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A new dawn will only be possible by ‘de-Putinising’ Russia

(Alamy)

4 min read

“In 50 years there won’t be a single town or city in Russia without a Navalny Square,” wrote novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya in the Financial Times.

In the short term, Alexei Navalny’s death changes nothing. Vladimir Putin will be “re-elected” for another six-year term on 17 March with, the Kremlin hopes, more than the 77 per cent of the vote he scored in 2018.

The flowers heaped by brave supporters on Navalny’s grave will wither. Some of those who laid them have joined the 20,000 protestors arrested since 24 February 2022 (for as little as holding up blank posters on a Moscow street). Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dual UK-Russian citizen, will continue to serve his 25-year sentence in horrific conditions; and Nobel laureate Oleg Orlov his two and a half years. Organised opposition to the regime has effectively been impossible since long before Navalny’s arrest; Putin has been clamping down incrementally since the Bolotnaya demonstrations of 2011.

The regime is fighting a battle for the minds of the next generation

But Navalny has not died in vain. Putin and his closest associates are in their 70s. Within a few years, a decade at most, there will be a generational change of leadership in Russia. 
The regime is fighting a battle for the minds of the next generation. It has rewritten history textbooks; reintroduced ideological education into schools; drafted children into a vast youth army. 

This was a battle which the Soviet regime lost from the 1970s and Putin’s regime will lose it too. In the internet age, they cannot control information nearly as tightly as their forebears in the Communist Party and KGB. Navalny’s brilliant YouTube videos exposing the monstrous corruption of the Putinists were seen by millions and got under Putin’s skin. Yulia Navalnaya has promised to continue Alexei’s mission.

The Putinists will ultimately lose because force, fear and propaganda will not obscure the war’s debilitating effect on Russia.

Putin is indifferent to the loss of life in Ukraine. His people are not. At the current rate of attrition, by the end of 2024 well over 400,000 Russians will have been killed or seriously injured (it is estimated that already 65,000 have lost a limb). This cannot be concealed. Russians do not want their country to lose or be humiliated in Ukraine, but the majority just want the war to stop.

For now, Putin is buying quiescence. Contracted soldiers are paid up to four times the average wage in the backward regions whence most of them come. If they are killed, their families receive a sum equal to twelve times that wage. Wages have risen because of inflated earnings in the defence industry. The government has increased pensions and is subsidising mortgages. 

The Kremlin has abandoned macroeconomic stability. With revenue falling from hydrocarbon exports (a major contributor to the state budget) and defence expenditure approaching eight per cent of GDP, the costs of a long war will bear down heavily on the Russian population. Some 40 per cent of this year’s budget is allocated to defence and internal security. This will not have a dramatic effect in the Moscow region, where so much wealth is concentrated, but it will squeeze funding for overstretched healthcare, education, poverty relief and infrastructure across the country.

The next generation of leaders will come from a class groomed by Putin and beholden to the organs of internal security, but will have a different outlook to their parents. They will inherit a rogue state despoiled by Putin, damaged by his war and internally unstable.

They will have to choose whether to continue conflict with the West or, as I think more likely, seek an accommodation; to reduce Russia’s subservience to China and dependence on bedfellows such as North Korea and Iran; to renew efforts to modernise the economy; and to restore freedoms which Putin has removed. 

The transition will be slow and perhaps turbulent, as widening cracks in Putin’s “vertical of power” lead to infighting within his elite. But over time, and less time than Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 50 years, it will lead to the de-Putinisation of Russia, the release of political prisoners  – and to squares and streets bearing the names of Navalny, Boris Nemtsov and other murdered victims of the regime. 

 

Sir Roderic Lyne, former British ambassador to Russia

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