In our previous article examining resurgent Russia, we introduced Leon Aron’s assessment of The Putin Doctrine. Further, we explained how recent events substantiate Aron’s claims that Russian domestic and foreign policy strategy under President Vladamir Putin is based on a pursuit of a singular, overarching goal:
“…the recovery of economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state in 1991.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs Magazine, March 8)
In pursuit of this general goal, the Kremlin has methodically implemented policy reforms, adjusted defense strategies, and has reasserted Russian influence in international affairs. In Part I, we introduced The Putin Doctrine and presented recent examples of policy changes and an increased international profile of the Russian government. In Part II, we further analyzed Aron’s assertions of Russian foreign policy consensus being founded upon pursuit of the overarching goals of the doctrine and referenced recent events in order to substantiate each portion of Aron’s stated Russian foreign policy consensus in practice. In Part III, we will address the second part of Aron’s work, the domestic Russian policy aspects of the doctrine. In writing of Russian domestic policy in pursuit of foreign policy goals, Aron states:
“Domestically, the doctrine has guided the regime to reclaim the commanding heights of the economy (first and foremost, the oil and natural gas industries) and reassert its control over national politics, the judicial system, and the national television networks, from which an overwhelming majority of Russians get their news.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs Magazine, March 8)
Recent events corroborate this portion of Aron’s assessment. Rising nationalist rhetoric, xenophobic sentiment, and the Kremlin’s focusing of public anger on minority groups. Putin’s reforms and consolidation of power represent a pronounced rollback in Russian democratization efforts. The most recent policy reforms have eroded the influence of political opposition and marginalized debate.
In the past year, Russian domestic policy has increasingly focused on asserting Kremlin control over key industries, reforming tax policies, the marginalization of minority groups, and stricter control over Russian media. Aron calls this legitimizing of authoritarianism the “besieged fortress strategy”:
“With its fundamental objective of recovering state control over politics and the economy, the Putin Doctrine has inevitably led to authoritarianism. Just as inexorably, the Russian authoritarian restoration has forced the Kremlin to draw on sources of legitimacy outside the subverted democratic institutions. As a result, the regime has played up alleged external threats. Russians’ only plausible protection from these foreign dangers, Putin has argued, is the courageous leadership of the current regime. This mode of legitimizing can be called the besieged fortress strategy.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs Magazine, March 8)
Among the more important aspects of Putin’s strategy for cementing his position as the pre-eminent power in Russian politics is his reinforcement of the idea that Russia’s economic and social problems are derived from an insidious group of external and “foreign” enemies.
In his efforts to focus the public’s anger on an external enemy, Putin’s rhetoric has focused the public’s attention on groups that have challenged his government directly. Most recently, the Russian government accused pollsters and human rights organizations of being “foreign agents” and has stated that “foreign registered enterprises” will no longer be permitted to avoid Russian taxes even as they remain offshore.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has recently that jailed members of an anti-Putin rock band and imprisoned Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky will not be granted amnesty. In keeping with his strategy to sustain the public’s focus of their nationalist anger on his political enemies, Putin has constructed an enemy on which to blame the largesse of Russia’s ongoing economic and political instability. With this strategy, Putin buys himself the political capital and space with which to push through social reforms and tax laws that isolate his political opposition as enemies of the Russian state. In recent remarks, Putin has even stepped out to assert that Russia is “the moral compass of the world”. He further stated that the majority will of the people is responsible for driving his reforms:
“This destruction of traditional values from above not only entails negative consequences for society, but is also inherently anti-democratic because it is based on an abstract notion and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.” (Damien McElroy, UK Telegraph, December 12)
The West As Foe
Returning to Aron’s article outlining The Putin Doctrine, an important note is made of Putin’s constant reinforcement of the idea that the West, specifically the United States, is Russia’s primary foe. Further, blame for many social and economic ills that have ravaged Russia since the shock therapy economic policies of the 1990s has fallen on the West:
“Domestic politics has also emerged as an increasingly complicating factor. In Russia, the regime’s repressive response to the rise of the anti-Putin, pro-democracy movement — led by the middle class — has pitted two structural imperatives of the countries’ foreign policies against each other: U.S. support for democratic self-rule on the one hand, and the Putin Doctrine’s focus on maintaining the state’s firm control over national politics on the other. Meanwhile, in the United States, Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act last December, prohibiting Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses and corruption from entering the United States and freezing their U.S. assets. In reaction, Moscow banned the adoption of Russian orphans, many of whom are sick or disabled, by American families.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs Magazine, March 8)
The U.S. has been consistently used as a construct for pinning blame of Russia’s social ills. Loosely referencing “the West”, Putin’s media outlets have parroted his message and focused public anger at degradation of “traditional values” on Europe and the United States. Recently, Putin has continued to tighten his grip on Russian media. He dissolved Ria Novosti while announcing the creation of Russia Today, a state-run media outlet. The new outlet will be run by Dmitry Kiselev, a popular nationalist and propagandist for the Kremlin. Kiselev has come under fire for his virulently nationalist rhetoric. Most recently he has bizarrely taken aim at childrens’ programs and stated that homosexuals should not be permitted to donate their organs after death. The Economist noted the appointment of Kiselev to head the new network with great concern:
“Mr Putin’s decision to dissolve RIA Novosti shows that the Kremlin has become intolerant even to the modest liberalism within its own ranks. Ever since the Kremlin started to centralise its control over the media, RIA Novosti became a shelter for journalists who were squeezed out of the private media space. The choice of Mr Kiselev as the face of Russian propaganda abroad is a sign that Mr Putin no longer sees any need to preserve even a veneer of European values. But it is also a sign of the extreme degradation of the Russian media.” (The Economist, December 10)
As far back as April of 2012 analysts were warning of rising xenophobia and violence in Russia. In an article for The Global Post, Khristina Narizhnaya noted rising anti-migrant sentiment and violence among Russian nationalists. Candidates for public office are now escalating the rhetoric, especially on topics of immigrants, migrants, and homosexuals. Anti-immigrant rallies and protests have been the result. The Kremlin has continued to fuel xenophobic anger in the wake of these race riots by capitalizing on the resentment and arresting migrants.
The Danger Ahead
The dissolving of Ria Novosti, the creation of Russia Today, the appointment of Kiselev to head the new network, and his insistence on focusing public resentment and anger on “foreign agents” has provided Putin greater control over Russian government. In demonizing his political enemies as enemies of the Russian state and imprisoning key members of the political opposition, Putin has methodically implemented a series of reforms designed to ensure his lasting rule in the country. The rising tide of nationalism that has manifested in the violent beatings of immigrants and other minorities further cements Putin’s control over Russian politics. All of this bodes poorly for the future of Russian democratization.
Tomorrow, we will have our final blog article on resurgent Russia. We will analyze what the future holds for Russian foreign policy, how the rising tide of nationalism could inspire both hardened support and an opposition backlash, and how recent events in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine, and the North Caucasus provide a glimpse into the future of Russian foreign policy under President Putin.
Below are links to resources for further study of the topic.
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