Putin’s Setbacks and the Fight for his Succession

If we look at the news of the last few months, we see that a series of seemingly disparate events all point to a decline in Russia’s influence. Is this a lasting trend or a temporary surge linked to the change of administration in the White House? The outcome of the battle for Putin’s succession depends on the answer to this question.

Let us start with the spectacular setbacks in the field of intelligence. If Russia was once able to deploy its networks of agents in the “near abroad” and in Europe without encountering major obstacles, for some time now it seems to be collecting fiascos. In Germany, counter-intelligence discovered in February 2021 a Russian agent in charge of maintaining the computers of the Bundestag. In Italy, two Russian officials from the Russian embassy were expelled in March 2021 after being caught in the act of acquiring military documents concerning Italy and Nato. In Bulgaria, a Russian espionage network was dismantled at the same time. More recently, it was Macedonia’s turn to expel a Russian “diplomat”. Finally, a purge has just taken place within the special services of Mongolia, leading to the arrest of two officers accused of working for Russia. These simultaneous expulsions of Russian special services agents indicate a new willingness in some countries to clean up their own house.

But it is not just about intelligence officers. The Kremlin’s networks of influence are also in the crosshairs. In Ukraine, the authorities closed the three pro-Russian television channels last February, and today Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s man in Ukraine, is under house arrest.

The events in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are highly instructive. The Kremlin was counting on the Sputnik V vaccine to sow discord within the EU and undermine European solidarity; in Western Europe, it was to be a means of taking stock of European personalities ready to collaborate with Moscow, defying national or European directives; in Central and Eastern Europe, in the countries of the former Soviet space, the import of Sputnik was to strengthen the position of the pro-Russian ruling elites and lead to the elimination of pro-Western ones. At first, everything seemed to be going according to the Kremlin’s script. With the blessing of the very pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman, the Czech authorities decided to buy Sputnik V vaccine. Those who opposed this decision, Health Minister Jan Blatný, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, hostile to the policy of rapprochement with Moscow, were removed from the government. But then came a twist: at a press conference, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš accused Russian agents of organizing an explosion at ammunition depots in Vrbětice in 2014. On April 18, the Czech Republic announces the expulsion of 18 Russian “diplomats” (this is followed by the expulsion of 20 Czech diplomats in Russia, and Prague will retaliate with the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats). The setback is significant. Since the fall of the USSR, Prague had become one of the main Russian intelligence hub in Europe.

The adoption of Sputnik V by Slovakia will also turn into a fiasco. The scenario is the same as in the Czech Republic: at first, it seems that the pretext of Sputnik will allow the pro-European elements in the government to be eliminated and leave the field free for the Russian party. Six ministers resigned in protest against Prime Minister Igor Matovič, who was accused of ordering 200,000 doses of Sputnik on March 1 without the agreement of his coalition. Among them was Ivan Korčok, the strongly pro-European and pro-Atlanticist foreign minister. Here again, a twist: the national drug agency refused to validate the vaccine, pointing to differences between the batches received and those analyzed in The Lancet. The scandal brings down Igor Matovič. “Slovaks have been added to the list of monstrous Russophobes. Who is next?, bitterly notes the press close to the Kremlin.

Similarly, Russia feels that it is being ousted little by little from the Balkans. Moscow rejoiced when, last fall, Milo Đukanović, the Kremlin’s bête noire in the Balkans, lost control of the Montenegrin government, now dominated by a coalition whose core is composed of pro-Russian, pro-Serbian and anti-NATO personalities united in the Democratic Front (DF). But in reality nothing changed. Montenegro continued to support the policy of sanctions against Russia. Macedonia is now a member of NATO. Even Belgrade has just agreed to the construction of a gas pipeline connecting it to Bulgaria, through which Azerbaijani gas will be transported from a Greek terminal. As a result, Russia will lose its monopoly on supplying gas to Serbia. Only Bulgaria still looks promising for Moscow. After the parliamentary elections in April, none of the main parties was able to win a majority — neither the anti-Russian, pro-European GERB, led by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, nor the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose representative is the current Bulgarian president, the pro-Russian Roumen Radev. The ensuing chaos has brought a group of pro-Russian siloviki to power as interim leaders until the next elections in July. In a sign of things to come, the president dismissed the director of the State Agency for National Security (DANS), Dimitar Georgiev. As in the Czech Republic, the Bulgarian special services were the main obstacle to the Kremlin’s co-option and recruitment of the ruling elite. It was Georgiev who unmasked the above-mentioned network of Russian spies. Since the pro-Russian ex-communists have no chance of winning the legislative elections, they are now banking on the creation of a coalition with a nebulous group of Russophile groups called to constitute an “anti-elite,” “anti-corruption” and “sovereignist” “third force” capable of marginalizing the pro-Western party. The alliance of the pro-Russians with these “spoilers” should allow the Kremlin to prevent the pro-Westerners from gaining the upper hand. The next elections will show whether Russia will succeed in keeping its important networks of influence in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria afloat. A sign of the times: in the Czech Republic, even pro-Russians like Andrej Babiš are now forced to camouflage themselves with anti-Russian rhetoric.

