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Historian Says Putin Has Slipped Up Geostrategically, Geoeconomically, And Geopolitically

Robert Service is among the world’s most authoritative historians of Soviet and Russian history and the author of books including biographies of Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin as well as 2019’s Kremlin Winter: Russia And The Second Coming Of Vladimir Putin. He is emeritus professor of Russian history at Oxford and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

He spoke to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service ahead of Putin’s reelection last weekend to a fifth presidential term, with Service describing the Kremlin as “completely shameless” in its vote manipulation and its “emasculation” of elections.

Robert Service

Robert Service

Service talked about Putin’s calculus of public opinion and why Russians so deeply fear “unleashing the demons of political upheaval.” He said Putin has shaped “an ideology of Russian patriotism that struck a chord with most Russians” but failed massively on his interpretation of Ukrainian history and created a NATO “disaster” all for himself. Looking forward, Service warned that Putin’s constitutional manipulation and political distortions have “exposed” him to potential vulnerabilities from popular or elite dissent. He also speculated that Russia could be in for an intensification of a “cultural and media quarantine” that is straight out of Lenin and Stalin’s playbooks.

RFE/RL: You have written that Russia’s past is like putty in Putin’s hands; he shapes it as is his wont. But what about its future?

Robert Service: Anybody who tells us they know what Russia’s future is a fool. Who could have said in 1916 that the future of Russia for the next 70-odd years would lie with the Communists?

It’s a more brittle future, I think, than many suppose. The very fact that Putin has manipulated the constitution and distorted the politics and imposed extreme authoritarian rule and personalized it to such an extreme degree means he is exposing himself to the possibility of different methods to get rid of him.

An explosion of popular discontent or an eruption of elite discontent — both of these are possibilities. By personalizing his dominance, his elitarian dominance, he’s taking more of a risk than I think most commentators have allowed for.

RFE/RL: What does it take for change to come to Russia? Back in 2007, way before he invaded Ukraine, or Georgia, for that matter, a man who personally contributed to Putin’s rise, [the late exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky, said Russia’s authoritarian regime could be brought to an end only by force. Has time proven him right?

Service: I had lots of disagreements with Berezovsky. I don’t think he was a great judge of possibilities. If the war goes badly, then Putin’s undoubtedly in trouble, because he bullied his own Security Council into accepting the first steps toward that war just a few days before it was declared [as a] “special military operation.” That’s one possibility. The other possibility is a continuing downturn in the economic situation. Russia has economic difficulties.

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war’s course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

The concordat between the Russian president and the Russian people since 1991 has always been that the president — through the Duma — guarantees a certain minimal level of welfare. However autocratic Putin has become — and by golly, he has become autocratic — Putin has looked after that minimal level, and he knows how riotous Russians can easily become. I mean, look at the pensioner riots of 2012. He knows what Russians are capable of, what any people are capable of, when they’re pushed to extremes. So he’s got to keep the economy up to a level sufficient to go on paying off the people on whose votes he depends [and] on whose acquiescence he even more depends, because votes, of course, are not really a great criterion for reality in Putin’s Russia.

RFE/RL: At this rate, when should one expect change in Russia? And where does this change come from — internally or from outside?

Service: Well, a lot of the pressure has been exerted already from outside, and it has not yet significantly undermined Putin. I’ve always thought the main pressure will have to come from inside Russia. It doesn’t look as if the dominant business elite have got the guts to stand up to him. Going back to 1917: The business elite did break away from the monarchy, and that was one of the factors that led to the abdication of Nicholas II. At the moment, it looks as if they are still gaining enough from the state contracts that Putin is [giving] them in wartime for them not to be tempted to move against him. It would be tricky anyway because Putin’s Russia is much more controlled than Nicholas II’s Russian Empire ever was. So it would be difficult for the business elite to turn on him. Why would the security elite turn on him? Well, that could happen when the war goes badly and somebody has to be the scapegoat. And he’s the readiest scapegoat of all, because he is the prime motivator of this “special military operation.”

RFE/RL: Could it perhaps be more of an “if” question? “If” the war goes badly?

Service: Well, that’s a good point. My own judgment is that at the moment we’re in for a protracted stalemate. One of the massive misjudgments that Putin has made is that he could so easily overrun most of Ukraine, [but] he massively underestimated Ukrainian patriotic feelings and spirit and determination. And he might have sacked several FSB [Russian Security Service] officials for supplying him with incorrect ratings of American or Ukrainian opinion.

