He's watching.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

2015: The Year of the Putin Dictatorship

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

I hated what happened to Russia in 2014 so much that I decided to move away. It's safe to say, however, that 2015 will be worse. President Vladimir Putin's regime is on the verge of transitioning from mild authoritarianism to outright dictatorship. The country's newly amended military doctrine is an especially ominous sign. Judging by it, the Kremlin's response to the ongoing economic crisis will be to crack down on all signs of popular discontent. The Kremlin seems determined to turn inward and complete its break with the Western world.   

Russia's wariness of the West is nothing new. The 2010 edition of the country's military doctrine -- issued under "liberal" President Dmitri Medvedev -- listed as the top external threat the eastward expansion of NATO toward Russia's borders. Putin's new, post-Crimea version reiterates the vision of NATO as the arch-enemy creeping up on Russia.  The new doctrine differs from the old one, however, in treating domestic challenges to the ruling regime as military dangers to the nation.

Cool War

Where the 2010 document merely referred to "attempts at violent change of the Russian Federation's constitutional order," the 2014 one adds "the destabilization of the domestic political and social situation in the nation" and even "information-related activity aimed at influencing the population, primarily the country's young citizens, with the goal of undermining the historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions in the area of defending the Fatherland." Political opposition, in other words, is now classified as an activity worthy of a military response.

This marks an important shift. Despite a gradual tightening of the screws since Putin started his third presidential term in 2012, a 13-year-old consensus was still in effect at the start of this year: Less political and economic liberty for more wealth. Protests were usually ineffectual, but often tolerated. In 2013, I took part in demonstrations that clearly violated freshly adopted restrictive laws, and, like thousands of others, escaped unscathed. There were enough uncensored media to vary one's news diet and, if you were a journalist, to write for. The economy was slowing down and growing more dependent on colossal state projects like the Sochi Olympics. But banks weren't failing and workers weren't being laid off in droves. Moscow still emptied out for the New Year's holidays as wealthy Russians descended on European ski resorts and the tropical havens of Southeast Asia.

You wouldn't have easily mistaken Russia for a European country, but, in the big cities at least, it was still a relatively prosperous one. Then the ice cracked in the frozen kingdom, and so did the edifice underneath.

I think the tipping point was February 22, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his sprawling Mezhihirya estate near Kiev and revolutionary crowds -- and investigative journalists seeking clues on Yanukovych's corrupt rule -- invaded the ornate residence. "We have no palaces," Putin said at a recent press conference, but of course he and his friends do. And as Yanukovych's home was defiled, ogled, Instagrammed and, inevitably, looted before a semblance of order was established, Putin submitted to paranoia. He mentioned the "capture" of Mezhihirya on several occasions last spring, though the residence was, in fact, abandoned and thus lay open to all comers. 

I visited Yanukovych's former house -- soon to be nationalized -- just as a handful of unbadged troops took control of the local parliament building in Crimea, laying the groundwork for the swift, bloodless, Anschluss-like operation that made Crimea part of Russia. The volunteer protectors of Mezhihirya were already suspiciously eyeing me, a Russian citizen, as a potential enemy, but I still found it difficult to imagine that Russia was actually preparing an invasion. The Kremlin had always meddled in governing Ukraine, but it did so through intrigue and economic pressure, never by force.

I was glad I was not in Mezhihirya the following day as Putin asked the Russian parliament for permission to send troops to Ukraine. Overnight, Russia became a different country, roaring in unaccustomed defiance.

Putin's support quickly soared above 80 percent, and he made an unprecedentedly regal speech, welcoming Crimea as a new Russian region. Under a 2013 law that banned "the propaganda of separatism," it became a crime to mention in public Crimea's status as an occupied part of Ukraine. Editors of the few remaining independent media outlets became wary of such mentions. For me, these changes meant I could no longer write for Russian publications: This year, not saying that Crimea belongs to Ukraine would mean ignoring the elephant in the room.

I had never contemplated leaving my country before. But it had now become a matter of being able to do my job as I understood it, and of finding a way to express my disapproval of what Putin was doing when most people around me backed him.

My move to Germany, however, did not mean I liked the way Western governments framed their own disapproval -- by imposing economic sanctions: first, ones that were ridiculously soft, then, in July, some with a little bite. Their main effect on Putin was to convince him, and his propaganda-brainwashed support base, that the West was intent on war with Russia, regardless of its actions. Indeed, by imposing financial restrictions, the West helped Putin forge a new political consensus: Less freedom for the sake of more national pride, expressed in the form of Russian defiance of Western pressure. The Kremlin's propagandists had plenty of time to drum this line into people's heads, using the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, in which Russian interference saved separatist rebels from a military defeat, to whip up nationalist sentiment. They also created a climate of intolerance for those who dissented: These people were now portrayed as a fifth column, working for Western masters who sought Russia's destruction.

That's why, when oil prices tumbled from $100 per barrel in September and kept falling to less than $60 per barrel, Russians did not protest against the ruble's quick devaluation and an accompanying jump in inflation, which should reach 10 percent for the year. Putin's approval rating remained at 85 percent in December, according to a Levada Center poll. The pro-Putin intellectuals who talked to me in Moscow recently were certain of Russians' famed ability to put up with economic hardship if they felt it helped Russia stand as a great power. A joke from neighboring Belarus, with its longer experience of living under a dictatorship, has been making the rounds in Moscow. A guy tells his friend: "You know, I've been thinking: Let's put up with it a bit longer." And the friend replies: "Fancy that, I was just going to suggest it."

Old Russia hand Chrystia Freeland, who once ran Financial Times' Moscow bureau and is now a member of the Canadian parliament, has likened today's Russia to the crumbling Soviet Union of the 1980's. "We are not dealing with a newly ascendant, domestically united world power," she wrote. "Russia today is divided and in decline." There is some evidence to support her point of view. Between January and September, Russia lost $85.2 billion to capital flight, more than the $55.3 billion decrease in the country's international reserves in the same period, meaning Russian business has been busy cashing out. Besides, a fresh Levada poll suggests that 24 percent of Russians, compared with 17 percent a month ago, consider economic protests possible in their area.

It's not, however, Putin's billionaire friends who are voting against him with their money, as Freeland suggests. They are, quite the contrary, making out like bandits as the government awards them more and more contracts to compensate for the effect of Western sanctions. As for protest, the uptick in the relevant polls has been duly noted in the Kremlin. It could have responded by liberalizing the economic climate, lowering payroll taxes, easing law enforcement agencies' malicious pressure on private enterprise. Instead, it chose to talk to potential protesters through its revised military doctrine -- a dire warning if there ever was one.

As 2015 rolls in, Russians are traveling less than a year ago, both because of the ruble devaluation and due to de-facto bans on foreign trips for law enforcers and officials working in other sensitive areas. The media are under Kremlin control or doubly cautious. Consumption is fading as the center of middle-class life, and businesses are scaling down hiring, though not yet as much as during the 2008-2009 crisis. Putin wants Russia to feel like a besieged fortress, and, yielding to his whip and his entreaties, the country is pupating. 

That process usually ends with a butterfly breaking out of the cocoon. But that would take a bigger shock than any of Putin's enemies, including the current Western leaders, are capable of delivering. Barring a miracle, 2015 will be the year the cocoon hardens -- a gloomy home to those inside and an impenetrable, unpredictable object to the outside world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net