Features of the transformation of Putinism

Features of the transformation of Putinism

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 10–16 March 2024

Six publications (Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, Globe and Mail, and The Hub) were selected to prepare this report on how Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week. The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These publications represent centrist viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This MMS report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

  • The world and Ukraine: Defence spending standard for NATO member states should rise to 3% of GDP; Canada could show global leadership by seizing Russian assets. 
  • Russia at war: European populists support Kremlin’s fight against sanctions; Putinism is transforming; Putin’s goals for the election; there is an “Other Russia”; Trump victory would be dire for Ukraine, NATO, and USA.

European populists perpetuate Kremlin myths regarding sanctions. Agathe Demarais (Foreign Policy) argues that European populists are wrong to claim that sanctions against Moscow are more harmful to Europe than to Russia. There are four key misconceptions about the negative impact of sanctions on European companies and citizens. First, the notion that sanctions have caused high energy prices (and inflation) in Europe is a fake: “It was Russia’s attack on Ukraine and gas blackmail against Europe that set off the spike in global hydrocarbon prices in early 2022. Western countries only began to impose sanctions on Russia’s energy exports in November of that year, when oil and gas prices were already in retreat.” Second, there is a misconception that sanctions punish export-oriented EU companies which have lost access to the Russian market: “Russia has never been a major market for EU firms, with Russian businesses buying just 4 percent of EU exports in 2021.” Of these EU exports, only 2% are subject to sanctions—hardly a decisive figure. Third, the belief that sanctions have forced European firms to abandon potential investment in Russia is a myth: “At this stage, sanctions do not prevent European firms from doing business in Russia except in some specific sectors, such as defense.” On the other hand, actual losses of European companies in Russia are due to two factors:  (1) voluntary withdrawal from the Russian market due to fears of reputational risks or unwillingness to financially support Russia’s war against Ukraine; (2) a spike in asset seizures, “with the Kremlin forcing many European firms to sell their assets under value—in some cases for just one ruble.”  Fourth, the claim that European sanctions on the Russian energy sector are not only costly but also futile is false. Reselling oil to Indian or Chinese refiners is much less profitable than selling it to Europe: “Over the past two years, the Kremlin lost an estimated $113 billion in oil export earnings, mostly due to the EU embargo on Russian oil. Last year, when both the EU embargo and the G-7/EU oil price cap became fully effective, Russia’s overall trade surplus shrank by 63 percent to $118 billion, constraining the Kremlin’s financial resources to wage the war in Ukraine.” According to Demarais, “The populists’ argument that sanctions harm Europe more than they hurt Russia does not hold up to scrutiny. The reality is that the impact of these measures on European companies is small, whereas Russia is facing increasing headwinds as it tries to reroute its crude away from Europe.”

Defence spending standard for NATO member states should rise to 3% of GDP. Andrzej Duda (Washington Post) is convinced that NATO member states’ spending should be increased to three per cent of GDP. The rules-based world order was shaken on 24 February 2022 when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to Duda, who is the president of NATO member Poland, a return to the status quo that existed before the full-scale invasion is impossible: “Russia’s imperialistic ambitions and aggressive revisionism are pushing Moscow toward a direct confrontation with NATO, with the West, and ultimately with the whole free world.” That is why NATO countries should increase their defence spending from two to three per cent and open the door to new members: “A disappointing lack of unity at the NATO summit in April 2008 rendered futile the efforts of Poland, other countries in our region, and U.S. diplomacy: Ukraine and Georgia were not granted a clear path to membership. That left those two nations vulnerable to Russian aggression: Russia invaded Georgia only months after the summit and attacked the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and Donbas in 2014.” According to the author, “That is a regrettable chapter in NATO’s history and offers an important lesson for the future. What the alliance needs today is unity, unity and more unity. NATO members must work together on the alliance’s future, their security investments and a common strategy of support for Ukraine.”

Is Putinism forever? Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman (Foreign Affairs) write that the presidential election in Russia on 15–17 March will give rise to “forever Putinism.” During his rule, the ex-KGB Russian president has pursued two main goals: (1) create a large-scale mechanism of repression to eliminate any domestic forces that oppose him or have the potential to do so; and (2) deprive Russians of the ability to imagine a future without him. These aims have been achieved. In its early stages, Russian society under Putinism was characterized by a mixture of complacency and indifference: the former “flourished when the Russian economy expanded between 2000 and 2008,” and the latter, “which the Kremlin inculcated in part by discouraging public participation in politics, assisted in the regime’s creeping authoritarianism.” Furthermore, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 the regime transformed into “wartime Putinism”—retaining its promotion of complacency and indifference while at the same time becoming fully authoritarian and partially mobilized for war. According to the authors, Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a tool for transforming the regime into “forever Putinism”: “The war has strengthened the Russian leader less by augmenting the Kremlin’s already formidable power than by radically diminishing the scope of civil society. Whereas until recently political elites had a degree of decision-making power, the war has made them into executors of Putin’s will, mere adjutants to the generalissimo.” However, “forever Putinism” does have vulnerabilities: “Any regime that promises to live forever cannot let itself be perceived as failing. To endure, Putin’s regime must maintain the illusion not just of its inevitability, which it has already achieved, but also of its own immortality, which it cannot achieve.” Cracks in its image could lead to the complete destruction of the myth. According to Kimmage and Lipman, “This year’s presidential election…is not just a ritual exercise validating another six years under Putin. It should be interpreted as a final farewell to those vestiges of the political past that preceded or complicated the arrival of forever Putinism.”

