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Five Questions & Three Resolutions for 2023
The TL;DRussia Yearly Roundup
I ended 2021 with a prediction, in my heart of hearts, if not quite in the public realm. I will not make that mistake again.
There is no good way to begin a piece of writing that is designed to round out such a catastrophic year, or to usher in one that promises to be equally ruinous. I would like to think that the war that shattered so many lives and illusions in 2022 will come to an end in 2023, restoring both peace and peace of mind. I would like to think that, yes. But I do not think it.
In fact, as 2022 draws to a close, I am trying not to have any thoughts at all about 2023 — at least not of the predictive kind. I’ll leave that to the likes of Dmitry Medvedev, who seems to think that the coming year will bring the UK back into Europe, start a war between France and Germany, and install Elon Musk in the White House after a second American civil war. It is, of course, possible to be better at prediction than the man who seems to have been possessed by the ghost of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but as I have written and said repeatedly over the course of this year, I have had to call my own analytical models and assumptions into question. I eschew prediction in the surest of times, and these times are anything but sure.
Nor do I find myself with many thoughts of the retrospective variety — though those are eminently more useful, and I have spent much of the past few days reading some very cogent ones, in particular by Ruth Deyermond, Lawry Freedman and Michael Kofman. For my own part, I’d limit myself to some thoughts I sent to Grid News earlier in December, when Russia’s war on Ukraine ticked into its tenth month:
“The war has demonstrated (at least) two frightening things. One is just how fragile peace is, how easy it is for people to break faith and how quickly we can find ourselves in the midst of genuine catastrophe. We have for generations now allowed ourselves to believe ‘This can’t happen here,’ and that illusion has now been shattered. It can happen here, it is happening here, and it will continue to happen here unless we do things to prevent it from happening.
“And that gets to the second frightening thing, which is just how little we understand about how our world works. Our sense that this ‘couldn’t happen here’ was predicated on a set of assumptions about human behavior — the behavior of world leaders and common citizens alike. These assumptions allowed us to believe that the world, or at least ‘our’ corner of it, was stable and predictable, but we never really examined many of these assumptions and particularly failed to examine them from the point of view of people who are not ‘us.
“The good news is that if we can get better at dealing with the second frightening thing, we’ll be better placed to tackle the first frightening thing.”
And so, with that in mind, I look to 2023 not with predictions or hopes or even ideas, but with questions — questions designed to help re-establish a sense of cause-and-effect in Russian politics, at least for me as an analyst — and with resolutions, designed, more or less, to do the same thing.
Rather than make a set of predictions for 2023, I’ve set out for myself something of a research agenda — one based in large measure on what I knew, or thought I knew, about patterns of cause and effect in Russian political life before the war. As the year progresses, these are the five key questions to which I’ll be looking for answers, not necessarily because I think the answers will themselves bring about change, but because the answers will tell me something about whether the old patterns still hold, or whether new ones are being established. And that, in turn, might allow me to regain at least a bit of confidence in my ability to judge where Russia might be headed from here.
How will the Kremlin resolve its fiscal challenge? This seems like a mundane place to start, but it has the advantage of being both legible and based on one of the firmest tenets of pre-war Russian politics, namely Vladimir Putin’s steadfast adherence to fiscal discipline. At various stages in his reign, Putin has faced a choice between straining the budget to maintain his mass and elite political relationships, and straining those relationships to maintain the budget. Up to now, he has always chosen the latter—but the strain has never been quite so great.
To be clear, Putin’s penchant for budgetary austerity derives from geopolitical, rather than economic priors. Putin understood the degree to which both the late Soviet Union and early post-Soviet Russia were hamstrung by debts to Western banks and governments. The lesson he took from that was simple: if you’re not solvent, you’re not sovereign. Coming out from under those debts, and preventing them from ever accumulating again, has been the one plank of Putinism that has never changed.
For the moment, the Russian budget — buoyed by plummeting imports (about which in a moment) and thus a robust ruble — has done okay, but there are strong signals that is changing. Oil exports, which contribute significantly more to the budget than gas exports, have halved since the G-7 imposed its price cap. According to an analysis by the Polish think tank OSW, hydrocarbon exports are expected to bring 20% less to the budget in 2023 than in 2022, even as overall expenditures remain the same. In part as a result, the Kremlin is expected to draw down its key sovereign wealth fund, the National Welfare Fund, by 57% over the course of 2023.
Given that Putin’s fiscal prudence has geopolitical roots, it seems unlikely that he would end his geopolitical adventure just to right the fiscal ship. But as the war continues to raise the numerator and depress the denominator of the Russian economy, something will have to give. Will Putin cut back on social spending, risking public dissatisfaction? Will he turn off the rent taps that keep patronage flowing to his elite? Or will he start printing money? I don’t know what the answer is, but whatever he decides, we’ll learn something important.
