How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The lead package of the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, available on ForeignAffairs.com tomorrow, deals with Russia's future. To complement the individual articles, we decided to ask a broad pool of experts for their take. As with previous surveys, we approached dozens of authorities with deep specialized expertise relevant to the question at hand, together with a few leading generalists in the field. Participants were asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with a proposition and to rate their confidence level in their opinion; the answers from those who responded are below:
Vladimir Putin will still be in control of Russia five years from now.
DMITRY ADAMSKY is Associate Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, and Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, at the IDC Herzliya, Israel.
Agree, Confidence Level 8
IAN BREMMER is President of Eurasia Group.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 9 Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated more personal power over the course of his presidency (and brief premiership) than any other leader of a major economy. Short of a black-swan event, it is very hard to see his displacement.
IVO H. DAALDER is President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and was U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO from 2009 to 2013.
Agree, Confidence Level 8
KEITH DARDEN is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.
Agree, Confidence Level 4 Putin is likely to remain in power for three reasons: his successful institutionalization of political control in Russia, his political skill, and the absence of viable alternative leadership. The state, the media, and the predominant sources of wealth are directly or indirectly under Kremlin control. The potential base of political opposition has largely exited the country, and those who remain are cautious. Putin has demonstrated an ability to consolidate power, manage public opinion, and eliminate potential threats to his rule.
There are segments of the economic elite that are unhappier than they have been in some time, but there is no reason to assume that Putin will be unable to find ways to appease or undermine them as he has in the past. Even decreasing oil prices and sanctions have not shaken the system. Barring unforeseeable shocks more powerful than these, the next five years are unlikely to see it undone.
The uncertainties arise from the personalistic and stagnant nature of the regime. Putin is human. The system rests on his continued ability to manage it—his health, mental acuity, and so on—and that ability degrades over time. Moreover, Putin’s political control has come at the price of a stifled and hamstrung economy. A politicized economy controlled by a static elite does not reward ambition or generate investment and growth.
Putin’s Russia can certainly limp along for five more years, but more significant reforms will be needed in the medium term if the elite wants Russia to remain a great power. Russia may recede quietly into an obscure decline, but I doubt it. This Brezhnev-like era in Russia will eventually come to an end. That could happen within five years, but is more likely to happen within ten.
GREGORY FEIFER is the author of Russians: The People Behind the Power.
Agree, Confidence Level 10 Predicting what will happen in Russia tomorrow, let alone five years from now, is a mug’s game. Still, Putin’s ability so far to finesse his public approval ratings—a crucial pillar of his personal political authority inside his inner circle as well as within the country at large—means that one can reasonably expect that he will remain in power as long as he wants. With three-quarters of Russians backing another six-year term starting in 2018, at least according to one recent poll, he could be around for far longer than five years, barring an unexpected political or other kind of disaster.
Of course, that could change overnight, as happens in Russia. Although Putin’s administrative control over politics, the economy, and increasingly society—which comes thanks to the introduction of Soviet-style strictures over Russians’ personal liberties—appears strong, his growing reliance on authoritarianism and propaganda increasingly dilutes any real public mandate he has. That means that his powerful position is also very brittle. However, undermining his rule would almost certainly require the country’s wealthy elites to divest from the personal system of control he’s built, as so many Soviet groups did from the Communist Party under Mikhail Gorbachev. With Putin so adept at manipulating the country’s political and economic oligarchs, that hasn’t begun to happen so far. Guessing when it can or will is pure speculation at this stage.
SERGEI M. GURIEV is a Russian economist and Professor of Economics at the Instituts d’Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris.
Disagree, Confidence Level 5
NIKOLAS K. GVOSDEV is Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 One cannot control biology, and Putin is not immortal. Barring serious illness or debilitation that prevents him from exercising power, Putin, in the current Russian political system, is required to adjudicate between different factions and interests, each of which fears the ascendancy of its rivals, and all of which have vested interests in the perpetuation of the status quo. Despite economic stress, the regime still has considerable reserves at its disposal, and the experiences of the 1990s will continue to temper a desire for new revolutions.
