From a system of power to a regime: the Russian journey

Le HuffingtonPost, June 5, 2014, Strade, June 11, 2014, EvroForum, July 3, 2014,, July 9, 2014

The annexation of Crimea and the large-scale destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine, orchestrated, funded and supplied with arms and manpower by the Kremlin, constitute blatant, unprecedented violations of the system that has kept relationships between the European States in check since the end of World War II (Helsinki Final Act, Charter of the United Nations, Budapest Memorandum). As such, these events are a serious breach of the European order and to fully understand the implications, it is essential to become aware of the true nature of the regime in place in Moscow. Our ability to provide reliable answers to the burning issue of Ukraine depends on it, as well as the future cohesion, and possibly even the long-term sustainability, of the EU, and also the hope for Russian citizens of building a society based on the Rule of Law and democracy. The stakes are incredibly high.

It is Russia and not Ukraine that is at the heart of this unfinished tale. It is a tale that started all over again in 1999 when Vladimir Putin came to power, bringing the beginnings of democratic change that had occurred in the former Soviet Union, and later on Russia, to a halt. Supporters of a powerful State, who had never laid down their weapons – those who had already got rid of Gorbachev by taking advantage of the frustration and nostalgia of some of the old Communist bigwigs as well as of Boris Yeltsin’s strengths and weaknesses – had finally won. All that was left to do was to explain this to a few oligarchs trying to cling to the illusion of power such as Boris Berezovsky, the “kingmaker”, or people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky who thought they could run their own business empires and (what a nerve!) participate fully in their country’s political life.

The nature of the new Russian system

Even if the onslaught of the second Chechen war in 1999 (during Vladimir Putin’s first presidential campaign) gave us glimpses of the ideology held by Boris Yeltsin’s successor, it developed slowly, as most ideologies that are “mostly blind to their own sense and implications” 1 do. In 2005, it came out much more explicitly. In that year, in Berlin, the President of the Russian Federation described the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. The disaster was twofold as it applied to both an Empire and a power system. At that time, the Russian President’s priority seemed to be the establishment of a new power system through gradual destruction of the elements of democracy that had been introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, together with the creation of a new power vertical. By 2008, at the end of his second mandate, this transformation process had been mostly completed, at least enough for Vladimir Putin to pretend to “let” Dimitri Medvedev take over. Russian democracy had already become, in many respects, a Potemkin democracy. Any change of power had been made impossible. Parliament had become an assembly validating decisions made elsewhere. Repressive laws were passed. Justice followed the government line (at least for major cases which involved the authorities). Oligarchs had understood that their autonomy depended entirely on their subordination and submission to the system. Most mass media (especially television) have been transformed into faithful mouthpieces of the Kremlin. Real power now resides entirely in that “vertical” in which the structures of force (silovicracy 2) re-enact the central role played by the Soviet system’s single party – structures of force with considerably larger means. For example, in the past four years alone (2009-2013), the budget allocated to national security and the police has grown by 50%, and that of military expenditure by 80% 3.

According to Marcel Gauchet’s fundamental distinction between “totalitarian power” and “totalitarian regime”, it can be said that by 2012, at the start of Putin’s third presidential mandate, Russian power had become totalitarian. It “controls and suppresses” 4 society. Its ability to make the massive protest movement fade away in the wake of the 2012 election with a clever mix of pay-offs and targeted repression bears witness to this. However, while the power now controls society, it has not yet “permeated it”. 5 If Russian citizens have lost control over their political structures, their support remains mostly pragmatic. They give the new power credit for restoring some sort of order and economic well-being. But they still pay little attention to the system’s underlying ideology. The Ukrainian democratic upheaval of Euromaidan last November, gave the power an opportunity to permeate Russian society much deeper by turning what was at first a blow to the Russian power (the fall of Yanukovych’s regime just as it was about to complete its inside job, as commissioned by Moscow, of dismantling the Ukrainian State structure) into the large-scale ideological operation of the annexation of Crimea.

An ideology in the making

This does not mean that the current changes in Moscow are comparable to the “big leap from totalitarian power to totalitarian regime” like those made by Stalin in the 1930s or by Mao in the 1960s. One thing is missing : a substitute to the age-old religion of the Bolshevik system, to that Judeo-Christian heresy involving a Man becoming God, almighty and inaccessible. The new power then naturally finds its new ideological cement in various totalitarian experiences, in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, and in the new ideologists of Russian grandeur.