How do citizens respond to the loss of prosperity and security? While much has been said about the supposed resilience of the Russian economy — both for the budget and for ordinary households — the truth is that Russian citizens are feeling the squeeze. The politically cautious newspaper Kommersant reported on Thursday that Russians’ holiday spending has fallen to the lowest level in five years, and on Friday that the country’s retail market as a whole is undergoing a massive “primitivization”. In surveys and media interviews and maybe even around kitchen tables, Russian citizens may well be putting on a brave face, but their lives are poorer, with little to no prospect of them getting better any time soon.
Their lives are also less secure—despite, ironically, Putin’s attempt to “securitize” much of Russian public life. Consciously or otherwise, many millions of Russian citizens who may have once sought safety by avoiding politics now find themselves having to worry about whether their conversations and even their dreams might get them in trouble. And that is to say nothing of the clearest and most present danger many Russians face, namely the prospect of being called up to fight in Ukraine.
Thus far, the dominant response to the loss of both prosperity and security has been to circle the wagons and find individualized mechanisms for coping. This kind of response, which the social anthropologist Jeremy Morris calls ‘defensive consolidation’ and I call ‘aggressive immobility’, is the dominant form of social response to incursions by the state in post-Soviet Russia. The experience of late- and then post-Soviet life has left most Russian citizens with a sense that the most effective levers for solving the problems that afflict their lives are those that are closest to hand, while working through the abstractions of politics and institutions and collective action are most often a waste of time.
That is not to say that Russians are incapable of collective action—indeed, I’ve written a book about just how capable Russians are of collective action. But for collective action to occur at a meaningful scale, it requires people to come to the conclusion that individual coping mechanisms are, at least in a given context, no longer sufficient. From the outside, it might seem that Putin’s war and his reshaping of politics have, among a great many other things, made that conclusion inevitable. What matters empirically, though, is not whether that conclusion is obvious to us. Thus, whether or not we begin to see people losing faith in individualized coping mechanisms, we will learn something important.
Does the Kremlin feel the need to enforce mass compliance? As I’ve written before, habits of aggressive immobility have been one of the greatest source’s of Putin’s political longevity—including why Russians did not, by and large, rise up to protest against mobilization, but sought instead to find their own, individualized routes out of military service. But while it’s easy to see why an autocrat like Putin might be perfectly happy for dissatisfied subjects to run for the exits rather than into the streets, it nonetheless imposes a cost on the regime—namely, the loss of would-be military recruits.
Indeed, this kind of individualized resistance consistently undermines the ability of the Russian regime to get what it wants, whether social reforms, pandemic mitigation or, in this case, participation in the war effort. And ordinarily, the regime doesn’t decide to fight back. This may, of course, in some cases be because the regime doesn’t actually care that much about the policy being resisted. When it comes to the war, though, that’s a harder assumption to make.
The bigger reason the regime doesn’t fight back is because an effective coercive response is, by definition, one that makes individualized coping mechanisms less effective. And that, also by definition, makes collective responses comparatively more effective. When the state interferes in the life of individuals as individuals, allowing them the flexibility that individuality presumes, things remain generally peaceful, if not particularly efficient. But when the state treats people consistently as coherent groups, in ways that allow them to identify as members of that group, they tend to get a boisterous group response — and then the state tends to back down anyway.
So, again, Putin faces a choice. If he needs more men for the military, he will eventually have to clamp down on the individualized coping mechanisms that have been keeping things peaceful—at the risk of provoking more wide-spread protest. If, on the other hand, he is more concerned about his domestic position, he may continue, as he has thus far, to sacrifice compliance in the name of relative political tranquility. Whatever he choses, and however Russians respond, we’ll learn something.
How will mid-level elites break? We tend, at our peril, to think of Russia’s political system in the terms Putin himself prefers — that of a “vertical of power” in which everyone knows their place and performs accordingly. Few things, of course, could be much further from the truth. Yes, Putin is in charge and is powerful, but even now he does not rule over a well-oiled set of command-and-control mechanisms. Putin maintains power by giving elites powerful incentives to comply, but those aren’t the only incentives the elite face.
Elites in the middle rungs of the system — think regional governors, big-city mayors, the heads of minor-ish agencies and major-ish corporations — are aware that they serve at the pleasure of the president. They are also aware, however, that because they are not particularly important, the president is most often unaware of their activities (or even their existence), and usually unavailable and unmotivated to provide assistance. Their overriding task, then, is to avoid coming to the attention of the president for the wrong reasons, and that, in turn, means they need to keep their constituents if not happy, then at least not unhappy.
This puts mid-level elites in a particular bind whenever the Kremlin does something that risks making their constituents — say, the residents of a region of the country — unhappy. Do they take the Kremlin’s directives as gospel and enforce them assiduously? Or do they focus on keeping the peace on the territory entrusted to them, even if that means helping their constituents resist (quietly) the Kremlin’s demands? Most often, these mid-level elites will choose the latter option. And because that choice helps keep the peace, the Kremlin tends to give them that leeway, as they did both with the military mobilization this fall, and with the Covid pandemic in 2020.
