By Kseniya Kirillova, for Integrity Initiative

As its confrontation with the West grows, Russia is increasing its use of elements of diplomatic blackmail, both veiled and direct. In general, threats and fear-mongering are some of the main tools of the Putin regime, primarily in domestic policy, where they serve as an essential means of ensuring the loyalty and obedience of the population. However, the Kremlin actively uses the same tactics beyond its borders as well, trying to win concessions from Western leaders. Let’s look at the main types of Putin’s blackmail inside and outside Russia.

“Civil war”

This is perhaps the oldest and most popular form of blackmail used by the Kremlin against its own population. For the last few years, the state has been trying to convince Russians that any mass protest, let alone attempts at revolution, will inevitably lead to a bloody civil war, the details of which are vividly described by propaganda. The fear caused by these images is designed not only to scare people away from attempts to change the government, but also to force them to consolidate around the “national leader”.

The fear of civil war in Russia is also used as an instrument of pressure on Western leaders. The main argument here is “the unpredictable consequences of chaos in a vast territory that possesses nuclear weapons.” This idea is clearly being pushed in an open letter from Andrei Kortunov to a figurative Washington acquaintance published on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center:

“We both remember well that the world was fortunate in 1991 to avoid violent turmoil in a nuclear superpower state… It’s not at all obvious that the same thing will happen next time.” warns the author.

The Kremlin is actively trying to spread the same fears in other countries, in particular in the United States. As noted by the Washington Post, on the eve of the presidential election of 2016, Russia was working to try and provoke a “colour revolution” in the event of Donald Trump’s defeat. Trump gratefully picked up this blackmail, threatening to refuse to accept the result if he lost and calling on his supporters to start mass protests.

After the election, Russian propaganda continued to try and menace the US with the spectre of a possible civil war, but its goal now was to stop Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian intervention and to prevent possible impeachment. The American Russian-language media predict an angry reaction by Trump voters if impeachment happens and it is often mentioned that continuing the investigation could lead to violence and disturbances in the streets.

The Russian media blatantly warns that even if Trump is really guilty of illegal ties to the Kremlin, law-enforcement agencies and Congress shouldn’t attempt to impeach him in order to avoid a “civil war”. This fear is sometimes fed into the English-language information space, and some American experts unconsciously repeat it, often without realizing that they are playing into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.

A civil war inside Russia is unlikely. The mentality of the majority of Russians is characterized by inertia, excessive reliance on the state, a deep-rooted fear of “losing Russia” as a country and an increased level of conformismcombined with a low ability to self-organize. Most Russian political scientists are inclined to believe that regime change in the country will occur not as the result of a sudden revolution, but as a result of the gradual degradation of power, that is, as a result of the changing of elites, or, as some put it, a “palace coup”.

A coup like this would certainly lead to the weakening of the elites and consequently a shakeup of the repressive mechanisms Putin has created (or at least the loss of their legitimacy in the eyes of the population). This could lead to an even bigger wave of protests than we saw recently, for example, over pension-age reform. The new ruling elite would need to deal with popular discontent. However, it is very likely that after certain concessions from the “post-Putin” elites, this discontent would decline, and the main battlefield would not be in the streets, but in the corridors and towers of the Kremlin. To try and prevent this kind of scenario, Putin’s propaganda machine has prepared another type of blackmail.

Radical successors

The threat here is that Putin would be replaced by an even more radical regime, which would inevitably increase repression inside the country and pursue an even more aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy. It’s not stated directly but spread by subliminal messaging to both Russians and foreigners:

  • Russian TV shows, in which politicians and political scientists call their opponents obscene words, provoke fights and call for the destruction of entire countries
  • terrorist “militiaman” Girkin-Strelkov, who at the start of Russian aggression in Ukraine was predicted to play the role of the informal people’s leader
  • military analysts, prophesying that the radical left-wing politician Sergei Udaltsov, who supports more Russian expansion in the post-Soviet space, will become the main opposition leader
  • the head of the Russian Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, publicly challenging corruption fighter Alexei Navalny to a duel.

All this seems intended to convince Putin’s opponents that the current Russian president can still be negotiated with, while those who will replace him will be beyond reason.

The fear of a possible military dictatorship in Russia headed by a radical and completely uncontrollable security official is real in the European establishment. Regardless of whether there is a change of power in the Kremlin through the official appointment of a “successor” or a coup, it is obvious that the power of the security services in the country is so strong that Putin’s place will most likely be taken by another representative of the recently strengthened domestic security force or, in the best case, someone from the opposition controlled by this clan. However, it is wrong to assume that this successor would wield absolute power. Any person who takes Putin’s place will not have his charisma, and he will find it difficult to maintain the balance created by Putin between the interests of the oligarchs and the security forces.

Discontent among the oligarchs with the Kremlin’s current course is likely to be growing. The oligarchs close to Putin have been hit both by sanctions and by the Kremlin trying to circumvent them by nationalizing the assets of those close to it. A prominent example is Oleg Deripaska, who left his posts at the EN power and metals group.

At the same time, the majority of oligarchs are not ready to quietly give up their wealth to a state that has already brought them so many problems, and, according to media reports, are making strenuous efforts to protect their wealth from nationalisation. These trends indicate increased friction between Kremlin hawks and the more moderate elements of the Russian elites who would prefer to restore relations with the West and are hastily transferring their money out of Russia. The Kremlin, in turn, drops thinly veiled hints in its propaganda media that Russians who own property abroad are becoming an easy target for recruitment and the FSB could destroy these “traitors” in any country in the world.

