Putin Plan Ingrains Animus With West

Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed sweeping changes in the Russian constitution that fundamentally change the way that Russia will be governed. Some see these changes as little more than a ploy by Putin to facilitate his continued hold on power. The reality is far different: Putin is positioning Russia for a post-Putin era where anti-West animus will be ingrained in the Russian DNA. In such a future, the prospects for a revival of energy investment in Russia by major oil companies and other Western investors will probably remain very difficult.

On Jan. 15, 2020, Putin delivered his annual, constitutionally mandated State of the Nation speech. In years past, Putin has used this forum to outline various policies, ranging from the mundane to the dramatic, but all possessing a similar thematic — Russia under Putin stands strong against the West. The most recent address continued this trend, but with an important twist: With the era of Putin coming to a close and his tenure as president expiring in 2024, Putin put forward a sweeping plan for systemic changes in both the structure of governance in Russia and the constitutional foundation upon which these would rest.

Putin’s proposals hinge on a package of constitutional amendments that strengthen the role of parliament, giving it the sole power to select a newly empowered prime minister as well as cabinet ministers. Putin also proposed to weaken the office of the president, while elevating the status and role of the state council. While Putin stated that there would be broad discussion of these proposals, the fact is their reality was a foregone conclusion. A draft provided to the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, was immediately approved, paving the way for final approval in February and a national referendum in April. The carefully choreographed rollout of the proposed constitutional changes bring with it a sense of finality and inevitability, making it clear as to who is calling the shots when it comes to governmental and constitutional reform — Putin.

Putin has been in power, in one form or another, for nearly 20 years, making his tenure at the helm of Russia the second longest in modern history, second only to Josef Stalin. Following his surprise appointment as prime minister in 1999, Putin was handpicked by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him as president a few months later, following Yeltsin’s surprise resignation. Putin inherited a nation in chaos, its economy in ruins and its political system corrupted by the unchecked power of oligarchs who had seized the levers of power during Yeltsin’s tenure. Over the course of the next two decades, Putin has made righting the Russian ship of state his singular mission. He did so by consolidating under his person unmatched executive authority.

Putin’s critics have alleged that his motives have been purely personal, abusing his authority to enrich himself and his inner circle at the expense of the Russian people. Putin’s supporters counter that he has rebuilt a shattered Russian economy, solidified the framework of representational governance, and reasserted Russia as a global power able to stand up to the West. Given the lack of transparency inherent in the operation of Putin’s Russia, the truth is difficult to discern. The adage that “the proof is in the pudding,” however, applies in full force here. The “pudding,” in this case, is Putin’s endgame strategy.

Putin’s Strategy

The sweeping governmental and constitutional reforms proposed by Putin in his State of the Nation address provide some insight into what this endgame strategy may consist of. For those looking to discern whether Putin will go down in history as the next Stalin, holding on to power until his death, or rather function as required by the constitution, stepping aside in favor of a democratically elected successor — Putin’s proposals have proven to be disappointing. They appear to be a mixture of both.

At first glance, Putin’s proposals are the antithesis of what one would expect if the goal was to solidify Stalin-like powers in the hands of a unitary executive, something his many critics have suggested has been his goal all along. Putin, in his proposals, voids this possibility by appending a constitutionally empowered state council to the presidency, and transferring most executive decision-making powers to the prime minister, who is by definition and title a product of the legislative branch. There is speculation that Putin is holding out the possibility of transitioning to the office of the prime minister once he steps down as president. Another option, considered more likely, is that Putin will chair the newly empowered state council, where he can influence and guide future heads of state.

Some have likened Putin’s bold announcement to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness), implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s and which led to sweeping transformations in the economic and political structures of the Soviet Union. Such an analogy, however, is misplaced. Regardless of original intent, Gorbachev’s dual policies of Perestroika and Glasnost are widely seen by many Russians — including Putin — as facilitators of uncontrolled change that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and set the stage for a decade of political and economic chaos under the leadership of Yeltsin. If anything, Putin’s two-decade tenure as Russia’s unquestioned leader has been singularly focused on cleaning up the mess initiated by the Soviet Union’s demise and furthered by a decade of Western influence and economic exploitation, perceived or otherwise, during the presidency of Yeltsin.

Seen in this light, the restructuring proposed by Putin is designed to protect Russia from the kind of destabilizing influences brought about by uncontrolled change, as well as insulate its governmental institutions from undo Western influence. The post-Cold War policies of the US and Europe regarding Russia have centered on the dual themes of instilling Western-style democratic reform while containing Russian regional economic and military power. Under Yeltsin, the US and Europe helped create and sustain several forums for democratic change which, in the aftermath of Putin’s ascension to power, coalesced into a political opposition that has been Putin’s nemesis. One of Putin’s proposed reforms is a requirement that bans any candidate for president from ever having held secondary citizenship or having established a permanent residency abroad, as well as requiring them to have lived in Russia for at least 25 years. These reforms eliminate most of the existing pro-Western political opposition from consideration.

By weakening the office of the presidency, Putin seeks to ensure that Russia will never again fall victim to a Yeltsin-like figure who would subordinate the Russian state to Western influence. And by transferring many presidential powers to the office of the prime minister, Putin has placed his faith in the power of Russian nationalism to overcome any future effort at encroachment on the part of the West. Likewise, by appending a formal state council to the presidency, Putin ensures that no single individual can hijack the powers of the state on behalf of an outside authority. Putin’s reforms are simultaneously democratic and autocratic, designed to protect Russia from Western influence long after Putin has departed the political scene.

This built-in animus toward the West, more than anything else, is the major takeaway from Putin’s proposed reforms. Back in 2009, President Obama sought a “reset” with Russia, hoping to find opportunity in the person of Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked prime minister who famously swapped places with Putin in order to sidestep the issue of term limits. While Medvedev proved unreceptive to Western pressures, the effort undertaken by the US and Europe to empower the political opposition in defeating Putin in the 2012 presidential election served as a clarion call to Putin regarding Western intent. The intrusion by the West into Russian domestic politics, combined with the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders and the attempted shackling of the Russian economy through sanctions, particularly on the Russian energy business, has cemented in Putin’s mind the image of the West as a permanent adversary.

The proposals for government restructuring put forward by Putin represent a firewall against any future intrusions by the West, while providing Russia with government institutions that can stand up to Western pressures long after Putin has gone. Those who have interpreted Putin’s proposed reforms as little more that a means of personal political empowerment once his current term of office expires in 2024 do not fully understand what is happening. Putin is not seeking to become the next Stalin, but something far more important and lasting — he is positioning himself to be the father of modern Russia. Whether or not he is successful in this endeavor is a question for future historians to resolve. But one thing is for certain — there will be no immediate reconciliation between Russia and the West once Putin steps aside. The two may peacefully coexist, and even engage in meaningful political and economic intercourse, but the notion of the West as a permanent adversary will be ingrained in the governmental structures of Russia for some time following Putin’s departure from power.


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