Is change in the air in Russia as a younger generation stops believing Putin’s narrative? Monocle’s expert panel discuss what that would mean for Russia’s political future and whether we can expect it to return to the European ideological, political and cultural fold.
Russia is geographically vast and astonishingly beautiful. Blessed with natural resources, it is the world’s second-largest producer of natural gas and third-largest producer of oil, exporting colossal quantities of coal, nickel and wheat, among many other commodities. It has bequeathed an incalculable bounty of literature, art and music. Its people comprise a fortune in human capital. There is nothing stopping Russia from being a constructive member of the global family of nations.
Nothing, perhaps, except itself. In the decades since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia has refused to follow the path taken by the nations that it once held captive. While it might have been optimistic to expect Russia to clamour to join the EU and Nato, it could – and should – embrace a destiny as a functional European country.
Instead, Russia glowers across its western frontier. It has invaded two of its neighbours, Ukraine and Georgia, and meddled with the politics and institutions of many others. It has dispatched hitmen to murder its enemies on foreign soil with weapons that risked – and took – the lives of civilian bystanders. Its diplomatic discourse is often conducted more in the language of the Twitter troll than the ambassador. That its government is crooked and authoritarian is beyond doubt.
Did it have to be like this? And does it have to be like this? Basically, why doesn’t Russia get with the programme?
Meet the panel
Mark Galeotti is the director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Honorary Professor at the ucl School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is the author of A Short History of Russia and We Need to Talk About Putin, among other books.
Leonid Volkov is chief of staff to Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent on a domestic flight in Russia in 2020 and evacuated to Germany. Navalny returned to Russia earlier this year and was arrested and imprisoned; he is now held in a penal labour colony.
Ekaterina Kotrikadze is a journalist and presenter for independent Russian television network TV Rain, which covers everything from news and politics to culture. It is one of several media outlets classified as “foreign agents” by the Russian government. Prior to joining TV Rain, she was deputy editor in chief and primary anchor of international Russian-language broadcaster rtvi.
Was Russia’s current situation inevitable? Was there a fork in the road that you couldn’t return down sometime after 1991?
Leonid volkov: During the 1996 presidential election, political predictability was preferred over institutions and those around Boris Yeltsin got the idea that money is the most important thing in politics – more important than ideas, institutions, whatever. Everybody learned about money and television propaganda, how they let oligarchs achieve whatever they want. This is what [oligarch] Boris Berezovsky learned and elected Putin with.
Given a clear choice, would Russians rather be a normal European country or are they pretty happy with what they have?
ekaterina kotrikadze: It’s really hard to say. There are millions of people who
watch national television channels and trust the propaganda, which is massive. It’s always being said that Putin was the man who had a victory over the 1990s, when everything was terrible and frightening and people had very little sense of security in their lives – and that if we didn’t have Putin, that’s what we’d go back to, which is ridiculous. I agree with Leonid that 1996 was when things changed: that was the moment we lost democracy in this country.
Do you think Vladimir Putin is happy with Russia as it is? Is there no part of him that wouldn’t rather stride the world stage as an affable and admired figure?
mark galeotti: He’d be fine if he felt that Russia’s interests – and that means his interests – were being respected. I don’t think he has some kind of ideological commitment to trying to bring down democracy; he doesn’t care. It is about self-preservation. It is about projecting Russia’s strength as a way to make him feel good. And it’s about his historical legacy.
LV: The best job in the world is probably to be a dictator who also enjoys popular support. You can pose half-naked on a horse; you can do whatever you want. But now, for the first time in 20 years, Putin has to exercise some politics because stability doesn’t sell any more and neither does this idea that we are a besieged fortress.
Is that narrative now less entrenched than it was? And what might a tipping point look like?
LV: I don’t agree that something has to happen to make change. It already happened. The landmark importance of the [2021 Duma] election – well, quasi-election – we just had is that it was a clear demonstration that stability doesn’t sell any more. We could talk a lot about the 2016 Duma election and the 2018
presidential election – there was a lot of fraud [committed] in both of those. But even if we consider the results cleaned up from that we would still have to accept that United Russia and Putin won. That wasn’t the case this time. In terms of perception of legitimacy, it’s quite a cornerstone. Legitimacy is a complicated political concept. You can’t measure it. It will take time. More than a million people are members of local electoral commissions; that’s pretty much every schoolteacher in the country. And everyone knows a few teachers. So people will talk to people – one million people who know perfectly well how it was all done.
Could the regime overreach itself? Authoritarians often do, out of complacency or hubris, and it can be quite a small thing. Maybe like making media organisations declare themselves as foreign agents, which I notice TV Rain doing in an amusingly large font on its homepage.
EK: And in pink, which is nice to me – the colour of TV Rain. There is concern among experts that the regime doesn’t understand what’s going on. A new generation of Russians are using Youtube and social media; they are English speakers who can communicate with friends in London or wherever they like. We know that Putin doesn’t have a smartphone and he doesn’t use a computer. He’s not aware of the processes of the new technologies or the lifestyles they’ve facilitated. TV Rain is very active on Youtube and so are Navalny’s team. Civil society wins on the internet. That’s why the regime is now making some moves against it. We can feel it.