Why does Putin need elections? Aurel Braun (Globe and Mail) opines that although pre-orchestrated elections with an obvious outcome will not affect Vladimir Putin’s regime, reality will eventually catch up with its fragile political artificiality. While Putin has ensured that “any credible opposition leader was murdered, jailed, exiled, or marginalized” and civil society has been increasingly suppressed over the last decade of his rule, there are signs of many cracks in the regime. They include the legacy of Alexei Navalny and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brief mutiny, the huge number of dead and wounded in Russia’s war against Ukraine, the expansion and strengthening of NATO, and so on. Instead, “internal gangsterism, external terrorism, symbiotic associations with rogue states, and increasing vassalage to China are Putinism’s real legacies.” According to Braun, the election is nothing more than an attempt to convey a message to opposition-minded Russians: “You are helpless and resistance is hopeless.”

Victory for Ukraine spells hope for “Other Russia.” Timothy Garton Ash (Globe and Mail) discusses the “re-election” of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, highlighting the lack of genuine choice for Russian voters due to suppression of the opposition and manipulation of the electoral process. The author highlights the existence of an “Other Russia” that is composed of brave individuals opposing Putin’s regime, including those who supported Alexei Navalny despite the risks of reprisal. While it is difficult to gauge the exact level of opposition within Russia, Garton Ash declares that enabling Ukraine to resist Russian aggression is crucial not only for Ukraine’s democratic future but also for catalyzing political change in Russia. Russia’s current domestic policy is indivisible from its Ukraine policy, as Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine reflect his broader imperialist agenda for Russia. “Enabling Ukraine to win this war is not just the only way to secure a democratic, peaceful future for Ukraine itself. It’s also the best thing we can do to improve the long-term chances for a better Russia.” Garton Ash advocates maintaining open lines of communication with Russia, contingency planning for various scenarios, and clear messaging to the Kremlin about the consequences of further escalation.

Canada’s seizure of Russian assets to support Ukraine would show global leadership. Aaron Gasch Burnett (The Hub) describes how Canada could step up its efforts in supporting Ukraine amidst Western delays in military equipment shipments. The author applauds Canada’s groundbreaking legislation to seize Russia’s central bank reserves, a move so far also taken only by the USA and Switzerland. While 400 billion CAD (300 billion USD) of these assets have been frozen for two years, an amendment to the Canadian sanctions law now allows the government to confiscate Russia’s state assets, potentially unlocking 25.5 billion CAD (19 billion USD) that could be used for Ukraine’s liberation or reconstruction. However, despite Canada’s advocacy for leveraging these assets to support Ukraine’s fight in the Russo-Ukrainian war, it is uncertain as to when the Trudeau government intends to utilize this law. Burnett quotes Yuliya Ziskina, a senior legal fellow for the pro-Ukraine non-profit Razom Advocacy, who was consulted by Canadian senators on the recent amendment to sanctions law: “Waiting to make this move risks financially starving Ukraine and risks its ultimate defeat.” The author emphasizes that Canada could demonstrate real leadership by seizing Russian assets and pushing allied countries to do the same rather than waiting for unanimous G7 agreement. Given the dire situation in Ukraine and the reluctance of certain European allies, like Germany, to take decisive action, the situation is urgent. By boldly leading on this issue and leveraging its diplomatic capital, Canada could not only provide crucial support to Ukraine but also showcase its moral standing on the world stage.

Trump victory would pose dire consequences for Ukraine, NATO, and the United States. William Galston (Wall Street Journal) underscores the critical role of the United States in supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression, highlighting concerns over a second Trump administration’s refusal to provide necessary aid. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s declaration that Trump “will not give a penny in the Ukraine-Russia war” stokes fears that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself will diminish significantly, potentially leading to the realization of Putin’s long-term goals of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and weakening NATO. The author also outlines Ukraine’s three principal challenges at this time: manpower shortages due to limited mobilization, lack of strong fortifications, and ammunition shortages. Galston points out that the situation on the ground in Ukraine is deteriorating as Russian forces slowly advance along multiple fronts, while the Trump-backed Republican Party’s delaying tactics blocking aid exacerbate the crisis. The author concludes with a comparison between Orbán’s characterization of Trump as a “man of peace” and Neville Chamberlain’s similar outlook for WW II–era Britain, warning of the danger of misguided pacifist intentions without corresponding actions, especially in the face of aggression from today’s adversaries like Putin’s Russia.

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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