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In a special extended essay, Ed Bacon looks into predicting Russia’s future.

The future of Russia, always a contentious subject amongst Russia-watchers as well as in Russia itself, has become an ever hotter topic recently. Browsing the shelves of Moscow bookshops last month, I picked up titles such as Where are the Russians going?, What lies ahead? The Russia which is (still) possible, and Perestroika-2. Experience of repetition. At Domodedevo airport on my way out of Moscow, I bought the latest issue of the glossy news magazine, Kommersant Vlast’, to read about Sergei Kurginyan’s USSR 2.0 concept and growing political movement. This month, at the ever excellent annual conference of the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, there was a special panel laid on even before the conference officially opened, entitled ‘Russia after 2014’, which included the editors of Russia in 2020 (2011) and Russia 2025 (2014).

 Post-Crimean re-boot

Previous anticipations of Russia’s future need re-booting following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent conflict in southern and eastern Ukraine. Almost no one saw that coming. Myself included. I had to stop the presses as the latest edition of Contemporary Russia rolled off them just to get reference to Crimean events included. At the Chatham House think tank in 2011 a presentation of 3 potential scenarios for Ukraine by leading experts had no mention of the idea that Crimea might be incorporated into Russia within a few years.

There was one very prescient account written in 2013. This had Russia easily taking over Crimea with scarcely a shot fired, presenting a fait accompli to the West before tentatively testing the military possibilities of further territorial gain in south-eastern Ukraine. After which, this 2013 account continued, Russia would decide that the costs of further incursion into Ukraine were too high and so withdraw, but nonetheless gain great kudos at home for regaining Crimea. That particular account made up the plot of Tom Clancy’s last, and posthumously published, novel, Command Authority (co-authored with Mark Greaney), and so may be it doesn’t count as an expert forecast?

Having worked for several years on the possibilities and methodologies of forecasting in the social sciences, with particular reference to Russia, all of this is grist to my academic mill. The content of forecasts invariably fascinates, but my scholarly focus has not been so much on what will happen in the future – after all, no one knows except for those who know and, to get all Rumsfeldian, they do not know that they know until they know. My focus has rather been on approaches to forecasting – what methods are used? what theories applied? what historical frameworks assumed? what key drivers identified? what role for different scenarios and narratives?

The Izborsky Club

Current forecasts for Russia are disturbing. Increasingly to the fore in Russia itself, and indeed in the political élite around President Putin, are the virulently nationalist and anti-western views associated with the Izborsky Club think tank. A blog post does not provide space for detailed analysis of their writings, but some snapshots indicate the tone. The founder of the Izborsky Club, Aleksandr Prokhanov, edits the extreme nationalist newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) and is a prolific author. He wrote a novel about Russia’s destiny called Fifth Empire, this being Russia’s coming empire following the previous four of Kievan Rus, Muscovy, the Romanov territories, and the Soviet Union. (Mikhail Yur’ev wrote a similar work, about a vast Russian empire existing in the middle of this century, but his was called Third Empire. Note that any dispute over numbering concerns how many empires there have been in the past, not the certainty of a future empire). Prokhanov’s latest novel bears the one word title Krym (Crimea).

The best known Izborsky Club member is Aleksandr Dugin, dubbed – catchily but a little inappropriately – ‘Putin’s Brain’ in a recent Foreign Affairs article. Much has been written by and about Dugin, from academic analysis which takes him seriously as a political thinker, to a theologically eschatological account which draws its title from Dugin’s writings – The American Empire should be destroyed. Although Dugin does not appear to be as close to the Kremlin as some fear, another member of the Izborsky Club, Sergei Glaz’ev, serves as advisor to the president. Glaz’ev believes that Ukraine is under American occupation, with a Nazi regime installed, committing genocide in the Donbass region and mobilising half a million men with the aim of starting a war with Russia which will become the ‘fourth world war’ (the third being the Cold War).

Analysts are increasingly talking about the dangers of fascism in Russia and brushing off the ‘Weimar scenario’ which briefly flourished in the 1990s. Under this thinking, the post-Soviet settlement of 1991 onwards is akin to the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The latter was used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to stir up resentment and foment revenge against those who imposed so humiliating a settlement on them. The analogy with 1991 is unavoidable in mainstream discourse, Putin to the fore, in Russia today. Repeated reference is made to ‘the West’ having humiliated and deceived Russia in 1991 and beyond. This position has become ingrained in the media and in the minds of many Russians. Like most historical analogies, it serves a purpose but ought not to be pushed too far. Putin is not Hitler. A distinguished Russian speaker at the Aleksanteri Conference insisted on the term fascism for Russia’s current regime, but, declaring this the optimistic view, likened Putin more to Mussolini than to Hitler.