On that front, what’s with the online trolling and baiting by various Russian state organs?
mg: There is a sense, I think, within the Kremlin, that Russia is engaged in an existential struggle for its political survival as a sovereign nation. And these people might be paranoid, authoritarian kleptocrats but that doesn’t necessarily make them morons. They are aware that the West is vastly stronger on almost every index of power, whether it’s military power or soft power, let alone economic power. Therefore, like any good geopolitical guerrilla, they shift the field of battle away from their enemy’s strengths and towards areas where they feel they have an advantage. And their advantage is precisely, “We have will, we have the capacity to break the rules and do things that you’re not comfortable with – but tough luck!” They actually regard it as a mark of pride: that they are the ones who are smart, sneaky but strong enough; that they will defend Russia’s interests above notions of following other people’s rules. In the long term, it’s monstrously counterproductive. Most of their meddling does not actually work.
When people try to defend or contextualise Russia’s hostility to the West, they often float this idea that the country is haunted by a history of threats from that direction. Is there a way for Russia to be talked down from this or do the people in charge genuinely believe that France or Germany is gearing up for another crack?
mg: Are we talking about Russians? Or are we talking about the sort of increasingly ageing cohort of people who run the country? There is a huge difference. This is one of the reasons I am obscurely optimistic about Russia’s long-term future: if one looks at Putin and the people around him, they’re pretty much in the same age band. They’re all of that Homo Sovieticus generation – members of the old Soviet elite – and they didn’t just have their childhood and educational experiences; they’d all started their careers. They thought they knew the way the world was going. And then, almost literally overnight, this grand empire collapsed. They have that classic post-imperial syndrome, not unknown to the UK or France. First, you think, “What have we lost?” Then, after a certain point, it’s, “Who took it from us?”
lv: He’s not able to sell this any more – like everyone is an enemy and we are a besieged fortress and so on.
mg: It’s something that they have tried to use for political purposes at home unsuccessfully but it’s also something that they genuinely feel – people like the Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, a deeply scary man, who is in effect Putin’s national security adviser. This is someone who genuinely seems to believe that there is a conspiracy in the West to at best marginalise Russia and at worst bring down the regime and maybe even dismantle the country to get at the Siberian resources. I’ve encountered a lot of people who have worked with Patrushev and asked them, “Do you think he actually believes this stuff?” And they’ve said, “Yeah, he probably does.” But this is not something that I encounter in Russia more broadly.
Has the West been too indulgent in its dealings with Russia? Would anything have changed if, say, after a certain point, the West had said, ‘That’s it, we’re done dealing with you?’
EK:There was tension on the border with Ukraine in April, before Putin and Biden met in Geneva. And the White House and its partners in the EU were really concerned about the prospect of war. And that’s why Putin was the winner in that situation. He has shown that he could start this war again. Biden mentioned
Navalny’s poisoning and he mentioned human rights in Russia. But after that, nothing happened. I’m not saying that we are waiting for sanctions. Not many people in Russia do because they’re always a problem for regular citizens. Brute sanctions are problematic for the economy of the country, which is already not in good shape. But there were some expectations of the White House after Biden came to power and these expectations were false. They don’t care, honestly. Leonid said to me a couple of days ago in an interview that no one is responsible for us; we are responsible for ourselves, right? And this is true. We are the citizens of the Russian Federation. We need to build our future. But after so many statements from Western democracies, we need to understand that statements are all they can do.
Has the organised opposition ever considered establishing a government in exile – especially since so much of the organised opposition has been exiled? And was Navalny going home a mistake?
lv: We never needed a discussion about Alexei’s return to Russia. It is clear to everyone who knows him that he had no other choice. And it’s clear to everyone who is involved in Russian politics that it’s not possible to operate efficiently from abroad. Alexei didn’t do the right thing or the wrong thing. He did what he had to do – and we’re not considering stupid things like government in exile or shadow government. We are a Russian political organisation and we are capable of
operating in Russia. We just turned the most important electoral event of the past five years into a full-scale Kremlin-versus-smart-voting battle. They had a million polling station workers, a 60-billion-rouble propaganda budget and all of the courts. We are a group of 40 people with our leader imprisoned in Russia and the rest of us based around the world on Zoom calls. It was a battle that the Kremlin could only win with unprecedented falsifications.
Is the appearance of this European Russia that we’ve been talking about just a matter of time?
lv: The key idea of our political activity is to make Russia a regular European country. It’s where Russia belongs historically, politically and culturally. It’s nonsense, what Putin and his gang did to our country. The Kremlin does a lot of anti-Western propaganda. Our polling has shown that the anti-American propaganda has been quite successful but America is very far away, while Europe is very close. People have seen it with their own eyes. There have been 20 years of propaganda saying if you land at a European airport you will be immediately forced into gay marriage. But people don’t buy it. And in the Russian market, if you want to sell a car, you say it’s a German car; if you want to sell furniture, you say it’s Swedish.
ek: I was walking around St Petersburg recently and people are so young and smart. Everything is so European. I cannot imagine that this is the city that Vladimir Putin came from. Sooner or later, this country will be free, democratic and part of European society.
In very few periods of Russian history would you have lost money betting on things getting worse. But it is just about possible – if perhaps counter-intuitive – that this might be one of those moments at which cautious optimism is justified. Russia’s previous isolationist tyrannies have depended hugely on Russia’s people having little idea of alternatives and that is no longer the case. Tyrants and the tyrannised alike are often surprised by what turns out to be that one oppression that proves one oppression too many.