Moscow Notebook

Russia's presidential election on March 18 passed without great excitement, since Putin's victory was never in doubt. He won 77 percent of the vote, with just over two-thirds of eligible voters taking part. While a few reported irregularities have received extensive publicity in the Western media, this result fairly accurately reflects the country's current mood.

In Russia elections are impacted by foreign and security issues to a much greater extent than in the U.S. Putin's numbers were helped by Britain's unprecedented anti-Russian campaign following the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on March 4. The government in London promptly accused the Russian government and Putin personally of ordering the attack. A week before the election it expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and Moscow retaliated by ordering out the same number of Britons. Most ordinary Russians believe—not without reason—that they are subjected to serious external challenges, and that the incumbent is better equipped to deal with them than any likely alternative.

As for the Salisbury case, ordinary Russians make the common sense argument that had the authorities intended to kill Skripal as an example to other potential traitors, they could have done so during his four years in Russian jail 2006-2010. Those with security background insist that Russia (and the USSR before 1991) has never targeted an exchanged spy, that intelligence services on both sides would be loath to jeopardize the institution of swaps; and that there was no motive to kill Skripal almost eight years after the swap and three months before the 2018 FIFA World Cup which Russia is due to host in June and July. It seems clear that had a military grade nerve gas been used (and Britain has refused to provide any samples thus far), Skripal and his daughter would have died instantly. Finally, false flag operation is a distinct possibility: the gas allegedly used ("Novichok") is actually a family of nerve agents which has been known for decades and could have been produced by several other countries.

The second factor favoring Putin's victory was Russia's improving economic situation. The mix of Western sanctions imposed in 2014 and the fall of crude oil prices (from $108 per barrel in September 2013 to under $30 in February 2016) caused a two-year period of stagflation, but Russia's economy started growing again in 2017. It is no longer dependent on foreign liquidity, exchange rates are stable, the fiscal deficit is under 2% percent of GDP, and inflation of 4% is at an all-time low. Putin's major domestic challenge will be to direct more private investment into manufacturing, and especially  import substitution ventures. At the moment, Russia’s share of investment in GDP is only 20%, less than one-half of China's 43%. On current form the country may be able to catch up with the global growth rate of three percent, but not before 2021.

An important issue facing Putin, which is discussed privately but with vigor in Moscow's salons, concerns succession. His term will expire in 2024, by which time he will be 71. Short of changing the constitution, which Putin insists will not happen, he will leave the presidency that year. My contacts think that he would need to start grooming a successor not later than 2020, possibly by having him (yes, it will be a man) succeed prime minister Medvedev—who is generally considered weak and devoid of power basez—in order to ensure smooth transition four years later.

One sub-theory is that Putin may move to a largely ceremonial position, such as chairman of the State Duma, which would be used as a vehicle to continue exerting influence even after leaving office. Such reconfiguration of power structure would not be unprecedented. It would be somewhat comparable to "first deputy prime minister" Deng Xiaoping's paramount role in the decade prior to his final retirement in 1989, even though he was neither China's president, nor prime minister, nor CCP secretary-general. A more direct approach, which I consider less likely, is known as "Putin-for-ever model." It would entail reinventing the State Council—a rather peripheral advisory institution established by Putin in the early days of his tenure in 2000—into an executive body with wide-ranging powers, and with the former president at its helm.

Rumors and leaks notwithstanding, there is no candidate on the horizon. The problem of succession has been a regular feature of Russia's political system for centuries. When the first Tsar of all Russians, Ivan IV Vasilyevish ("the Terrible") died in 1584, the title passed to his unfit middle son Fyodor. This marked the beginning of the "times of trouble," which lasted for three decades. Peter the Great made a similar mistake, and when he died in 1725 the Empire was ridden for years by conspiracies and coups. Fast-forward to  more recent times: Stalin's death in March 1953 produced a ruthless and bloody power struggle, part-Shakespeare, part-Mario Puzo. By contrast, Putin's smooth takeover after Yeltsin in 2000 indicated the importance of having the successor groomed and accepted as legitimate by the powers-that-be.

Externally, Putin's primary immediate challenge is posed by the paranoid, hysterical quality to the discourse on Russia and all things Russian in today’s America, Britain, and (somewhat less insanely) on the Continent. It appears that the Anglosphere establishment has abdicated reason and common decency in favor of raw hate and fear-mongering.  We have not seen anything like it before, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.

The roots of Russophobia’s emotional appeal to the left seem clear: It comes as a huge mental relief to the ultrasensitive liberal mind to be able to hate an outside group with impunity, and even to appear virtuous in the process.  Of course, the object of that animus is a Christian and European nation that stubbornly refuses to be postmodernized, or become gripped by self-hate and morbid introspection; a nation not ashamed of its past and unwilling to surrender its future to alien multitudes; a nation where nobody obsesses over transgender bathrooms, microaggressions, and other “issues” indicative of a society’s moral and intellectual decrepitude.

The liberals’ ideological and emotional Russophobia has blended seamlessly with the bread-and-butter geopolitical hostility to Russia shared by the intelligence and national-security apparatus, all over the military-industrial complex, and in the congressional duopoly. The result is a surreal narrative, embodied in "the Skrypal case," which mixes supposedly unprovoked “Russian aggression” in Ukraine, hostile intent in the Baltics, serial war crimes in Syria, political destabilization in Western Europe, and gross interference in America’s “democratic process.” The result is an altogether fictitious “existential threat,” which has made Trump’s intended détente with Moscow impossible.  He may have been serious about turning over a new leaf, but the Swamp counterpressure proved just too great.  A solid rejection front emerged, left and right, conservative and liberal, which extends even into Trump's own team and finally inhibited him from making moves that could have appeared too friendly to Putin.

The Russophobes’ narrative is unrelated to Russia’s actual policies. It reflects a deep odium of the elite class toward Russia-as-such. This narrative has two key pillars. In terms of geopolitics, we see the striving of maritime empires—Britain before World War II, and the United States after—to “contain” and if possible control the Eurasian heartland, the core of which is of course Russia. Equally important is the already noted cultural antipathy, the desire not merely to influence Russian policies and behavior but to effect an irreversible transformation of Russia’s identity. But some of the most viscerally Russophobic stereotypes come from Russia herself, from those members of Moscow’s “intelligentsia” and its cleptocratic oligarchy who feel more at home in New York's Upper East Side or London's Knightsbridge than anywhere in their own country. If Putin makes such people irrelevant, impoverished, and powerless, his place in history as a great and glorious Russian leader will be assured.

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