russian voters have an anti-western negative identity so strong that candidates demanding good relations with the West won’t have a chance to get elected.
What should the West do?
Many European policymakers now accept that there is a Russian strategy to spoil European cohesion. Donald Trump’s presidency in the US has also served as a wakeup call to better defend rule-based international order.
Some conference participants came up with recommendations to build “coalitions of the willing and able” that should target Moscow’s Achilles heel, that is money, and freeze and seize assets of Putin-loyal oligarchs and members of his ruling elite abroad.
Others stressed that Europeans should adopt a united strategy. But while the European Union’s resilience to stick to the sanctions regime – it was prolonged once more for six months earlier this week – comes as a positive surprise, given the current levels of intra-EU disagreement, nobody expects the 28-member bloc to impose new sanctions against the Kremlin soon. Not even Britain has demanded this after the recent chemical agent attack on the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal.
In addition, calls for isolating Russia because of its government’s alleged criminal nature were met with criticism. Sanctions that isolate Russia politically and economically would hit the population more than the regime. Most EU members support a limited cooperation with the Kremlin – e.g. in Syria. But many conference participants criticized the Nord Stream II pipeline project, because it only increases Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and strengthens the natural resource industry as the Kremlin’s most important financial resource.
“We need to find a balance between containment and conflict management ... isolating a whole country and criminalizing Putin won’t resolve the challenges we face,” a senior German lawmaker told the conference. He added that the Kremlin should still be subject to “naming and shaming”, especially in the United Nations.
Thus, the West will keep talking with Russia – not least because turning your back on a difficult and dangerous neighbor is not a good option. However, mutual understanding will remain extremely difficult, because Putin’s Russia sees itself as an opponent of the West.
The conference was held under Chatham House Rules, which is why quotes were not attributed to anyone.