Despite Vladimir Putin’s bombast and his apparent success in convincing many Russians and some Western leaders otherwise, the Kremlin leader is not a superman, according to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the Russian military is not the all powerful force he claims it is, according to Kseniya Kirillova.
Speaking at Chatham House in London yesterday, Khodorkovsky said directly that changes in Russia are inevitable because “however much Kremlin PR specialists and TV propaganda seek to show us something else, Putin is not a superman and he will not pass into history as a hero.”
Russian media show a bare-chested Putin fighting bears, flying with birds, and hunting tigers; but all this, the former Russian oligarch, political prisoner, and now opposition leader says that this is all “a fantasy” and that Putin is “not a strong leader but a naked king,” someone who like King Canute thinks he can order the tides but succeeds only in getting his feet wet.
Putin’s Russia is “not all Russia,” Khodorkovsky says, although many in the West do not look beyond him. “’Putin’s Russia,’” he says, is that part of the country “which unconsciously and as a result of fear has decided to go in the direction of a closed society,” something that the oil and gas income of a decade ago made possible.
Those in “Putin’s Russia” but not in the rest of it accepted the Faustian bargain of “a well-off existence in place of political freedom.” But the first part of that equation is no longer available, not because of the war in Ukraine or Western sanctions, he argues, but because “the Russian economy has exhausted the resource of development based on the destruction of openness and entrepreneurialism.”
What the war has done, Khodorkovsky says, is make the situation worse by depriving the Kremlin of its access to Western investment and support. As a result, “the closing off of state institutions, the absence of competition and the seeking of isolation has led to rapid devaluation, a fall in production and a reduction in the standard of living.”
It is quite clear that the autumn has come for Putin, but this may be a long fall, one that will involve enormous difficulties for citizens of Russia and will be “dangerous for international security,” he argues. Tensions are going to increase within the government between the old elites and the new, and restiveness among the population will go up as well.
In response, the Kremlin can be counted on to increase repression, exploiting “religious radicalism, archaic values, and xenophobic attitudes” which will be reflected in witch hunts against increasing numbers of people and causing those who can to flee the country. That will make the future even more difficult.
One thing that Russians and the West must be clear on is that russia is not a petro-state as Putin would like people to believe and thus accept that all kinds of things that should not be allowed are necessarily permissible. In fact, Khodorkovsky points out, only a quarter of Russia’s state budget comes from the sale of oil and gas. Three-quarters comes from other sources.
He says he is optimistic about the future because of the rise of a new generation that is not prepared to accept the closed society Putin is offering. Unfortunately, he tells his London audience, “Western society does not see these people and continues to deal only with Putin” as if there “will not be any alternatives.”
And having adopted that mistake view of Russia, the West feels it has no alternative but to come to a deal with the Kremlin leader even though what he clearly wants is no less than a reordering of the international system against the forces of freedom and for the powers of closed societies.
It is of course possible to make a deal with anyone, Khodorkovsky says, if one recognizes what he or she really wants. But if one does understand what Putin wants, one must recognize that it is at variance not only with the interests of the West but also of the interests of Russia and Russians as well.
Another assumption promoted by Moscow and widespread in the West is that the Russian military is all-powerful, but as Kseniya Kirillova points out in an NR2.com commentary, the facts do not support that contention. On the one hand, Russian military equipment is often dated and ineffective.
And on the other, and much more seriously as the Ukrainian fighting has proved, Russian forces may gain their objectives but only at the cost of serious losses if they are opposed by a determined opponent. The Vympel special forces unit, for example, lost a third of its personnel during the attack on the Donetsk airport.
Ukrainian forces, although suffering from shortages of certain kinds of weapons, showed there and are showing elsewhere that they can slow or even stop the Russian advance. Indeed, Kirillova says, “the war in Ukraine has shown that the Russian army is not so strong as many are accustomed to think.” It hasn’t been able to advance everywhere it wants and with minimal losses.
To say this is not to suggest that the Russian army is not capable of advance, but “to exaggerate [its] strength” on the basis of “myths from the past” is a big mistake. And if Putin continues his invasion of Ukraine, he will find that not only the Ukrainian army but the armed Ukrainian people will oppose him every step of the way.