Everyone who is serious about Russian studies knows about the indispensable Johnson’s Russia List, a daily mailshot of a collection of the day’s relevant English-language stories, good, bad, and sometimes ugly. I may sometimes cavil at David Johnson’s determination to include a – to me – disproportionate selection of determinedly ‘counter-mainstream’ bloggers determined to find anti-Kremlin conspiracy at every turn, but one of the List‘s great virtues is precisely to puncture those comforting bubbles of consensus with which it is so easy to surround ourselves. We can be surprised.

And good heavens, I was surprised by a piece in the latest, ‘Putin is Here to Stay, and the Russian State Will Die with Him,’ by one Brandon J. Weichert in the American Thinker of 8 September. I confess I don’t know Mr Weichert, nor for that matter more than the name of the American Thinker. I have no idea if it is considered a purveyor of fringe nonsense or a serious intellectual powerhouse. I have my suspicions which is more likely. I could go and google it, but frankly I was more fascinated – entranced – horrified by the analysis put forward.

Let’s set aside the fact that if ‘Putin is Here to Stay’ then it becomes pretty irrelevant if ‘the Russian State Will Die with Him.’ Instead:

Even today, as Putin increases his grasp on power, the country continues fraying along its periphery.  It is only the silnaya ruka – the iron fist of centralized power – that keeps the vast expanse known as the Russian Federation together.

Really? And the evidence for that is…?

Following the autocratic ethos of one-man rule, Putin has purged Russia of any potential successors to his reign.  … The younger generation of leaders are all Putin lackeys.  Like Medvedev, they are unimaginative, and, aside from holding power in Russia, these folks are unexceptional.  …  Putin’s autocracy has neutered Russia of any competent leadership for after he leaves office.

Again, I suspect this really means “I don’t know enough about Russia’s elite to be able to identify who could be any good.” Their strengths are asymmetrical, their prospects varied, and their morals typically questionable, but I could think of a bunch of figures who could be competent presidents. Shoigu would be an interesting choice, who I think would be more Ike than Generalissimo in office. Sobyanin, for all his uncharismatic style, would be a competent manager. Shuvalov could offer some market-pleasing glitz so long as he had an enforcer, although Oreshkin would do it better. Even Medvedev would be a reasonable choice as a consensus-brokering chairman of the board. And if I could vote for Nabiullina, I would in a shot. Beyond that, who knows who is likely to emerge in the next few years. Will Vaino surprise us (I doubt it, I confess)? Will daddy’s help see Dmitry Patrushev rise (again, I have my doubts)? Which regional governor or presidential bodyguard will next catch the boss’s eye?

This is a system which does not encourage mavericks, and which virtually demands what could be described as a flexible approach to personal enrichment, but that doesn’t mean that it produces weaklings or imbeciles.

Given the weakness of potential autocratic successors to Putin, Russia will likely break up along its constituent parts.  It will become a chaos state, armed with stores of nuclear – and other – weapons of mass destruction.

Unh? If Russia survived the 1990s, can we really assume that, post-Putin, the entire federation will become a Mad Max remake?

After all, what is his closing injunction?

Dear Pentagon: Prepare for Russian Collapse and Loose Nukes

After all, apparently,

After Putin, it is unlikely that Moscow will be able to maintain central control over its military

so we can expect not just “loose nukes” but also

European leaders will have to contemplate how best to respond to the inevitable refugee flows that will emanate from a completely collapsing Russia.

But wait, in the immortal words of the advert, that’s not all

Meanwhile, Asia will have to brace for the time when China takes the lion’s share of natural resources and land from Russia’s Far East.  At that point, China will not only be an economic juggernaut, but will overnight become a natural resources superpower, thereby making it a true challenger to the United States.

So, China gobbles up Russia east of the Urals, somehow without any of these maverick generals firing loose nukes their way, the rest breaks up into warring principalities, steadily depopulated as millions of miserable refugees flock westwards, flooding Europe. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies were common in the 1990s, and not wholly beyond the realms of possibility. But now? I see a pretty coherent, ruthless and often quite competent elite, with little option but to follow Putin’s ‘make Russia great again’ crusade but actually pretty pragmatic. Outside the North Caucasus, it’s hard to see any serious separatism. Tatarstan and the like may want to renegotiate their deal with Moscow, but they’re not looking for secession. And the armed forces are more disciplined and possessed of a greater esprit de corps than in the 1980s, never mind the 1990s.

Look, it’s a very poor article, and on one level it is unfair to give it such a kicking, and a waste of my time to write and yours to read. Except. Except that, however much this is an extreme example, I have begun to see a new thread of such excited eschatology creeping into the fringes of the debate, and what bothers me is that precisely within other bubbles of consensus, that may begin to become canon. Russia is not teetering on the edge of collapse; it is not some vicious threat to the global order; it is not a dictatorship desperately holding back a tide of anarchy and atomisation. It’s an authoritarianism but not the worst of them, in which a kleptocratic elite preside over a country slowly returning to Europe.

If we start to treat it as some monstrous aberration, one that cannot be dealt with and can only be feared, mastered, or contained, then that does none of us any favours.


This article was originally published on In Moscow’s Shadows

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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