But it’s his own fault; he has his own ideology, this anti-historical view of the Russian imperial past. It’s not usually remembered that large parts of Ukraine including Kyiv were longer under the rule of Poland-Lithuania than they ever were under the rule of the Russian Empire. There is such a place as Ukraine: Its borders have changed over the years, Ukrainians’ national feelings have changed over the years — all of this is true — but it’s true of almost every country in the world. So the massive misjudgment he made was about Ukraine.

But he also made a massive misjudgment about NATO. With the intention of diminishing the outreach of NATO, he’s actually added [a] number of countries to the NATO alliance. Now, geostrategically, he is a disaster for Russia. RFE/RL: When you say change is bound to come from inside, who exactly do you have in mind? You say the business elite is not up to scratch, [that] a possible uprising by the “silovikis” — the network of former and current state-security officers with personal ties to the Soviet-era KGB and its successor agencies — will depend on how the war goes. [Opposition leader] Aleksei Navalny went back to Russia because he believed change could only be possible if he was back in Russia, and now he is dead. Who do you see standing up to Putin?

Service: At the moment, there is no obvious candidate. But there are some ruthless, clinical minds in the entourage around Putin, and some surprises could take place. Let’s go back this time to 1953, when the man who had been judged to be a reliable Stalinist, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, proved to be the most radical of the removers of Stalin’s legacy as soon as he was dead and played a part in making sure Stalin didn’t get the medical assistance he needed to live.

Even [Russian Security Council Secretary] Nikolai Patrushev might take the clinical view that “this is not working.” At the moment, it seems he is himself just as much an imperialist fanatic as Putin is; I think they both are. But when your personal security is challenged, you can quickly alter your mind.

RFE/RL: So it’s about the moment Putin slips?

Service: Yes. I think he’s slipping geostrategically, already. Geoeconomically, geopolitically, he’s slipping already. That’s really why he needs to strengthen, as he’s doing, the authoritarian bulwarks of his power. If he was truly confident that no one could move against him, he wouldn’t be acting like this manic autocrat that he presents to Russians and to the rest of the world.

RFE/RL: You wrote Kremlin Winter: Russia And The Second Coming Of Vladimir Putin, which analyzed Putin’s first 20 years in power. This may sound like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, but what is the secret of his longevity?

Service: We have to give it to him that he did manage to put together an ideology of Russian patriotism that struck a chord with most Russians. The public opinion polls may be doubted, may be laughed at because they obviously exaggerate his popularity. But he did give Russia back its pride. He himself started out as a more respectable political figure than [Boris] Yeltsin had been. He organized patriotic events in his country, he welcomed world football, world motor racing, and other events into Russia. He gave Russians a sense of self-pride again that they’d lost in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. This should not be underestimated.

Personally, I believe that while most Russians acquiesce in his power, they prefer to turn their eyes away from the nastiness of the Putin regime if it doesn’t affect them personally, if they’re not conscripted into the army against their will, or their sons aren’t conscripted into the army, too. There is reason to feel Russians might decide that self-pride might involve doing without Putin the autocrat. It could happen.

RFE/RL: There is an ongoing debate on whether it’s Putin’s war in Ukraine or Russia’s war. Do people bear responsibility for putting up with dictators?

Service: That’s a really tricky question. What could Russians have done? That’s an important question. We have to remember how difficult it would be for Russians to rebel. This has actually been the fate of Russians for more than 200 years — it’s [been] very, very difficult for centuries for them to rebel.

Putin has enough of a historical memory. He was trained as a security official. He surrounded himself, especially in the earlier years of his power in the 2000s, with people he knew from the KGB. And his ideology gradually formed very firm foundations in the way that security officials normally think about politics. That’s got a lot to do with what is happening now.

Putin reads a German newspaper in a coffeeshop in Dresden in October 2006.

Putin reads a German newspaper in a coffeeshop in Dresden in October 2006.

He might have been a different man if things turned out differently in the early 2000s. Perhaps the West could have handled them differently. But I rather doubt it; that underestimates how much of a KGB mentality he was carrying around while charming [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, and [former U.S. President] George Bush, Jr. I think it was going to come out sooner or later.

