Why Russia’s 2018 Presidential Election Won’t Be As Predictable As Expected
3 October, 2017

Russia’s March 2018 presidential elections are fast approaching, but hardly anyone is expecting a change in the country’s leadership. President Vladimir Putin appears set to win his fourth six-year term in the Kremlin.

Despite the vote’s predictable outcome, it may still signal coming change in Russia, according to Brian Whitmore, a Russia analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the author of the Power Vertical podcast.

By law, the President of Russia can only serve two consecutive terms in office. And while Putin has abused many aspects of his country’s constitution, he appears to treat this one rule with particular reverence, Whitmore says.

Putin served his first two terms from 2000 to 2008. Next, traded jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for one term in a move analysts have termed “castling.” Then, in 2012, he returned for his third term as president.

After being re-elected in 2018, Putin will effectively enter a long lame duck period: after those six years, he will either have to stand down or violate the constitution. That means that, according to Whitmore, “everybody’s going to smell the end of this regime. And when the Russian elite smells the end of a sitting regime, we have instability.”

Brian Whitmore sat down with Hromadske this past weekend at the Riga Conference to give his in-depth analysis of the future of Russia’s political leadership.

Brian, you are a senior analyst on Russia and the region at Radio Free Liberty Europe. We are coming to the Russian elections, they are not really taken seriously in a way that nobody thinks there will be change; they will take place in less than half the year. While looking at Russia, what are your concerns?

I’m going to make a crazy prediction and go out on a limb and say that Vladimir Putin will win the elections in March. Probably pretty safe ground there. Elections in Russia are legitimization rituals. The elections in Russia matter, but they don’t matter in the sense that elections matter in democratic countries, where you’re seeing the will of the people. They matter because the regime uses them to legitimize itself. And it legitimizes itself to the extent that it puts on a good show. It’s gets a good turn out, it gets good numbers, it puts on a good show, it tells the people a good story that they can believe in. And this is why I think that this election can be different than any other election we’ve seen, in the Putin period. Because in one sense, this regime has run out of stories to tell its people.  Putin’s first story was, ‘I will lift Russia up off its knees. I will create a dictatorship of law, I will bring you prosperity and stability, after the chaos of the 1990s.’ And that was a very effective story. And that story carried Putin all the way until 2011-2012. When you had prosperity that you had never seen before in Russia. And what happens, what sociology teaches us, is when a society becomes more prosperous, they stop caring about only economic issues, they start caring about higher issues. We had the Bolotnaya protests; this was essentially the new Russian middle class saying, ‘We don’t want just economic stability, we want political rights, we want political pluralism.’ Putin then had to come up with a new story. And we sadly know what the new story was. The new story resulted from the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and the new story was, ‘I will revive your empire for you, I will restore your lost pride.’ The old Putin was saying you will trade your political rights for prosperity, the new story is you will trade your political rights and prosperity for empire. And that lasted for a little while but now that is wearing off. What story is Putin going to tell the Russian people this time? I don’t know.

Can the Kremlin still campaign with this slogan of the mighty military power, or are people fed up with that? We know that people are fed up with Donbas in Russia, it’s different with Crimea, but it doesn’t mean that somehow the nationalistic and military sentiment won’t be brought up again.

I think the story is pretty much running its course in Russia.  At the time of the annexation of Crimea, I made a metaphor comparing this to as if Putin gave the entire country cocaine. The thing about cocaine other than it being very bad for you is that it wears off.  And when it wears off you need a stronger dose to keep the same high. And this Crimea drug was very powerful—I actually wrote a blog entitled: The Crimea Drug. The Crimea drug is wearing off now and the thing about this is that Crimea has packed such an emotional punch for the Russians that it’s hard to top this. [4:31] It’s hard to make another military adventure that’s going to top: “Krym Nash”. This is a pretty powerful drug for Russia and you’d pretty much have to take Kyiv, and that can’t happen, that won’t happen. So there’s really no military adventure that can top Crimea for the Russians so therefore I don’t think that there’s a story, in terms of the revival of empire story, they can tell the Russian people here. So it think this is going to be at a problematic election for them.

