On March 18, Russians re-elected Vladimir Putin as president. Beyond questions of whether the elections were fair or if opposition candidates were allowed the opportunity to campaign in earnest, the interesting question for Stratfor analysts is what comes next.
With a stagnant economy, rising poverty, ongoing sanctions and a highly divisive political climate, Russia faces a wide range of challenges over the next six years, not the least of which is the question of who could follow Putin as Russia’s next leader.
To discuss those challenges and more, we sit down with Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analysts Lauren Goodrich and Eugene Chausovsky for the latest edition of the Stratfor Podcast.
Russia Destabilization: An Assessment, a Stratfor Store report
Putin Plans for a Russia Without Him by Lauren Goodrich
Kremlinology, a series on Stratfor Worldview
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Eugene Chausovsky [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Eugene Chausovsky, a Senior Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe.
Lauren Goodrich [00:00:27] The Kremlin does not have the piggy bank that it had 10 years ago. There's a real dilemma for Putin and it's going to become even tougher this next term because it looks like the United States and Russia are headed towards another arms race.
Ben Sheen [00:00:53] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs, from stratfor.com. I'm your host Ben Sheen. On March 18, Russian president Vladimir Putin was elected for his fourth term in office. While that surprised, well, no one if I'm being honest, the interesting thing is what comes next. With a stagnant economy, rising poverty, ongoing sanctions, and an oil market that shows no signs of booming, Russia faces a wide range of challenges over these next six years, including the very serious question of who could follow Vladimir Putin as Russia's next leader. To explore all of that, as well as the shifting political climate within Russia, we're joined by Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analysts Lauren Goodrich and Eugene Chausovsky for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Thanks for joining us. Lauren, Eugene, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.
Lauren Goodrich [00:01:48] Thank you.
Eugene Chausovsky [00:01:49] Glad to be here.
Ben Sheen [00:01:51] In what came as no surprise to anyone who closely tracks Russia, Putin won the elections and is now going to be president for at least another term. What are the immediate implications for Russia and what can we expect to see as his term plays out?
Lauren Goodrich [00:02:04] Well, what we're seeing currently is very different than what we saw in the post 2011-2012 election cycle, in which mass protests flooded the streets. There are protests currently, however, the opposition and those that did not vote for Putin are thinking more longterm, as is the Kremlin. We're seeing a little bit different dynamics this time around than last time around. However, there is another election on the horizon this September in which the highly coveted seat of Moscow mayor is up for grabs, and that's going to be a really interesting election to go into as almost every opposition camp has a figure that they're going to be pushing towards that position, because that position really holds a lot of power and sway within the Kremlin itself.
Ben Sheen [00:02:48] And is there anyone in particular that we are looking at as a favorite? Or is there anyone that Putin is backing?
Lauren Goodrich [00:02:53] Well Putin has his guy who's currently in the position, Sobyanin. However, there's a lot of irritation with him; he's made a lot of promises to the Moscow people that he has not gone through with, and he also is just seen as another Putin loyalist, and that's it, instead of loyal to the people of his own constituency.
Ben Sheen [00:03:14] Clearly we look at Russia, we keep a close eye on what is going on domestically within its borders, and certainly there are elements of social reform that Putin is trying to lead into to maintain his popularity. But certainly, within the global picture, Russia is something of a destabilizing force at the moment, isn't it? What do we expect Russia's behavior to be like in the coming years? Are we expecting any modification or are they going to pretty much continue along the track that we've seen in the last couple of years?
Lauren Goodrich [00:03:41] Well, Putin is in a very interesting position in that for his sixth term he has two major issues, and both are going to feed into what is his legacy going to be. That is going to pretty much harp on all his actions moving forward into this fourth term. Putin's first major issue is the economy. The economy is incredibly stagnant, with no real rays of light. Poverty is its fastest rising since 1998 under Yeltsin. There is a highly divisive political climate in the country, that a lot of that stems out of the economic situation in which the Russian people are asking for major reforms to be able to benefit them, where the elites are all grabbing for whatever assets they can to kind of prop up their own personal fiefdoms and wealth. This has created a disgruntled band within both the elites and the middle class and the poor, and so it's hitting on every level instead of just being a problem for the poor which Putin could handle. All these problems Putin could handle when oil prices were high. Russia really hasn't had a great economy outside of the energy sector ever, but now that oil looks like it's going to be remaining in that middle-low term, or price range, it's much harder for Putin to be able to just stumble along. If he does stumble along, then his system will eventually crack. There's a lot of really big reforms on the table that Putin will have to enact this next term, starting this year, in which he's going to have to really go up against his own system, or else his legacy is going to be pretty much almost a failed legacy unless he can turn things around.
