Last year, thanks to its aggression in Ukraine, Russia changed in many important ways. But one crucial transformation has gone largely unnoticed: Long-term thinking has completely disappeared, and the Russian regime no longer talks about the future. Russian leaders’ discourse centers on the standoff with Ukraine and the West (and their “puppets” within Russia) and references to the heroic past (mostly to World War II). The regime is now fully focused on its own survival.
This has not always been the case. In 2000, Vladimir Putin went to the Kremlin with a 10-year “Gref program” that included a vision of Russia as an open and modern country. His first presidential term implemented parts of this program. Long-term development strategies — mostly based on this vision — were discussed and updated until 2012. Even when Putin returned as president that year, he put together a set of programmatic op-eds in Russian newspapers outlining long-term plans on the economy, social policy, governance, federalism and foreign policy. He converted these into a number of presidential decrees that he signed on his first day in office. These decrees provided transparent targets that he promised to achieve by 2018.
By now it is clear — and even publicly acknowledged by Putin himself — that these decrees will not be carried out. What alternative future does Russia’s president propose to his citizens? There is no answer. No long-term policy planning for Russia’s future is occurring. Previously, Russia took pride in moving from one-year to three-year budgets. This is no more: The Kremlin has no credible financial plan beyond 2016 except for hoping for oil prices to recover. Its foreign policy’s doctrine centers also on regime survival. Around the world, Russia fiercely defends the sovereign right of non-democratic governments to stay in power indefinitely.
The regime is right to worry about its immediate future. The Russian economy is in recession and is unlikely to grow at more than 2 percent per year even when — or if — the recession ends. For the first time in Putin’s 15 years in power, Russians’ real incomes are falling. The propaganda benefits of annexing Crimea are subsiding. And another war is not affordable — in addition to direct military costs, being subjected to another round of sanctions could destroy important banks, which could easily result in widespread panic and the collapse of the regime.
Given this environment, it is not surprising that the West, too, talks to Russia only about short-term issues. But whether we think about the future or not, it will come. At some point, this regime will have to go, and it is not clear at all what will replace it, how turbulent the transformation will be and whether Russia will ultimately emerge as a democratic country. As the Arab Spring has shown, such regime changes can be very peaceful or very violent.
A peaceful transition is not unlikely. Russia is richer and better educated than the Arab Spring countries; in fact, it is richer and better educated than any country in history that has moved from dictatorship to democracy. But is also clear that the top figures in the regime are unlikely to readily surrender their hold on power. They are scared of being brought to justice for crimes against international law and humanity, and for grand corruption within Russia. The best scenario one can hope for is some form of transitional government that would provide certain guarantees to the outgoing elites and oversee new elections.
It is certainly in the West’s interest not to “lose Russia” again. Given Russia’s nuclear arms and its diminished but still large economic, energy and geopolitical roles, a turbulent transition and the rise of another aggressive non-democratic regime would be costly for the world. A democratic and capitalist Russia would contribute to the global economy and the world’s ability to address international challenges including regional instability, environmental threats, terrorism and corruption.
Can the West do anything to affect the outcome? Eventually, Russia’s destiny will be decided by Russians. But the West can still play a role. With a Marshall Plan-style program, it can contribute to shaping a new Russia by helping to rebuild an economy destroyed by corruption; supporting governance, education and health-care reforms; and investing in Russia’s infrastructure. Most important, the West should articulate a path for reintegrating Russia into the free world. Russians ultimately think of themselves as a part of European civilization, and even Putin’s aggressive rhetoric refers at times to his Western “partners” and looks for his policies’ roots in “true European values.” The West should be clear about what it will take for Russia to reengage with the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international bodies.
These issues are difficult; addressing them will require major intellectual and political efforts. What is worrisome is that Western leaders treat such questions as too distant to bother with. We should learn a lesson from 1991, when the quick disappearance of the Soviet Union took everyone by surprise. But we must be careful not to be misled by the fact that 1991 was relatively peaceful. This time, the stakes are much higher for the ruling elite. The West should get prepared now for sudden and turbulent change in Russia.
Sergei Guriev is an economics professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, also known as Sciences Po.