The other reason this is a problematic election is because I believe Putin is entering his lame duck period. That doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere tomorrow but Putin will turn 65 years old next month. I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict his victory in March. He wins another term, that’s six years, and then he’s 71. And this will be the end of his second second consecutive term. Now Putin’s been kind funny about this. He’s been disrespectful to much of the Russian constitution. But there’s one thing he’s been very very serious about obeying and that is the clause in the Russian Constitution that says you can’t serve more than two consecutive terms. He went through all the trouble of the castling move with Medvedev last time because he didn’t want to violate the Constitution. For some reason, he doesn’t want to violate the clause. So 6 years down the road, Putin’s going to have a choice, does he violate the Constitution? Does he amend the constitution? Does he ignore the constitution? Does he stay on, which would essentially make him president for life? Putin does not like to be seen as some tin pot dictator. He likes to have this kind of respectability. This would destroy all of that. I don’t think we’ll see that. Does he do another castling move? Pull Medvedev out of the closet again? Then he comes back at the age of 77. 77, that’s one year older than Brezhnev was. So I don’t think we’re going to see another castling. So what happens? Things being discussed in the Russian press and by Russian analysts about this. If you look at the  Minchenko Report 2.0, which is an annual report that looks at the state of the Russian elite, kind of a required reading for people like me. Something really jumped out at me in this and he said, ‘the battle for succession will begin around the time of the next Duma elections and they will create a post-presidential position for Putin, something akin to an orthodox ayatollah”. His words, not mine. But this is telling me they’re thinking of how to keep Putin in power but not president. Now these discussions were going on in 2011-2012 as well and they decided against them, they decided to try a different route. But this tells me that Russia is entering a transition period. It’s a long one, 6 years is a long time. But everybody’s going to smell the end of this regime. And when the Russian elite smells the end of a sitting regime, we have instability. Think of the end of the Yeltsin period 1998, 1999. I was living in Moscow at the time and quite frankly I expected full-scale war to break out on Tverskaya Ulitsa between the Kremlin’s office and the mayor’s office. The elite fighting, the elite was in a full-scale war with each other. Think of 2007 you have two different factions of the security services fighting each other and in some cases literally killing each other. So I expect to see that this kind of maneuvering, jockeying, clan warfare, intrigue. And this is going to be dominating Russian politics after the election.

What is my concern is that Russia gives enough food for thought for the analysts yet at the same time, there is little access to the people in power. So in the end, all the talks about Russia is a lot about speculations and guessing. This time the Kremlin has jumped in about the UN Peacekeepers in Donbas. All experts I meet and even politicians in Berlin, Paris, DC and other capitals, keep guessing what it would mean. Would they like to make some concessions on Donbas, because the don’t need it any longer? Or really are they just playing the card? That would be another question about guessing but what is your feeling based on some knowledge?

To your first point, Nataliya, you’re absolutely right. There’s a joke among those of who watch the Kremlin that say, ‘those that know don’t talk and those that talk don’t know.’ And I kind of put it in terms of intelligence gathering. Our human intelligence has dried up. People that really know don’t talk to us anymore. So we're stuck with what intelligence people call signals intelligence, it’s back to Kremlinology. You’re looking at signals from the media, public statements, things like that. The proposal for the peacekeepers was interesting to me, but when you look at the details of it, they’re talking about putting peacekeepers on the line of contact…

I understand that… Why would they go with that proposal, why give that sign that we’re ready to talk?

I think it makes it look like they’re making a concession to Ukraine because Ukraine has been asking for peacekeepers. Ukraine has been asking for peacekeepers along Ukraine and Russia’s internationally recognized borders which is certainly not what Mr. Putin is proposing. They’re asking for peacekeepers throughout the conflict zone, which is certainly not what Mr. Putin is proposing. But by saying, ‘I agree to peacekeepers”, and that’s the headline I saw when I saw that newsflash. I saw: Putin Agrees to Peacekeepers in Ukraine. And I said, ‘What?’ And then you start to read the details and you see he is talking about peacekeepers along the line of contact to protect the OSCE mission and so on. But it looks at first glance like Putin is giving something that Ukraine wanted. So the question comes, ‘what’s Ukraine going to give Russia for this concession?’ They’re playing a very clever game here.

How do you describe in a brief way the US relations under Trump? We know the story. There were a lot of expectations that Trump would be more pro-Russian but you have the Republicans in the State Department in another position. Yet still, of course they are not satisfactory for what the Kremlin wanted, yet still there is a little trust to president Trump from all the people, analysts, diplomats…

Well America is bigger than the President, first of all. This is a mistake the Russians made here. America is a nation of institutions and a nation of laws. And it’s not a dictatorship where the president decides everything. So I would say that relations with Russia have pretty much stayed the same as they were to the previous administration. And now we have sanctions codified into law by the United States Congress, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. The foreign policy establishment in Washington—and I was just in Washington—is extremely united on the issue of Russia.

Do you think that Trump is bound by that obligation and what the Congress and Senate does?

I don’t know what’s inside Mr. Trump’s head but I do know that America is a nation of laws. The United States Congress passed a law and that law is enforced now. It was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Like 98 to 2 in the Senate, 2 or 3 voted against it in the House of representatives. You rarely see—America is so divided politically—you rarely see that kind of unity in the United States Congress among both parties. So that law is in force and the president has to obey the law. So yes he is bound by that. The president is bound by the law. I think if the president goes outside of the law, that’s not something that supposed to happen in the American system. If it happens, there are dire consequences.