Russians who stood up to him got removed from politics very gradually; he did this very, very subtly over a number of years. He played the electoral system by emasculating the procedures. And he gave Russians a vision of One Great Russia: “Make Russia Great Again.” Without him actually expressing it, this is what he has been all about. And he has militarized the country by stealth.

RFE/RL: When Russians muster up the courage and some change happens, it’s usually followed by a huge amount of ruin before some sort of stability comes back — [such as] the Russian Revolution in 1917. Let’s take the relatively bloodless change of government when the Soviet Union collapsed; we had perestroika after that, right? Does that also play a role in the Russian mindset, that if we rise up, there are going to be even worse times coming?

Service: Yes, I’m sure. If we just look at the horizontal level of politics, we miss the vertical level of history. Most Russians have learned from their parents or their grandparents how awful the situation can become when the lid is pulled off the top of the political system, and Russians have been impregnated with a fear of unleashing the demons of political upheaval. Many of them, if they’re at least in their 30s, can remember how dreadful material conditions were for their families in the 1990s.

Some minimal degree of stability in the country is baked into the mentality of the Russian people, and you can see why. It’s not because Russians are some zoological freak phenomenon; it is because they’ve been through what they’ve been through.

I don’t think they’re so thirsty for a pseudo-monarch, a pseudo- single leader in all times and in all ways. I believe they have been more easily reverted to that by the circumstances of the last 100 years or so. They need time to emerge from this, and that would require the stabilization of their conditions — a stabilization that’s different from a Putin stabilization.

RFE/RL: Is there a Plato and the cave analogy here, in that they don’t know another existence?

Service: If you look at most countries of the world at the moment, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty in most political systems. So, I don’t think it’s so different for the Russians. But the Russians have far more reason to worry about upheaval than is the case for, let’s say, most other European countries.

I don’t think there’s a permanent Russian, eternal Russian, mentality. But I take your point that the years of perestroika — and if we go back further, before October 1917 — they were the blips, they were the exceptions. So, Russians have had a very raw deal from their history.

RFE/RL: How large is the shadow that Stalin casts over Putin and his deeds and designs?

Service: Putin looks to past rulers; he has an abiding interest in the history of Russian rulership. Actually, Stalin was obsessed with Russian rulership in historical terms, too. I think some of what Putin is doing is influenced by the Stalin model. But it’s also influenced by the Peter the Great model; it’s also influenced by the models of rulers of Russia who failed to govern the country. I am thinking of Nicholas II, of [Russian revolutionary and 1917 provisional government leader] Aleksandr Kerensky, and of [last Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev. The anti-model is just as important.

A protester holds a sign depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Stalin during an anti-war demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, on March 20, 2022.

A protester holds a sign depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Stalin during an anti-war demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, on March 20, 2022.

Putin feels Russia is only strong and proud when it is governed by a ruler who tells Russians, and dictates to Russians, what to do; it doesn’t ask Russians what he should do. And I think he was gravely disappointed — though that is too weak a word — by perestroika. He wasn’t in the country for perestroika; he was in Dresden, in East Germany, so he didn’t see the beautiful products of liberation that were occurring under Mikhail Gorbachev. He didn’t see the benefits of any of that.

He came back to a ruined country; he came back to a Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) that was in total chaos, where the economy was in ruins. So he doesn’t have a good opinion about democracy or the rule of law, or freedom of expression. He is influenced by history and by the books that he reads about history; but it’s the anti-models that probably impregnate him as much as the models of past rulers.

RFE/RL: What other pages from Stalin’s playbook will we see Putin use in the future, as he tightens the screws on Russia?

Service: Who knows? Surely he can’t really turn back to convict labor on the scale of Stalin. He could certainly create a more severe cultural and media quarantine than he’s yet achieved. He’s moving in that direction. That would be something. Now, that comes out of the Lenin and the Stalin playbooks.

We can expect more arrests, but not on the scale of Stalin. [Putin] knows his chances of survival depend on the success of a market economy, of a state-capitalist economy, so there are limits to what he can do. He can’t revert the country to the statism of Stalinist communism; he knows that, [and] he’s too intelligent to want to do that. If he tried to do that, perhaps the business elite might finally find it within itself to turn against him.

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