These conflicts are all resolved ‘manually’ in the Putin-built system – that is, he deals with them personally. In fact, the whole vertical power structure in Russia and the mechanisms for dealing many key issues are constructed in the same fashion. After Putin, this ‘power vertical’ will begin to crumble, and the conflicts between the various powerbases are likely to escalate. And let’s not forget the centrifugal tendencies of Russia’s regions, which could also bubble to the surface after Putin, as well as an increasing mood of protest. The new leader will need to win national trust, and repression alone will not help here.

A full-fledged revolution in Russia is unlikely, but the system will weaken considerably, and security officials will most likely have to make certain compromises with the oligarchs, or perhaps even with some representatives of the liberal opposition. This may not lead to significant changes in Russia at first, but it is likely that in this state, Russia would no longer be able to continue its aggressive foreign policy in the post-Soviet space and interference in the affairs of Western countries. This could give Western leaders and the democratic opposition in Russia the window of opportunity that some opposition leaders are waiting for.

It is to be hoped the leaders of the free world have enough wisdom to skilfully support the genuine opposition, not glibly declare a new ‘reset’ while the security services in one form or another retain control over the country, not trust the pseudo opposition and build mechanisms to prevent Putinism from every coming back in any form.

Nuclear blackmail

Every so often, Moscow decides to resort to nuclear blackmail as a way to force Western countries to make certain concessions. One of the first threats in this vein was Dmitry Kiselev’s infamous statement that “Russia is the only country on earth genuinely capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” In October 2016, just before the US presidential election, Kremlin media started showing specials about bomb shelters and missile-defence technology. The Russian Defence Ministry’s official TV channel Zvezda published a 20-minute video on its webpage titled “Obama threatens Russia!”, in which it was stated that the USA is “the enemy of humanity”.

At the same time, well-known independent Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik published on his Facebook page a post from a woman claiming that children in a Moscow school were being menaced with the prospect of a nuclear war with the USA if Hillary Clinton won the election. Kremlin propaganda outlets pushed this line too.

The latest and most vivid example of blatant nuclear blackmail is the threat voiced personally by Vladimir Putin in the World Order-2018 film devoted to him. Interviewer Vladimir Solovyov asks him about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. Putin replied that he was ready to deliver only a “retaliatory strike”. However, he acknowledged:

“Yes, it would be a global catastrophe for the world, but why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?”. The film included as an afterword the notorious excerpt from Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, in which he presents new types of weapons as a “response to the United States because of their withdrawal from the ABM Treaty”.

Most analysts agree that we are dealing with a gigantic bluff designed to force the West to make concessions to Russia. Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov says this campaign is aimed at a large stratum of people in the American establishment who are ready to forgive Moscow for any antics as long as it continues cooperation on nuclear weapons.

“It is precisely these specialists that Putin wants to frighten. But, apparently, he no longer scares them,” Milov said.

In addition to threats, Russia demonstratively pours weapons into the border territories, primarily occupied Crimea and Kaliningrad region, without hiding its readiness to use at least tactical nuclear weapons. Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, called the spectre of a nuclear threat from Crimea an element of Russian “hybrid war”. Leonid Polyakov, former Ukrainian deputy defence minister, also stresses that Russia still refuses to sign the treaty on the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.

In July 2017, Ukraine’s chief of general staff, Viktor Muzhenko, said Russia was working to restore the capacity to deploy nuclear ammunition in Crimea. In December 2016, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said in the European Parliament that the Russians had already brought nuclear weapons to Crimea. Belarusian experts also do not rule out that Moscow could use tactical nuclear weapons. True, some experts call it a bluff, noting that such intimidation failed in 2015, when, despite all the threats, NATO deployed troops in the Baltic countries on a permanent basis.

The Putin regime also carries out a kind of proxy nuclear blackmail using other authoritarian states by offering to use its influence to mediate in their confrontations with the West. Implied is that if the West does not involve Moscow, things will get worse. For example, Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said in two speeches in late 2017 that the US could help with North Korea: “Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s second largest nuclear power. We are ready to offer our assistance in negotiations with the DPRK, as we too are concerned about the growing nuclear potential of North Korea,” Antonov said. At the same time, the Kremlin did not offer any solutions, only vague words about “the need for a diplomatic settlement”. The main aim was to show that Russia was indispensable in resolving the crisis, so the United States should abandon sanctions and restore relations with Moscow.

Terrorist attacks

Andrei Piontkovsky has expressly stated that Moscow is influencing Islamic terrorists to act against the United States in order to later suggest the need for cooperation in exchange for security. “You must first and foremost cooperate with the Kremlin, otherwise they will continue to blow you up,” is how he described it. “Before carrying out his act of terrorism [the Boston marathon bombing], the elder Tsarnaev spent eight months of 2012 in Russia, under the strict control of the FSB. He did not sneak out of Russia to America through some hidden backchannels, but he flew openly through Sheremetyevo airport,” he wrote.

Other experts have repeatedly warned about Russia’s ties with radical Islamists. For example, the president of the Eastern Partnership Institute (Israel), Rabbi Abraham Shmulevich, is certain that Russia uses ISIS terrorists in its geopolitical games. According to him, over the years, the Russian security services have forced militants from the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia into the Middle East. There is “a mutually beneficial alliance between Russian special services and Islamic terrorists… The destabilization of Europe and the increasing flow of refugees to the West are certainly beneficial to Moscow,” Shmulevich said.

Although the threats behind these types of blackmail are genuinely frightening, Western leaders should not allow themselves to be intimidated by this mafia style of foreign policy. Almost all of them are a deliberate bluff aimed at intimidating any opponents of Vladimir Putin inside and outside the country.

By Kseniya Kirillova, for Integrity Initiative