 Redefining optimism

Where then is the optimism about Russia? At the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in October, the astute director of the Centre for Situation Analysis, the Russian Academy of Sciences, attempted to calm concerns about ideological extremism by talking of Putin the pragmatist. In this view, Russia’s president is a man who throughout his political career – from St Petersburg in the 1990s onwards – has prioritised economic matters over abstract ideology. Putin the pragmatist is aware that the well-being of Russia, the Russian people, and by association the current Russian leadership, depends on a stable environment to enhance economic growth. Putin the pragmatist is not a foreign policy adventurist by nature, but only when – in that currently ubiquitous phrase – his red lines are crossed. A year ago this argument would have been easier to buy into than today. Now this view of an economically pragmatic Putin looks a little like wishful thinking.

At the Aleksanteri Conference’s ‘Russia after 2014’ panel, the editors of Russia 2025 disagreed slightly between themselves, one being ‘optimistic’ and one being ‘pessimistic’. The ‘optimistic’ scenario had the Putin government collapsing within a couple of years, the ‘pessimistic’ one seeing the same outcome but a few more years down the line. Leaving aside issues of whether rapid regime collapse would be seen as an optimistic scenario by most Russians (it wouldn’t), leaving aside questions of the likelihood of the regime collapsing (predictions along these lines have been made for years), the methodology-of-forecasting analyst in me needs something more detailed than just an outcome. In scenario development, there needs to be a process before the outcome (and of course the speakers concerned have developed their thoughts in more detail in print). In the case of regime change, we’re looking at either revolutionary overthrow, which scarcely any analyst sees as likely in Russia in the near future, or else at an institutional process.

Bringing the institutions back in

The role of political institutions in removing or installing leaders in Russia should not be overlooked. Khrushchev was removed from the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1964 by a vote of its Central Committee. The collapse of the Soviet Union came about through its republics invoking their constitutional right of secession. Any forecast of the fall of Vladimir Putin should address the question of process. There are four ways to stop being president of Russia: impeachment by parliament, not being re-elected, resignation, and death. Presuming that the forecasters are not wishing death on anyone, that leaves three options to play with. Any non-revolutionary scenario of Putin leaving office must work within these possibilities. Will élite dissatisfaction lead to a ‘palace coup’ with Putin being leant on to resign? Will a drastic fall in his opinion poll standing mean that regime survival is best served by another candidate in the 2018 presidential election? Will Putin himself decide to ‘do a Yeltsin’ and suddenly walk away? It is not that I see any of these as particularly likely, more that scenario methodology requires process in order to posit outcome. This is why fiction writers sometimes get lucky and write remarkably prescient accounts of future developments – they write a narrative, and narratives demand process.

I read another forecast recently. It pointed to a ratcheting up of authoritarianism in Russia over the preceding year or so. It talked of how a few who had protested against the regime had been imprisoned. It noted an economic downturn and a concurrent rise in dissatisfaction amongst Russian consumers, who could no longer so easily buy what they used to. It concluded that Russia found itself in a pre-revolutionary period. When the fall of the regime might come, it argued, is more problematic. Perhaps years, perhaps decades, or perhaps earlier, sparked by a particular event, say, a border war, or unrest in a Moscow market.

That forecast was written about Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in 1969 (Anatole Shub The New Russian Tragedy). The pre-revolutionary period had another couple of decades to go. Amidst the Izborsky Club’s calls for imperial resurgence, and forecasters’ presaging of regime collapse, the Brezhnevite scenario seems strangely absent. Such a scenario would see a relatively stable Russia muddling down through economic difficulties, marked by a corrupt élite, high military spending, exposure to oil prices, and an increasing cynicism about the story which officials and the mainstream media tell. Anatoly Dobrynin said that Brezhnev’s attitude to the United States at the height of the Cold War was summed up in the phrase, ‘the main thing is that there is peace’. The stability scenario may not be as exciting as the alternatives, but it seems at least worth a punt. After all, Putin’s mantra for the vast majority of his presidency has been stability – a Brezhnevite objective par excellence.

Edwin Bacon is Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, and Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He has advised parliamentary committees in both the UK and Finland. Amongst his publications are books on the Putin and the Brezhnev regimes. He is also the author of Contemporary Russia, now in its third edition.