The open door for emigration, with a noticeable uptick in departures over the past two years, suggests that those dissatisfied with the politics of Russia may opt to leave. Popular unrest is also increasing, but it is not yet harnessed to a viable or mass-based political alternative. Putin seems to be counting on some degree of normalization of relations with other key centers, starting with Europe, to repair some of the damage of the last few years, and a modest uptick in energy prices to relieve the pressure on the treasury. An Orange Revolution or a Rose Revolution scenario becomes more likely if there are growing chasms within the Kremlin, an older Putin becomes more inflexible, or a major crisis over the succession breaks out.
Finally, there are other external variables. Failures of Westward-leaning governments in Ukraine and Moldova, and problems of governance in the European Union and possibly even the United States, will weaken the attraction of the West as a model, in contrast to what was observed in the 1989–91 period.
JANE HARMAN is Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term U.S. Representative from California and, from 2002 to 2006, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 8 Barring a coup or a health crisis, Putin will be in charge five years from now. But it is a mistake to focus narrowly on Putin the man. His vision of a Greater Russia will remain enormously popular. If Putin were to disappear, his policies would likely survive—possibly under the leadership of someone even less appealing to the West.
ROBERT JERVIS is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 7
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA is a Professor at the New School and a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute, and was from 2002 to 2004 an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
Agree, Confidence Level 4 For a long time, I have been a proponent of theory that the end of Putin’s rule would come sooner rather than later, and that it might resemble that of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s all-powerful security chief who was killed by the arbitrary system of justice that he helped create. There is still a possibility of an anti-Putin palace coup—not everyone in the president’s entourage is happy with the country’s direction. However, Putin’s tactical victories against the Russian opposition, and in Ukraine and Syria, have forced the world to admit that he is a force be reckoned with.
Rather than Beria’s, Putin’s fate may instead resemble that of Juan Perón in Argentina. After Perón’s ouster in 1955, the nation wanted their dictatorial president back, longing for his strong hand. Similarly, the majority of Russians approve of Putin’s state capitalism, the current economic downturn that came as a price for Moscow’s tough stances notwithstanding. My confidence that Putin stays on is not high, though, since Kremlinology is an inexact and unpredictable science. As the histories of the former Kremlin leaders—the ousting of Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, the sudden retirement of Boris Yeltsin—have shown, change can happen at any moment and overnight.
STEPHEN KOTKIN is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and the author of Stalin, Vol. 1, Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 8 Putin’s minions will manipulate his successful reelection in 2018 for another six-year term. He will only be approaching 66 when he is sworn in again. He is known to be physically fit and well guarded. Only lesser figures and dependent creatures surround him. Conflation of the survival of his person with survival of the country has become almost the reigning national idea. Even if Putin gets tired, or bored, voluntarily leaving the presidency risks imprisonment. Russia has no tradition of military coups. Key members of Brezhnev’s inner Politburo kept him in power for the sake of their own power even after his clinical death.
IVAN KRASTEV is Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Agree, Confidence Level 6
ROBERT LEGVOLD is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus at Columbia University.
Neutral, Confidence Level 7 Five years out is a long time. I believe he will be in power over the next three years.
ANATOL LIEVEN is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 My uncertainty over this answer comes not from the (rather remote) possibility of Putin being overthrown but from wondering whether he will choose to step down in two years. Unless there is a further deep collapse in the price of oil or a major foreign policy catastrophe, I do not believe that Putin will be overthrown by a popular uprising. The danger to the regime comes from a split in the Russian establishment, and this is likely to become critical only in the context of a disputed succession.
In his own way, Putin is also a stickler for the rules and will obey the constitution after a fashion (that is, he will not try to become president for life). The question therefore becomes whether Putin will step down at the next elections in 2018, or will try to carry on till 2024, when he will be 71. Since he seems to be in good physical shape, my instinct is that it will be the latter. But he may perhaps be wise enough to learn from the awful examples of the senescence of Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Yeltsin and step down in good time, and while he is still strong enough to impose a chosen successor on the elites.
FYODOR LUKYANOV is Editor in Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chair of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
Agree, Confidence Level 5
JEFFREY MANKOFF is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.