Ben Sheen [00:05:20] Now I don't track this stuff as closely as you guys do, but it seems like this sort of heightened political discourse would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. What's changed?
Lauren Goodrich [00:05:30] About a year ago, it's almost like the switch was flipped inside of Russia, in which political discourse was just a free for all over the past year. Opposition leaders have been able to get on regular state media, which was unheard of in the previous 17 years of Putin's rule. We're seeing a real political debate take place between these opposition leaders and these alternative politicians. On election day it was very notable that Ksenia Sobchak showed up at, big opposition leader who was not allowed to run, Alexei Navalny's political headquarters. He invited her in very warily, and then she asked to make a major announcement on his YouTube livestream. He let her on and she asked for an alliance against Putin. And he said no. And it became this really large political debate that kind of had all of us Kremlin watchers very hyped up for the hour. But it was political discourse, and one of the interesting things that was brought up between them was how do we reform and change the system of the Putin regime, do you do it from the inside and working with Putin and working with the Kremlin, which is something that Ksenia Sobchak has kind of promoted, her slogan "Let's not have a revolution, let's have an evolution" of the system, versus Navalny who's really trying to attack it from the outside with these mass protests and his anti-corruption campaign, very targeted against Kremlin elites. That really became a big question and is a big question for this next term for Putin, is how does those who want an alternative system try to change it? Are they going to work with Putin, as we're seeing a lot of opposition leaders
Lauren Goodrich [00:07:11] start discourse with the Kremlin, or are they going to try to do it from outside?
Ben Sheen [00:07:14] That's a really good overview of some of the stuff we've got happening domestically in Russia at the moment. I'd like to sort of take one step back before we look at the international stage to some of the things that the Kremlin is dealing with in its near periphery. Eugene, what are we seeing happening in Russia's borderlands that might be of concern to Putin in his next period of leadership?
Eugene Chausovsky [00:07:31] It's been interesting to see what's happened immediately after the Russian election, which was that Russia held some pretty major military exercises. Literally the day after elections they basically had 8,000 troops all across Russia's sort of southern periphery. You had exercises in Crimea, which was obviously a very controversial aspect of the election, at least from Ukraine's perspective, now that they're voting in the Russian elections and not the Ukrainian ones. You also had in Abkhazia, which was a breakaway territory near Georgia; Russia fought a war over, or it was involved in a war over that about 10 years ago. In addition to that, you also had some related exercises in Tajikistan, which was another sort of display of Russian military projection, far from the core of Russia. These are all places basically that Putin going into this next term wants to make sure that he retains a strong position and is continuing to battle for influence with the West in the periphery.
Lauren Goodrich [00:08:28] It was interesting because it was the very first mandate that he signed right after the election was, let's hold giant military drills. It was a signal inside the country of look, we are strong, and as Eugene said, it was a signal to everyone outside of the country. It was just, one fell swoop with one mandate he was able to convey that. It was a very central theme to his speech, or his speeches, both right after the election and in the previous weeks, in which he's really promoting that Russia is a global military powerhouse. The theme of guns versus butter, as we were just talking about the economy, is very central to his big dilemma coming up for this next term. The Kremlin does not have the piggy bank that it had 10 years ago, and so it is going to have to make some very difficult decisions on, are we going to continue to finance these really large military, flashy campaigns, or are we going to be taking care of welfare of our people in financing the pension system, financing the budget, helping out with salaries, bailing out banks and big state firms. There's a real dilemma for Putin and it's going to become even tougher this next term because it looks like the United States and Russia are headed towards another arms race.
Ben Sheen [00:09:50] We'll get back to our conversation about Russia and the next six years under President Putin in just one moment. But if you'd like to dig deeper into this topic, you should check out our report, "Russia Destabilization and Assessment." It's one of our long-form analyses available on the Stratfor store, and we'll include a link to that in the show notes. Stratfor Worldview Team and Enterprise members get access to all of our long-form, premier reports as part of their membership. You can learn more about team and enterprise level access, as well as options for Individual memberships, at worlview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now on to Part Two of our conversation on Putin's next term as Russian president with Lauren Goodrich and Eugene Chausovsky. We've talked a little bit about the domestic pressures and what's happening in Russia's near abroad, but internationally Russia is still under heavy sanctions; it's managed to irritate a great number of powerful countries in the West, and it's still paying for it, effectively. How do we see this international pressure and this dynamic of competition between the US and Russia continue within this next term?
