Will Putin’s Successor Be More Flawed, Brutal and Inept?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 133

(Source: Japan Times)

It appears that the influence of the radical patriots in Russia has declined as of late. Around the same time as the arrest of war criminal and regime critic Igor Girkin (Strelkov) (Interfax.ru, July 21), communications about the need for peace negotiations with Ukraine began to appear more frequently in the Russian information space (T.me/russica2, August 8). Even so, these radical commentators continue to insist on their own agenda.

At the end of July 2023, the owner of Tsargrad TV, “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev published the “Patriot Tower Manifesto.” In it, he justified Girkin’s arrest because, in his words, Girkin had “sown confusion and discord among the ranks of patriots.” Together with this, Malofeev demanded that “the real traitors of the Homeland” be arrested, especially those calling for peace talks and the resumption of the grain deal (Тsargrad.tv, July 25).

Dissatisfaction among these radicals, it appears, will only grow. As noted by well-known political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov, the government “stole” from the National Bolsheviks the very idea of using war to strengthen the regime; however, now, the interests of the fanatics and the “war pragmatists” have started to diverge (YouTube, July 26). Pastukhov’s idea is confirmed by the radicals themselves, who have declared that “now the state agenda has become what has always been the agenda for patriots.” Orthodox apologists for the war do not conceal their joy that, now, the Kremlin “has switched to their platform” (Тsargrad.tv, July 31).

It is entirely natural that the radicals, recognizing the dependence of Vladimir Putin’s government on their ideas, will voice more and more uncompromising demands to the authorities. The Kremlin, in turn, uses these figures to intimidate Western audiences and its own population with the idea that that “an even bigger Nazi and dictator” than Putin could come to power in Russia. Some Ukrainian and Western observers share these concerns (Glavred.info, June 2). Yet, the question should be raised: How valid are these fears?

The advent to power of someone more radical than Putin in Russia is quite real, even when only a minority of the population is sharply pro-war. Some experts loyal to the Kremlin note not only apathy but also “a paralysis of public consciousness and will” in Russian society, which virtually eliminates any risks for the authorities in Moscow (T.me/russica2, August 2). Independent sociologists also see a decrease in the number of Russians who believe they can influence processes in personal and public life. According to the latest data from the Levada Center, only 32 percent of those surveyed feel any personal responsibility for what is happening in the country. This number has dropped by 5 percentage points when compared with results from the December 2022 iteration of the survey (Levada.ru, August 3). Thus, it is quite logical that, given such widespread apathy and hopelessness, the future of Russia may very well be determined by a passionate minority, which includes pro-war radicals.

Another question is whether the war apologists are more dangerous than Putin himself. It is no secret that the fear of radicals coming to power in Russia is one of the main arguments of those who advocate for compromise with Putin’s Kremlin. At the same time, the Russian opposition believes that it is almost impossible to imagine a leader worse than Putin. For example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky emphasizes that the current Russian dictator has repeatedly threatened the world with nuclear war and has not followed through only because, at the moment, it is not profitable for him personally. Pastukhov, in turn, believes that only Putin can control the dangerous domestic situation until it becomes irreversible (YouTube, August 5).

In sorting this out, it is important to understand the postulates upon which Putin’s worldview is based. Based on a closer analysis of his numerous essays about how Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” (Kremlin.ru, July 12, 2021) and his declarations that Ukraine, in his opinion, illegally acquired Russian territories (BBC News Russian, February 21, 2022), it becomes increasingly obvious that the Russian president’s views do not differ that much from those of the radical patriots.

Putin’s proposals for a “new Yalta” and a realignment of the international system set forth before his war against Ukraine (Eurasia.expert, January 29, 2020), as well as his ultimatum to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the end of 2021 (Lenta.ru, January 10, 2022), demonstrated his total rejection of free will for the countries and peoples of the post-Soviet space. It seems that the Russian leader truly believes what he says regarding how the West seeks to “divide and destroy Russia” (Gazeta.ru, September 21, 2022).

Of course, Putin and his circle do their best to come across as more pragmatic and rational than the semi-religious fanatics. Yet, it is hard to act rationally on the basis of an extremely distorted picture of the world in which cause-and-effect relationships are ignored. Moreover, it was under Putin that these radical movements grew, as did their influence on Kremlin decision-making. For example, in 2014, the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine’s Donbas region was largely based on the myths of the radical Orthodox imperialists and the no-less-radical communists that the region’s populace was somehow “ready to assist the Kyiv regime with arms in hand” (Ruskline.ru, May 28, 2014) and that a full-scale civil war was inevitable in Ukraine (Zavtra.ru, February 19, 2014).

Aleksandr Sytin, a former senior analyst of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) under the Presidential Administration, wrote often about the religious “White Guard” ideas, which embodied the policies of his superiors while at RISI. According to him, these ideas were combined with wholly emotional anti-Westernism and arguments about the special “divine” historical mission of Russia. Sytin claimed that RISI played a key role in lobbying for Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea and parts of Donbas (Royallib.com, 2014).

Clearly, Putin’s opposition to “radical patriots” is largely illusory. In fact, it is the radicals who seemingly determine the country’s course and Putin’s view of the world. The analytical centers, in turn, only rationalize and refine his illusions (see EDM, July 5), while Putin’s entourage is forced to share these views (TASS, April 27, 2022). In essence, the Putin regime is the main source and translator of radical thought in modern Russia, and its continuation will inevitably lead to greater radicalization in Russian society.