Agree, Confidence Level 8 Despite economic turmoil and the closing of space around civil society, Putin remains extraordinarily popular among Russians. Even taking into account questions about polling methodology, Putin’s popularity is real. No other political figure comes close. Moreover, Putin and his team have been very effective at defanging the opposition that emerged around the time of the 2011 parliamentary elections, employing targeted repression against opposition leaders, cracking down on the independent media, and using nationalist mobilization to win support among the public at large.
Putin, in short, faces no credible opposition and has a strong base of support. So why is my confidence level 8 rather than 10? Because of the possibility of unforeseen (and perhaps unforeseeable) developments between now and 2021. Although gradual decline seems the most likely scenario for Russia’s economy, a wholesale crash is not impossible, especially if oil prices stay low for a long time. Serious economic pain can have serious political implications. Alternatively, Russia’s next foreign adventure could turn out worse than its Ukrainian and Syrian interventions, creating a domestic backlash. The most plausible scenario for Putin’s ouster over the next five years involves some kind of palace coup. That would mean that his successor is likely to have a very similar background among the security services. So even if Putin is not in control in 2021, Russia’s political system will almost certainly look much as it does today.
KIMBERLY MARTEN is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Neutral, Confidence Level 10 It is impossible to predict Putin’s natural life span. It’s also impossible to know for sure whether an unexpected, crisis-provoking policy error on Putin’s part might send him into retirement at the request of his own political network. (Russia is nowhere near that kind of crisis point now, and will not be even if its economy continues to decline, so that scenario is unlikely.)
But if the question were worded differently, my answer would be different: I have a very high degree of confidence that the same basic political network system will be in place in Russia five years from now, whether or not Putin is at its head. That system will continue to reward people who are connected to KGB/FSB networks, since the FSB can use kompromat (compromising material or information) to threaten the career or freedom of anyone who challenges it, including anyone who attempts to change the system. Russian financial resources are now concentrated in those networks as well, reinforcing their stability.
ALEXANDER J. MOTYL is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Newark.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10
OLGA OLIKER is a Senior Adviser and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Odds are that, one way or another, Putin will continue to exercise power in Russia for a good long time. Since Russia allows for two consecutive six-year terms, the simplest way for Putin to extend his rule is to run for reelection in 2018 and win. This would put him in the presidency until 2024. Of course, all sorts of things could happen to upend that, including Putin deciding not to run. But current trends put the safe bet on continuity.
MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN is a Professor of Central and East European politics in the Slavic Department at University of Pennsylvania.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Putin has made some significant mistakes—underestimating the Western response to his invasion of Ukraine, for instance—but he also has successfully deflected attention to Syria instead, where his gamble appears to have paid off. Oil prices dipped, but Russia has sufficient official reserves and possibly unofficial ones to enable the country and its leaders to survive. For him to be replaced, a viable contender needs to be found, and Putin has undermined all possible alternatives to himself.
GLEB PAVLOVSKY is a Russian political scientist. He was an Adviser to the Presidential Administration of Russia until April 2011.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8 Russia is already controlled by the system that uses Putin as a logo, and this system is unstable.
CYNTHIA A. ROBERTS teaches International Relations at Hunter College and is also an Adjunct Senior Associate and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Agree, Confidence Level 7 Despite economic stagnation, Putin retains the ability to repress and co-opt opponents. Absent the emergence of an unpredictable shock, a major split within the regime, or a strong challenger, Putin seems likely to remain in power.
STEPHEN SESTANOVICH is the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Ambassador-at-Large and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for policy toward the states of the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
Agree, Confidence Level 1 Yes, Putin is firmly in control today. But it is hard to be certain of the five-year prospects of a leader who, first, is in the second year of a recession with no real plan; second, faces elections and has just appointed a human rights activist to run his election commission; third, has not managed to unwind Western sanctions; fourth, has still got two small wars going in Ukraine and Syria; and fifth, may or may not be healthy.
ANGELA STENT is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, and the author of The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century.
Agree, Confidence Level 8 All things being equal, Putin will be in power in five years’ time. But Russia—and Putin—is full of surprises.
DANIEL TREISMAN is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev.
Agree, Confidence Level 4 The end of a regime such as the one that exists in Russia today is often unexpected and results from an unpredictable combination of external shocks and mistakes by the leaders themselves. The problems that the Putin regime faces are multiplying, but that does not make it possible to predict a time at which the Kremlin will fail to deal with them.