Eugene Chausovsky [00:10:53] It's really interesting to look at where Russia stands in terms of its foreign policy now compared to the last election. Putin's reelection isn't going to signal a major shift in Russia's policy now, it's already in the middle of a shift that's taking place. For example if you compare it to 2012, the last time that Putin got elected, that was a time where Russia's relationship with the West, with the US and the EU, was relatively good. The war with Georgia, which was a controversial thing with the West, was already several years behind it. There was no meaningful sanctions by the EU or the US against Russia and economic ties were on the way up. But there was a significant event that happened in between the two elections, which was the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, which sort of set off this major reverberation effect on the Russia-West relationship. You had the US and the EU slap pretty significant sanctions on Russia. Ties have deteriorated across multiple levels, from the military buildups on both sides to the political standoff and to spy poisonings on UK territory. That has really shifted Russia's perspective on where it wants to focus in terms of foreign policy. One thing that we've seen Russia do is sort of shift towards the East and away from the West. Just as economic ties have weakened and the military buildups continue, Russia has been looking to improve its relationship with countries in Asia and the Middle East, especially countries like China. We've seen Russia become way more active in places like Syria militarily; it's used that to leverage its relationships
Eugene Chausovsky [00:12:27] with other Middle Eastern countries. The Russian foreign policy of 2018 and moving forward looks a lot different than it did in the previous elections and it will undoubtedly continue to move in that way.
Lauren Goodrich [00:12:39] Now it's been very interesting to watch how Russia has spun all of the pressure that the West has been building up on the Kremlin within this past election cycle, in which the head of the Russian propaganda machines said that they pretty much almost thanked the UK for accusing them for the spy poisonings because they said it united the Russian people and rallied the Russian people behind Vladimir Putin. Then of course, the head of the big Russian propaganda news outlet, RT, was discussing how it was the United States that ensured that Vladimir Putin stayed in power for the past 18 years and for the future, because they are the ones who tried to force their own system on Russia, and the Russians were not going to have it.
Ben Sheen [00:13:22] Well it sounds like in some ways we've been returning to classic Russian playbooks. We're talking obviously about how Putin is going to seek to reinforce his legacy. I know we can't really go into too much depth now, but what can we expect after Putin? How will Russia hold itself together when this strongman is no longer at the helm?
Lauren Goodrich [00:13:39] Well that's the big question for this next term, and I know that most people watching Russia are looking at Putin's speech in which he joked about 2030, whether he was going to stay in power that long. But we are seeing some small and behind the scene moves coming out of the Kremlin in which they are starting to pull in a younger generation and test them, putting them in governor positions or in ministerial positions, and seeing who can handle the economic problems, the Kremlin infighting, and the pressure of the people, and who is successfully coming out of that. There's about a dozen, I would say, up and comers, that Putin is testing. I don't believe he's going to choose a sole successor, because I think that as any Russian leader, they would see that as a threat. However there's a lot of alternatives that Putin has that he can tinker with over the next six years to try to figure out what is going to be the succession plan. One alternative is of course to create a state council, something very much like the Soviet system in where he has a group of people, or a constellation of people that succeed him together. That is also a very dangerous alternative because who knows how they would get along and divy up power. Then there's also other opportunities for him to create more of a national leader, or security leader role, that he could move into when he wants to step back from the presidency to try to test things again. We're going to see a lot of options laid out over the next six years in which Putin is thinking of that longer term, and what his legacy will be.
Ben Sheen [00:15:12] Something we'll have to track over the coming years. One final question I do have for you guys is, have you had a chance to see Armando Iannucci's latest, The Death of Stalin, and what did you think?
Eugene Chausovsky [00:15:22] I have seen it and I have to say I love Steve Buscemi as Nikita Kruschev. He does a great job.
Ben Sheen [00:15:28] Brilliant, well thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today guys. Lauren, Eugene, thank you.
Lauren Goodrich [00:15:32] Thank you.
Eugene Chausovsky [00:15:33] Thanks.
Ben Sheen [00:15:45] That's it for this edition of the Stratfor Podcast, and our conversation on what the next six years under Vladimir Putin holds for Russia. Thanks again to Stratfor senior Eurasia analysts Lauren Goodrich and Eugene Chausovsky for sharing their insights. If you're interested in reading more on the topic, or seeing our latest assessments on Stratfor Worldview, we'll include links in the show notes. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Worldview members can also contribute to this conversation and engage with Stratfor's analysts, editors, and contributors in our members only forum. I'd like to give a quick shout-out to Caleb for his five-star review on iTunes. Caleb wrote this about the podcast: "It's logical, hard-nosed analysis devoid of all the nationalism that typically accompanies global politics." Thanks for that review Caleb, we appreciate it. I'd like to say to anyone else, if you enjoy the Stratfor Podcast, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you subscribe. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting to reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.