As the war drags on, however, the stakes may become higher, and mid-level elites may struggle to understand what is expected of them. Making that choice between serving upwards or serving downwards will become more fraught. Whatever they decide — whether they hold to form and enable localized resistance, or whether they rally more firmly to the Kremlin, or some combination of the two across Russia’s regions — we will learn something important.
Does the Kremlin feel the need to enforce elite compliance? Allowing elites a great deal of behavioral flexibility in return for political loyalty when it counts has, like allowing masses the freedom of individualized coping mechanisms, been a key pillar of Putin’s longevity. In part as a result, the Kremlin has habitually struggled to achieve some of its core policy aims, including Putin’s long-running drive to “de-offshore-ize” the elite themselves, forcing them to bring their assets and offspring back to Russia. (In truth, that effort has been such a failure for so long, that it isn’t unreasonable to wonder whether it was actually a policy priority at all, but that’s a separate conversation.)
Like enforcing mass compliance, enforcing elite compliance also comes with costs — although increasing the likelihood of elite collective action (also known as a coup) is not high among them. In a political system, like Russia’s, organized around patronage, loyalty is ensured by means of informal understandings and expectations, leaving formal institutions of command-and-control to atrophy. Replacing that informality with demands for stricter compliance would require rebuilding those institutions or, in many cases, building them in the first place.
Initial indications are that the Kremlin is sticking to the tried and true: communicating the political expectations they have for the elite, while maintaining — and even increasing — the political-economic grey zones in which the elite are allowed and even encouraged to operate. In fact, the Kremlin has in recent days repealed key anti-corruption requirements. As with mobilization, though, it’s not hard to see the regime eventually facing a choice between efficacy and expediency. And as with all the other questions on this list, we’ll learn something important, whichever way the system goes.
It is not, of course, only a matter of which questions to answer — it’s also a matter of how we go about answering them. With that in mind, I’m also giving myself three New Year’s Resolutions, designed to help ensure that the answers to the questions above, when and if they emerge, build towards better analysis.
Be more precise. Sean Guillory and Mark Galeotti recently had a wonderful little Twitter exchange, in which they pleaded for us to stop using the term “oligarch.” Sean summed up the argument perfectly, and I concur:I support dropping the "oligarch" label all together. There are no oligarchs in Russia anymore. Putin subordinated all of them to him/the state. They enrich themselves at his pleasure and exercise little political power on the federal level.A grumpy note to journalists: if you want to talk/write about the spate of recent deaths of rich Russians, (a) they're not 'oligarchs' and (b) if you want to know how meaningful the recent toll has been, find out 1st how many comparable figures died similarly in previous years…Mark Galeotti @MarkGaleotti
The problem here isn’t only that we’re importing into the present a term that derives from a bygone era — or even that the appropriate era for that term went by a very long time ago. The problem is that the entire field of Russia analysis is beset by terms, ideas and concepts that, if they ever made sense, don’t make sense now. Liberals vs siloviki, for instance. Televisions vs refrigerators. We want to call rich Russians oligarchs and protesting Russians dissidents because they are familiar terms and they mean things to us — but the problem is precisely that they mean things to us. The wrong things. If I want to become more precise in our analysis, I need to start by becoming more precise in my vocabulary, even — or especially — if that means learning to talk about things in new ways.
Be more connected. Given what is happening to Ukrainians every day, it seems churlish to talk about the upheaval that has afflicted the world of Russia analysis, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to ignore it. We still need to understand Russia, even if all we want to do is to stop it, and we cannot understand Russia if we are entirely disconnected. Unfortunately, almost entirely disconnected is what I feel at the moment. It’s not just that I cannot travel to Russia myself, or that most of the Russians I talk to and whose insight I value are now in exile. I can and do stay in touch with them, and they can and do stay in touch with the country itself. But that is not enough.
Russia is already changing. There are new phenomena at work, new people with new views, new experiences and interpretations. That’s one thing. But we are also as a field coming to recognize just how much we never really knew about Russia even when we had all the access we could have ever wanted. There are voices we never really listened to, or not enough. Perspectives in which we never really immersed ourselves. So as I try in 2023 to reconnect with Russia, my resolution is also to connect differently, with new people and new ideas.
Be more innovative. In the early days of the war, I ran into a friend of mine who studies Iran. “Now you know how I feel,” he joked. “I’ve never been able to travel to the country I study.” It is my fervent hope, of course, that I’ll be able to get back into the field sooner, rather than later. But it would be a mistake, I think, to assume that just because I cannot travel to Russia, I cannot study it. Similarly, the increasing challenge of running surveys and focus groups, the ethical risks involved in working with partners and collecting data, and so on, should not deter us from research.
Part of what I need to do, then, is to reach out to my friends and colleagues who study Iran, or parts of China, or other more thoroughly authoritarian environments that have been more difficult than Russia for researchers to access. They undoubtedly have lessons I need to learn. But I also believe that we as Russianists need to come up with new ideas, to find new ways of working, researching and writing that will allow us to avoid the trap of seeing — as we once did — our analysis as inherently blinded.
On all of these things and more, I do hope you’ll join the conversation. In the meantime, to you and those dear to you, I wish peace, health, and resolve.