Another story that we are following is the military exercises in Belarus. There were a lot of concerns.  Our correspondents traveled there. We understand there was limited access for foreign journalists and four NATO observers. We don’t know yet what is in the woods of Belarus but it didn’t look like there were really military exercises which would go further to some military campaign from the Belarusian side.

I never really thought this made sense, that Zapad was going to be used as a staging ground for an attack on either Ukraine, the Baltic states or Poland. I never really thought that was the case. I thought it was a very clever psychological operation from the side of the Kremlin to make us think this, but it just never made sense to me. Why would Russia attack Ukraine from Belarus when they already have a militarized Crimea and Donbas from which they can attack? It just didn’t make sense to me. I would echo the words of my good friend Michael Kofman, a Washington-based Military analyst at the Kennan Institute. He said we should not fear Zapad, we should learn from it. Now that Zapad’s over, what did we learn from Zapad. For me, I’m less a military analyst and more a political analyst.  For me the most interesting thing about Zapad was what it revealed about the Russian-Belarusian relationship. Because if you look at the run-up to Zapad, Belarus was bending over backwards to reassure their neighbors, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, that their territory would never be used to stage an attack on a third-party. I think this is very significant. Because while Russia was trying to do a psychological operation—they wanted us to believe they were going to use this to attack Ukraine. Because they feed on this fear. Belarus was doing everything it could to reassure people that this wasn’t going to be the case. This is very telling. Why was that the case? Russia did not want to invite NATO observers in at all. Belarus, to the extent that it could, made sure that the exercises were as transparent as they reasonably could be to make joint exercises with Russia transparent. They were inviting in NATO observers, they were briefing western officials about this. So there’s this stark contrast in the way Minsk and Moscow approach this and to me this is emblematic of the Belorusian-Russian relationship. Belarus isn’t interested in this conflict with the west. This tells me the limits of Russia’s imperial model in the former Soviet space. Because people say Russia wants to turn Ukraine into Belarus. Well guess what Nataliya? Belarus is already Belarus, and they’re not that obedient. In fact, they’re a big pain for the Kremlin right now. So this relationship is very telling. Putin looks at it as an imperial relationship, but Lukashenko looks at it as a transactional relationship. The way I characterize it is, it’s like the emperor meets the gamer. It’s a complicated relationship from Moscow to manage. And if this is the best they can do in terms of their new empire in the former Soviet space, that empire doesn’t have much of a future. 

Brian, another thing you are following is the information campaigns that are run by the Kremlin and are generally present in politics. The general public has a lot more awareness, though the expert community, a lot of issues have been discussed, where people like us are even a bit tired…Bots, trolls, fake news, how long can you speak about that, even though they are still existing? Have you mentioned something new, are there any new trends? Or are we…

I’ll make two points on this. First of all it’s a mistake to look at the information campaign in isolation. I think that Russia is waging what I call a non-kinetic war against the west. It’s a war. We’re not shooting each other, it’s non-kinetic. But it’s a war. Information is weapons in that war, corruption is one of the weapons in the war—Russia uses corruption, they weaponize corruption in order to create networks of influence. This is something you have to be very familiar with in Ukraine, but they’re doing it elsewhere in the West. They’ve weaponized finance—look at all the black cash moving around the city of London, for example. I’m fond of saying corruption is the new communism; the Kremlin’s black cash is the new red menace. And this goes hand-in-hand with the information. You create networks of influence, you put out disinformation, there’s many ways to influence a society. They’ve weaponized cyber as well, they’ve weaponized organized crime. My good friend Mark Galeotti is fond of saying, ‘Russia is not a mafia state, it’s a state with a nationalized mafia.’ I just looked at a very interesting case in Estonia where the FSB was collaborating with cigarette smugglers on the Russian-Estonian border, and they were taking a cut from the profits of this cigarette smuggling. This wasn’t corruption on the part of the FSB, it was creating “chornaya kasa’. You create a bunch of untraceable black cash that you can use for all sorts of influence operations elsewhere in Europe. So you have a weaponized organized crime. So there’s all these different components. The information fits into the context of a broader, political war that Russia’s waging against the west with active measures and so on and so forth. The second point I would make is that we really need, we in the west, need to pay very close attention to what Russia does to its neighbors.

Because what Russia does to its neighbors today is something it’s going to be doing to us tomorrow. Ukraine, Estonia, you were getting hacked long before it was cool, long before we were talking about it, long before it was fashionable. Now if we were paying attention to that then, we might have been more ready for the hacking that’s happening to the U.S., Germany France and other countries now. Ukraine had Russia meddling in its elections long before we understood what this was. You knew what fake news was long before it was a phrase that every American, German and French person is talking about. We really need to pay close attention to what Russia does to Ukraine, what Russia does in the Baltic States, what Russia does to Georgia because it’s gonna come at us later. In this sense, we’re all Ukrainians, because we’re dealing with that same thing you were dealing with.

/ Edited by Tanya Bednarczyk