It’s very possible that, in 2017, Donald Trump will attempt to bring Russia back into the fold of civilised nations by lifting sanctions. So understanding the populism of Vladimir Putin’s government is more urgent than ever.
In his remarkable book, How Russia Sees the West: An Anthology of Russian Thought, from Karamzine to Putin, published last November, Michel Niqueux defined the tenets of the dominant Russian ideology, inspired by Eurasian intellectuals and turned into policies by Putin:
Anti-West, moral and cultural conservatism, vertical power structure, assertion of military power, definition of a multipolar world as opposed to an unipolar power one headed by the USA, prize of Eurasian unity (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia) after Ukraine’s defection.
Although accurate, this description misses the key element of the ideology that has dominated Russia since 2000: a populism founded on a nihilistic view of the truth, state propaganda and a kleptocratic approach to power.
Before he was assassinated just yards from the Kremlin on February 27 2015, Putin’s political opponent, Boris Nemstov, wrote a report in which he accused the Russian president of pursuing a policy of warlike populism in order to bolster his approval ratings, which were at their lowest since 2012.
The annexation of Crimea on March 18 2014 aimed to rekindle Russian pride, as did attempts to incite a pro-Russian uprising in the region referred to as Novorossiya, in May 2014. These met with partial failure: while Russian intelligence forces, led by Colonel Igor Girkin, were able to occupy the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kharkov and Odessa (where Russian is the primary language for a majority of the population) did not join in the revolt.
In the 1980s, those in the USSR who still thought they were on top of the world must have felt the scales fall from their eyes following Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms. Suddenly, new media transparency (glasnost) revealed to a stunned people that they had lived under a regime that, according to historian Stéphane Courtois, was responsible for more than a hundred million deaths in the 20th century.
Then came the 1998 collapse of the rouble, coupled with high inflation. This second shock led many Russians to believe that a democratic, capitalist system was ill-suited to Russia. Of course, no one explained that the system they were living under in the 1990s was undemocratic, since the state apparatus hadn’t been de-sovietised. Neither was it capitalist in nature, especially after the 1995 elections, which gave a majority to the communist party in parliament.
Such was the situation when Boris Yeltsin handed over power to Vladimir Putin, then head of the secret services, in 1999. The majority of the population saw Putin as a lesser evil.
At the same time, the government in Moscow reaped the rewards of a fivefold rise in petrol prices between 1998 and 2012. Russians could rejoice at the improvement in their standard of living, although it was clearly understood that the main beneficiaries would be the new oligarchy serving President Putin.
Since coming to power, Putin has been fanning the flames of resentment in millions of Russians made increasingly desperate by the realisation that the end of communism has not automatically delivered them to a capitalist El Dorado. In 2014, he sold them on the notion that the annexation of Crimea was their way back to glory and international respect. However, as Michel Elchaninoff has explained, this tactic was a double-edged sword.
In spite of state censorship, no one in Russia can be ignorant of the fact that an overwhelming majority in the UN and all EU member states condemn the annexation. The Kremlin feels therefore that it must rush headlong into further action, constantly coming up with smokescreens to assure the population that their once humiliated nation is now rising up again and can dictate terms to the world.
This populist spirit can be seen in two seemingly disparate demonstrations on the international stage: the Olympic Games (London in 2012, but chiefly Sochi in February 2014) and the bombing of Aleppo from October to December 2016.
Soviet-style use of sports
During the Soviet era, sport was always an effective way of rallying the people. Similarly, the Putin government’s policy of pursuing prestigious Russian sporting victories — by any means necessary — aims to please a people still bristling from the break-up of the USSR and suffering from neoliberal globalisation.
The Winter Olympic Games held in Sochi in February 2014, the most expensive in history, provide a good example. According to the Anticorruption Foundation, an organisation run by opponents of the Putin government and financed by citizens, US$13.5 billion to US$22.5 billion of the US$45 billion bill can be attributed to corruption. Vladimir Ashurkov, the foundation’s executive director, stated:
In Russia, 13 million people do not have access to hot water and 9 million live in unsanitary conditions. Under these circumstances, is it really a good idea to spend $45 billion on the Olympic Games?
Grigory Rochenkov, former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Agency, told The New York Times that Russian athletes benefited from systematic doping, overseen by the Department of Sport during the Sochi games.
These accusations echo those of Vitali Stepanov, former inspector for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency during the London summer Olympics in 2012, which sparked a scandal that rocked Russian athletics in November 2015.
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren filed a detailed report for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on July 18 2016, regarding the doping system that was in place in Russia from 2001 to 2005.
Following its publication, and on the grounds that this system, organised by Russian secret service “magicians”, was still flourishing, 118 Russian athletes were banned from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Headlong into Aleppo
In September 2015, held at a stalemate due to sanctions and the Ukrainian army, the Russian government found a new outlet for Russian pride in the country’s military intervention in Syria.
Russia’s involvement in Syria was also a way of telling the UN that its founding principles were ill-adapted to 21st century international crises. The same applies to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which Russia intends to obstruct in its role as a mediator in European conflicts.
The assassination on December 19 2016 of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey to shouts of “Don’t forget Aleppo” was clearly not part of Russia’s plan. Similarly, a conspiracy video published on YouTube by Russia Today did not have the intended effect. The video was meant to show that Western criticism of the relentless bombing of civilians in Aleppo was completely unfounded, but its arguments were swiftly discredited.
However, these international setbacks and debates do not affect the Kremlin’s pursuit of its — chiefly domestic — goals. The meeting of Syrian, Iranian and Turkish diplomats in Moscow on December 20 2016 (from which European diplomats were absent) was given extensive coverage on Russian television.
It served as a demonstration that Russia is now at the vanguard of efforts aimed at rebuilding the geopolitical balance in the Middle East.
Antoine Arjakovsky, historien, directeur de recherche, Collège des Bernardins.
Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.