There are some questions how Russia would look after Putin`s expected re-election in March 2018. Whether Russia can attempt some changes internally and how West-Russia confrontation will develop interest almost everyone. Professor Andrey Makarychev from the University of Tartu shares his opinion on in a number of issues, including Russia`s external and internal policy, Russian world. 

 

Huseynov: What type of transformations may happen, if any, in Russia during Putin`s new term?

Makarychev: I think that Russia will slowly degrade in many spheres. We may see societal and economic decline with the state being increasingly incapable to foster reform and innovations. The sanctions are a burden for financial system whose resources are depleted. 

In such a condition the fear of any changes in the system of governance will only increase, simply because the state will be losing its capacity of doing something beyond the usual. In other words, the situation somehow resembles the period of stagnation in the 1970s-1980s. It may look like reading an old novel anew. We seem to know the end of the story – how zastoy led to later circumstances. But we still have some pages unread. 

 

Could the fate of the USSR be repeated in the contemporary Russia?

No one can definitely predict anything. What I see is that there are weak links, with the weakest being the Northern Caucasian republics, especially Chechnya. The only motivation for them to stay loyal to Putin`s regime is just money; I do not see any other strong incentives for them to maintain their allegiances. And this is the basic problem: the regime which is under the sanctions but spends billions on military operations and megaprojects will not be able to bear these expenses at a certain point. And I am not sure whether Medvedev can repeat “We don`t have money, but you hold on” to Ramzan Kadyrov too. 

 

There are occasional debates whether Russia should detach North Caucasus.

My feeling is that Northern Caucasus is not so dear to the hearts of many ethnic Russians. In fact, the majority of the Russians would consider Donbas more Russian than Northern Caucasus. That is quite a paradox for a Russian: a territory that looks “foreign” is actually “ours”, but a place that is perceived as culturally “ours” is not “ours” at all. And again, I do not think that there would be so many Russians who deeply relate their identity with Northern Caucasus. 

 

Is the Kremlin`s foreign policy going to be more assertive, given probably the lowest level in the history of West-Russia relations? How would you estimate the probability of new foreign aggressions by Russia?

First of all, it is a matter of resources. It is certain that the Kremlin has no ideology. We should not therefore expect any ideological crusades. Since it is a matter of resources, the post-Crimea sanctions were designed as the most effective measure of economic containment. You can imagine how much Russia spends on global propaganda. I cannot even estimate the level of this budget. Therefore, the country must have a strong economy to afford such a burden. And unlike in the Soviet period, the contemporary employees of the propaganda mechanism are pragmatic professionals with no strong attachment to any particular ideology. 

 

Professor, you do not predict any ideological crusade by Russia. But can we expect continuation of the  Russkiy mir concept?

I think the Russkiy mir is in a deep crisis. The concept was born in a certain context in the 1990s, reached its peak a decade later and largely discredited itself after Crimea and Donbas. I keep an eye on this concept and have written several pieces on that; I must say that since 2016-2017 references to this concept are fewer and fewer, as it is slowly marginalized in political agenda. It does still exist, but is not in use as a strong reference point as it used to be in 2014-2015. Since it by and large discredited itself during the Ukraine events, now it is too hard to use this concept as a frame of communication with other countries, because it may connote an annexation and/or war.

 

Can the Russkiy mir concept re-emerge should Kazakhstan or Belarus decide to change their foreign political course?

Putin’s resources are not unlimited. An annexation with even harsher international consequences? Another military campaign? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the Russian authorities are on the defensive. For instance, when the hostilities resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, they became very afraid that Russia would be dragged into the conflict. Russia had to play the status-quo game since it had to choose between backing its ally, Armenia, and non-involvement.

As I said, Putin moves to exhaust his resources. He played the game on Crimea quite effectively. But the price will ultimately be huge. Therefore, one cannot re-invent the Russian world concept because it doesn’t have many sympathizers. Thus, Putin does have problems with material resources, as well as with ideological resources of mass mobilization. People in Russia do not want a new war. The Syrian war inflicted a sobering effect. Because once conscription knocks on your door, you feel the unpleasant reality. 

And what happened in Kemerovo, where a tragedy occurred in a shopping mall, all the exit doors got blocked and nobody came to help, is a picture of today’s Russia. Kemerovo`s governor had been serving for more than 20 years. And when the tragic incident happened, he apologized to Putin first. I am constantly referring to the Kemerovo tragedy, as it revealed everything. Even Putin himself referred to demographic loss instead of personal condolences to each of victim`s family. Yet what worries me more is that this incident may raise public demand for a Stalinist “strong hand”. This is the most tragic outcome of the event that may further invest in further centralization and consolidation of power supported by people`s demand for a new “tsar”. In other words, I do not see any increase in demand of democracy. It is rather other way round. 

 

The Skripal affair that broke out just in the eve of Russia`s presidential elections has caused deeper confrontation between the West and Russia. What steps should Moscow undertake in this situation?

In my view, it is one of the cases in which the Kremlin loses more than gains. Because first of all, the White House`s position is quite clear: it expelled Russian diplomats from the United States. What is more important is the Western solidarity in the aftermath of the Skripal event. A number of countries deported Russian diplomats; although expelling one diplomat would be more a symbolic gesture, it was still demonstration of strong solidarity. And the U.S. response certainly was a serious blow to the Russian euphoria verbalized by expectations that “Trump is ours”. Even if he wanted to be “ours”, the checks and balances in the Americal political system would not allow him. 

Moscow can establish special relations with special people in the U.S. administration, but cannot overall influence American foreign policy. Even when the Russian leadership maintains good relations, say, with Zeman or Orban, it cannot exert dominant impact upon the policies of their countries.