Therefore, while its system of power has been largely inspired by a Bolshevism that never actually disappeared, “the starting point of the totalitarian moment” 6, its ideological model is more reminiscent of the modus operandi used by Stalin after the breach of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, when Communist ideology, already devalued and out-dated, was suddenly replaced by a Soviet patriotism mixing imperial nostalgia, the exceptionalism of Russian civilisation, resistance to Western decadence, the “anti-fascist” struggle, expansionism and militarism… thus fitting Snyder’s definition of a “national-Bolshevism”. 77

The modernity of the new Russian power

Le HuffingtonPost, June 5, 2014

Many Westerners describe the Russian President as a great tactician and a poor strategist. They insist that the sanctions implemented are taking effect and that the annexation of Crimea and the large-scale destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine will have negative consequences for Russia (both in the short term and, even more so, in the medium term): devaluation of the rouble, capital flight, costs incurred by the occupation of Crimea. Others take comfort in describing Russia as a regional power. Few people point out the benefits of the ongoing changes for the authorities in Moscow: ideological mobilisation, unprecedented popular support and increasing military forces; the seizure of Ukraine’s main gas and oil resources in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, as well as confiscated Crimean assets and their redistribution within the power vertical; growing divides within the EU; the consolidation of a model for left-wing and right-wing reactionaries who thrive on democracies and a European project that is stuck in a rut.

We believe, on the contrary, that this system of power and the regime in the making are actually coherent and fairly sturdy, mainly because of their deeply modern features. Having learnt from the limitations of the Marxist-Leninist system, the regime is not only compatible with the market economy, but it actually draws most of its power from it. As a matter of fact, a market economy is not only more efficient than a centrally planned economy (the main cause for the fall of the Soviet Union), it allows strict control of all strategic sectors (energy, raw materials and arms) whilst essentially promoting a policy of remuneration (economic and symbolic, efficient and generous) of the power vertical. Moreover, freed from the ideological rigidities of the Communist system, which had led to a mummified gerontocracy, the new system of power is able to choose and co-opt high-profile, absolutely unscrupulous figures, such as Sergey Lavrov, Sergey Shoygu, Dmitri Rogozin. Last but not least, the new system has improved a remarkably efficient and modern model of apparent democracy based on two principles: a formidable system of control and targeted repression contrasted with a powerful propaganda machine continuously showing scam debates, scam reports, scam protests, scam accusations – light years from the old-fashioned propaganda of the Soviet regime in its dying moments which became inspiration for countless delightful Soviet jokes.

Such a system can afford some degree of isolation from the Western world. Much more flexible than the Soviet system and bolstered by its massive raw material resources, it has many alternatives such as the massive gas supply agreement signed in May 2014 with that other great country ruled by a totalitarian power, the People’s Republic of China. Iran, supported as ever by Moscow, as their unconditional support for Syria has shown, is a key element in the Kremlin’s diversification strategy. And, except if we consider that Turkmenistan is not subject to this new-style of limited sovereignty, the Iran of tomorrow, free from international sanctions, will be Russia’s gateway to the massive market of Southern Asia, most notably India, a country still struggling with its colonial past and a prisoner of old alliances, yet to come to terms with its status of most populated democracy in the world.

A necessary reminder: the Russian Federation still possesses the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world and has an overwhelming advantage in terms of tactical nuclear weapons – a significant issue for Europe. In spite of endemic corruption, most specialists agree that the modernisation of Russian forces has recently been very successful. Considering that it took Hitler only six years (1933-1939) to build up his formidable war machine, there is some concern about what the Russian army will look like in three or five years’ time.

The European fifth column

The strategy developed by Moscow over the past few years also includes creating a powerful network of international support within EU States. The results are mind-blowing. We find the ever-present Mensheviks, those power-worshippers like Gerhard Schröder who have failed to understand that democracy is based on the Rule of Law, a primal and necessary condition to its success. Then there is an army of “chief executives” like Ben Van Beurden (Royal Dutch – Shell), Bob Dudley (BP), Paolo Scaroni (ENI), Christophe de Margerie (Total), Joe Kaeser (Siemens), Alfredo Altavilla (Iveco), Laurent Castaing (STX France), drunk on their own powers and privileges, who enjoy believing that their Russian counterparts have some sort of power and are involved in real business in Russia and not just political affairs. There is the massive brigade of left-wing and right-wing reactionaries, from Mélenchon to Marine Le Pen, from Jobbik to Isquierda Unida, who fight together for a “referendum” in Crimea 8 and therefore condone its annexation by Russia. 9 There are those who are nostalgic for lost empires, orphans of rear alliances, like Élisabeth Guigou, or the bards of “France, that great country” like Dominique de Villepin. There are Ukraine deniers, like Piotr Smolar, who hide behind casual comments in order to discredit the action of the Kyiv authorities and question the very existence of Ukraine. There are the falsely naïve, especially the European military, who only think about what security guarantees to offer Russia, and the European intelligence services, who boast about their good relations with their Russian counterparts. Finally, there are all those journalists, academics, civil servants, lawyers and politicians who are subsidised by Moscow.