In the former Soviet space, the erosion of Russian influence is perceptible. In Moldova, the pro-European Maia Sandu won the 2020 presidential election largely thanks to the support of the Moldovan diaspora in the West, defeating the pro-Russian bloc formed between the Socialist Party led by Igor Dodon and the communists behind Vladimir Voronin. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 11, and Sandu is hoping for support from the diaspora for the pro-European Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). Kremlin experts are convinced that if Moscow does not succeed in mobilizing the Moldovan diaspora in Russia by creating a third force and encouraging it to vote for this new party, Moldova may drift into the Western camp — even though the number of Moldovans in the diaspora in Russia has fallen from 500,000 to 300,000, with Moldovans preferring to seek work in Israel. The Moldovan army has just announced that it will participate in NATO exercises in Romania. Moreover, after Antony Blinken’s visit to Kiev, the heads of Ukrainian, Moldovan and Georgian diplomacy presented a new association: an “associated trio” for integration in Europe. The rapprochement between Moldova and Ukraine is very bad news for the Kremlin.

This impression that Moscow is losing its grip on the post-Soviet space seems to be confirmed by the clash at the end of April 2021 between Kyrgyz and Tajiks on the border between the two countries, which left 55 dead and 300 injured. Both countries are members of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is headed by Moscow. At the time of these events, a meeting of the secretaries of the security councils of the CSTO countries, including a representative of Kyrgyzstan, was taking place in Dushanbe. The CSTO made no public statement; the Kremlin refrained from taking a position. The conflict was settled after the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan intervened. Ankara was the first to declare its readiness to mediate the conflict. Erdoğan offered Kyrgyzstan assistance in rebuilding destroyed houses and building schools.

In the above developments, some of them can be attributed to Washington’s stiffening toward Moscow during the first weeks of the Biden administration. However, the erosion of Moscow’s grip on its neighbourhood and in Russia itself also has endogenous causes, which have to do with the nature of Putin’s regime. For example, the promotion of Orthodoxy and the nationalization of history can backfire on the federal government: the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in the Republic of Tatarstan has just established a day of commemoration for those who died defending Kazan in 1552, while Ivan the Terrible, who conquered it, is constantly praised in the official Kremlin media. In Tashkent, a Soviet flag displayed at a concert dedicated to the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” caused an uproar, with one deputy going so far as to write in social networks that it was the flag of the “aggressor”. Thus the vogue of narrow nationalism, the practice of fait accompli, the cult of brutal force popularized by President Putin are gaining followers, as we can see from the example of Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russia may be the first victim of the destruction of the international order it has worked so hard to bring about.

When Gorbachev launched his perestroika in 1985, dissent in Russia had been virtually eradicated by Andropov. It was failures on the international stage (setbacks in Afghanistan, the 1982 return of the CDU to power in West Germany, the installation of the Pershings II in Europe) and not domestic pressure that prompted the Kremlin leadership to change its rhetoric and then its policy by electing Mikhail Gorbachev. This precedent must be constantly borne in mind. Today, no doubt, the debate about the succession is raging in the corridors of the Kremlin. The big question among those close to Putin is what concessions must be made to the West in order to obtain the lifting of sanctions and a return to business as usual. The objective is to achieve this at the lowest possible cost, preferably by limiting oneself to symbolic gestures. If Washington bends now and grants Putin new successes on the international scene, and if the Europeans do not show a clear will to stand firm, regardless of the American attitude, then the ebb of Russian influence that we have mentioned would be cut short and we would risk having to deal with a Putin’s Russia for a long time to come, with or without Putin. One can even assume that one of Putin’s goals in meeting with Biden is to display neutralization of the United States in order to discourage those in Europe who were counting on American involvement.

The cohesion of the Kremlin’s core leadership will remain as long as it can nurture the hope of bringing all of Europe under Russian influence: for Putin’s Russia needs to be able to draw freely on European investment and technology in order to endure. The setbacks suffered in Europe are the only ones likely to encourage the clans competing for power to question Putin’s foreign policy. A thorough “de-Putinization” is only possible if the successors are confronted with the failure of the project of vassalization of Europe. Some Central and Eastern European countries have understood this. Let us hope that their example will be followed by Western Europeans, unfortunately much less aware of what is at stake.

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

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