Putin understands that Stalin-style mass oppression doesn't work. Why execute and incarcerate millions, if selective intimidation of a small, dissenting minority will do the trick more effectively? Why make enemies of the pliant masses when they can be held in thrall with cheap vodka and dumb-ass TV leavened with noxious propaganda and outright lies?
Putin's greatest fear is the regime-changing crowd, which he witnessed in East Germany in 1989, which he saw in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2005. Currently, a wave of under-reported strikes are occurring across Russia, led by public-sector workers who've not been paid, and by factory workers whose factories have been shut down due to a shortage of orders. These are happening in provincial cities and do not concern Putin. These protests will never threaten his position. Massive demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people strong, in the centre of Moscow, however, will. So Putin's focus is to ensure they will never happen. Intimidation is the principal tool to keep the dissident activists away from Moscow's streets. And by claiming that dissidents are mentally ill, the Putin regime is harking back to tried-and-tested Soviet techniques.
Above all, Putin understands that power is not to be shared or given away. This was the key mistake of the last tsar and the last secretary-general of the Communist Party of the USSR. Power must remain concentrated in one strong pair of hands.
Keeping Soviet citizens cooped up in their town of residence, and ultimately, inside the barbed-wire confines of the Bolshaya Zona, the wider USSR outside of the Gulag, was also a mistake, Putin realises. Let those who can afford foreign travel do so. If they don't like Russia, let them leave. For good. Simple. The reason that the USSR didn't allow ordinary Soviet citizens to travel abroad was a) because it was feared that if they could, they'd all pack up and go, and b) because they'd see that the dream of the wonderful life afforded to them by the USSR was one big lie. Putin has no problem with dissidents leaving. His people know where they've migrated to, should they ever get too uppity. And in terms of b), Putin's propaganda strategy turns to old Soviet model on its head.
Rather than saying that everything in Russia's rosy (thanks to the internet, everyone can see its shortcomings), Putin is saying that the West is rotten, morally damaged and evil. He is saying that Russia is suffering because of the West's insatiable desire to conquer Russia - rather than point to its feeble, venal institutions, its monoculture economy or its underinvested infrastructure. And mixing this propaganda message about Fascists in Kiev backed by the US and EU into a blend of reality TV and raunchy entertainment shows, the bulk of the nation has evidently swallowing the lie.
Gorbachev's clamp-down on alcoholism didn't work. So let the masses drown their sorrows in subsidised vodka. OK, Russia has the lowest male life expectancy outside of sub-Saharan Africa? Better an inebriated nation than a nation of people soberly demanding their rights to a better life. In February, Putin lowered the minimum price of vodka.
In Putin's Russia, home-grown private business was never allowed to get off the ground and establish a solid bedrock for economic growth, akin to Germany's Mittelstand. And the public administration - from traffic cops to buildings inspectors, from customs officials to hospital bosses, live from the baksheesh they collect, passing on up a given percentage up the ladder, which reaches right up to the top. This system worked in Ukraine until the people there got totally sick and tired of it, and overthrew it. Putin fears the same may happen in Russia (albeit the system in Ukraine was more blatant, less sophisticated).
It is only a robust and thriving private sector, based on an unshakable faith in the Rule of Law and property rights, that will ever get Russia's economy into a healthy state. That takes, as we have seen in Poland and across the other post-2004 EU member states, a minimum of 20 years. But only if the institutions function properly and the rule of law is observed.
The Soviet Union's planned economy was a mistake that Putin wants to avoid. But his tendencies to micro-manage keep pulling him back from a liberalising direction. A centrally planned economy based on slave or semi-slave labour can just about keep its head above water in a world dominated by heavy industry. But in today's globalised, knowledge-based economy, central planning is as useful as the Holy Inquisition. The Kremlin cannot centrally decree a Russian Apple, Microsoft or Google. You can force an informatyk to write you 1,000 lines of code a day, but you can do nothing to ensure that it's good code.
Since the debacle over the Bekaa valley in 1982, the largest air battle ever fought by jet aircraft, the Israeli Air Force, with its US-built F-15s and F-16s, shot down between 82 and 86 Syrian Air Force Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s for the loss of four of Israeli jets. This was a wake-up call to the Soviet Politburo - while the Soviet fighters had faster climb rates and were more manoeuvrable, as well as being cheaper and easier to maintain in the field, their avionics, weapons guidance systems and radars - dependent on computer hardware and software - were clearly inferior.
This realisation - that future wars would be won by the country with the superior information technology - led to glasnost, perestroika and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union. The big question is - has Putin taken this lesson on board? As a Chekist, he understands the concept of the hybrid war and the role of maskirovka. Lie, disinform, deceive, camouflage, distort. This works well against a weak and poorly-trained army and a gullible public opinion at home and in the West. But in the event of Putin's bayonet striking steel, would he back down?
The firmer the West is with Putin, the less likely he is to keep pushing. The West won the Cold War because it was prepared to stand up to the relentless bullying of the USSR throughout the decisive decade of the 1980s.The question is - what lessons from that period has Putin learnt, and what lessons have the peoples, and the leaders of the West learnt?
This time two years ago:
Sunshine, snow, April
This time four years ago:
In vino veritas
This time five years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?
This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6
This time seven years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna
This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki from the air