Opportunities for destabilising neighbouring countries

Finally, the policy of “defence” of Russians living abroad has many advantages for the Kremlin. It allows them to consolidate hegemonic positions regarding raw materials and is an opportunity for ideologically boosting the Russian population, and a way of keeping the pressure on neighbouring countries whilst simultaneously granting the Russian army newfound prestige. There is reason to believe that the Russians will use this tool to pressurize and blackmail and will only resort to armed intervention in disguise when they think they can avoid heavy international sanctions whilst making substantial gains, at least while the Kremlin works on the modernisation and strengthening of its army. In the medium term, severe threats weigh on many countries, some already in the EU (Baltic countries), some in the process of signing association agreements (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) and others who are isolated (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan).

Within Russia, the nationalist stupor, or even the addiction, of a large part of the population, including its most modern part (the middle class), will take a long time to wane, because the opposition to this new power system and this regime in the making will not be able to use national identity as a rallying point as in Ukraine. They will be confronted with a repressive State apparatus which is much more powerful than in Ukraine.

Overturning the Russian regime would seem to be extremely difficult. It would require a large-scale purification unprecedented in modern history. The current leaders of the regime are fully aware of this. While there is no doubt that this regime is doomed to fall eventually, it will do anything it can to last out. It is essential to make this realisation, as much to help accelerate its fall as to provide safeguards against the threat it represents. In this respect, delegating responsibilities to others – the United States – is not an option for Europe, all the more so as the other great totalitarian power, China, constitutes a growing threat to its Asian neighbours.

The EU and its member States – or at least some of them – must assess the consequences and make appropriate policy decisions. These decisions must be sustainable and include the solving of the British question as a priority. It is high time to split the European Union into a core, the EU of the four freedoms (including the UK), and a more integrated Europe comprising the Eurozone and a common (but not single) army, common counter-intelligence services and an ambitious energy policy. It is time also to launch a total embargo on arms deals with Russia and start the process of Ukraine’s integration into the EU.


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  1. À l’épreuve des totalitarismes 1914-1974, Marcel Gauchet, Ed. Gallimard, 2010
  2. Siloviki, members of structures of force (army, police, intelligence…)
  3. Russia’s Massive and Growing war machine”, Walter Derzko, Dr. Andrew Zhalko-Tytarenko, 20 May 2014,
  4. Marcel Gauchet, op. cit.
  5. Marcel Gauchet, op. cit.
  6. Marcel Gauchet, op. cit.
  7. “La Russie contre Maidan”, Timothy Snyder, Le Monde, 21 February 2014
  8. According to a report of the President of Russia’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, only 15% of Crimean population voted in favour of annexation by Russia, May 2014.
  9. Voting list of the European Parliament’s resolution of 17 April 2014 on “Russian pressure on Eastern partnership countries and in particular destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine”.

6 thoughts on “From a system of power to a regime: the Russian journey

  1. Great article Olivier. It makes clear the true nature of Putin’s regime. However, do you have suggestions for Ukraine on how to deal with it? I don’t see any solution to the Donbass mess orchestrated by the Kremlin…

  2. Dear Nadia,
    Suggestions for Ukraine on how to deal with it? For what concerns Ukraine, I think they are the ones who know the situation.
    For the international community, I think the scenario is clear enough to decide to adopt immediatly new sanctions (phase 3), included at last complete prohibition of arms trade with the Russian Federation (sale and buying).
    It’s time also to define a policy concerning relations with Crimea (very interesting proposals by Steven Pifer on
    For what concerns the European Union, I think that the 28 heads of state and government have to declare solemnly at the end of june when President Poroshenko will sign the Association Agreement with the EU, that the process of Ukraine full membership in the EU is open.

  3. Dear Olivier,

    Thank you for sharing this. I still hope it can be like Charles Dickens’ « A Christmas Carol » of tale of what does not come to pass but I realise your warning is that this is the situation in the east of Europe now. I particularly have contempt for those businessmen who risk all of our savings dealing with a country where there is not the rule of law. And you show brilliantly the truism that extremists of the right and left pursue the same policies.
    Two points don’t seem to follow your analysis – but are consistent with your other writing and campaigning.
    A link is really missing between your evaluation of the threats, and your conclusions about the EU. Energy policy seems obvious, but will a common defence policy really mean the EU (countries) can respond to a real threat from a resurgent national-Bolshevism Russian state? What is a common not a single army?
    We must keep repeating that a small – if significant – minority of European citizens voted for far right or other anti-EU parties. But how can Ukraine join the EU with so much hostility to the EU among many European citizens? I was horrified that young Ukrainians were worried about coming to England because of the rise of UKIP and thought people would be hostile to them in the street. I explained that that is not what the vast majority of people in Britain are really like.

    The Ukraine I recently visited was more a progressive modern European country than many others, but I don’t see how dangling a dream of EU membership is either realistic or offers a solution to the crisis in the East at present?

    Kiron Reid, Liverpool, UK.

  4. I needed to thank you for this good read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I’ve got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post efbgkcbbgebd

  5. Great analysis! Now it is time to combine efforts for fight against this social cancer tumor bearing threat to the whole world – as well as to its own country.

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