[Interview] Putin is ultimately seeking public support for rebuilding Russia into global superpower

Posted on : 2024-03-15 16:35 KST Modified on : 2024-03-15 16:35 KST
A conversation with Shin Beom-sik, director of the Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University
Shin Beom-sik, Russia expert and director of the Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University, during an interview with The Hankyoreh on Mar. 6. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Shin Beom-sik, Russia expert and director of the Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University, during an interview with The Hankyoreh on Mar. 6. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Shin Beom-sik, an expert on Russia, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin means to use the upcoming presidential election to further consolidate his power by reaffirming voters’ support for his efforts to build Russia into a powerful state.

Shin is a professor of political science and international relations and the director of the Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University (SNU).

In regard to South Korea’s relationship with Russia, Shin said that “treating Russia like an enemy will only make it harder for South Korea to defend its interests in a time of volatility,” and that Korea needs to “adopt flexibility to improve relations” with Moscow. The interview took place at Shin’s office at SNU on Mar. 6.

Hankyoreh: What does the Russian presidential election mean for Putin?

Shin: Whereas Putin sought coexistence with the West in the post-Cold War era in his first and second terms as president (2000 and 2004), he concluded that compromising with the West wasn’t feasible in his third and fourth terms (2012 and 2018). From that point forward, he seems to have figured he’d have to simultaneously explore cooperation and confrontation with the West to effectively pursue his goal of rebuilding Russia into a great power.

And now that a direct mode of confrontation with the West has taken shape following his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is essentially using the election to ask the Russian populace whether it approves of maintaining an aggressive strategy while continuing to move toward making Russia a great power. In effect, he’s standing at an important junction in terms of acquiring legitimacy.

Hankyoreh: Putin’s reelection would guarantee him a 30-year tenure in power, through 2030. That would make him Russia’s longest-serving president. Why do you think he’s trying to remain in power for so long?

Shin: There are two reasons for that. First, there are few examples of power changing hands in Russian political culture, which means there’s little chance of people in power giving it up.

Another reason is Putin’s own personality. He’s governed by the conviction that his mission is to revive Russia as a great power without repeating the tragedy of the “lost decade” [after the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991]. Media reports indicate that Putin expressed his desire to join NATO early in his presidency. As recently as 2008, when he stepped back to let Dmitry Medvedev become president, Putin occupied the position of a reasonable and pragmatic internationalist.

But the US leaned into an expansionist policy in Eurasia after the “War on Terror,” and the ongoing expansion of NATO, the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 and the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2014 all contributed to a sense of crisis that triggered a sudden hardening of Russia’s foreign strategy. That’s why Putin adopted a strongly nationalistic and conservative line in his third and fourth terms, unlike his previous ones. Tied to the belief that the revival of a powerful Russia is only possible when a unified Russia overcomes the hostility of the West and that centralized power and strict controls are required for that have turned Putin into an “engine of power.”

Hankyoreh: Public opinion polls find that Putin has an approval rating of above 80%. Are those figures to be trusted?

Shin: There’s a segment of the Russian population that is firmly confident in the leader, representing about one-third [of the electorate]. It’s generally thought that stable rule requires not only that generally steady baseline of support but also another third of the population, or two-thirds (66-67%) altogether. Leaders get nervous when their support slips below 65%.

When Putin stood for election a third time in 2012, he received 64.35% of the vote. He was apparently shaken by his hard-fought victory, which may be why the government cranked up efforts to sway the 2018 election. And then he ended up claiming 77.53% of the vote. The significance of public support polls can be interpreted in the unique context of the Russian political system.

Hankyoreh: Do you think that Putin will get more of the vote in this election?

Shin: I expect he’ll do better than he did in 2018.

Hankyoreh: One might expect that public opinion would turn against Putin during the two years of his war in Ukraine, but that apparently hasn’t happened.

Shin: The Russian electorate has turned conservative during Putin’s third and fourth presidencies and exhibit a growing tendency to support Putin’s leadership, including his push to make Russia a great power. Significantly, criticism of the president’s policies disappeared at the outbreak of the war [which Russia calls a “special military operation”]. While there are controls on the press, Putin is enjoying a “war premium” derived from the psychological need to band together during a time of heightened patriotism.

Hankyoreh: So what kind of person is Putin anyway?

Shin: If we interpret the current pattern of Russian politics in terms of despotism and dictatorship by a strongman and demonize Putin, we’ll never get a proper reading of the man. That also precludes the possibility of managing our relationship with Russia and finding an offramp for the war. If anything, Putin is acting defensively because of his conviction that Russia is hemmed in on all sides. He spends a great deal of effort stabilizing his regime by balancing the interests of various groups.

Some good examples are his decision to bring the Wagner Group private military company under the control of the Defense Ministry, because he couldn’t ignore the demands of the military establishment, and his declaration of “partial mobilization,” which was aimed at minimizing the downsides of a full-scale draft, including the economic shock and social disturbances.

Hankyoreh: There seems to be a good chance of Donald Trump returning to the White House in November. How will that affect US-Russia relations going forward?

Shin: Putin said in a recent interview that he prefers Biden to Trump because of Biden’s “predictability.” But whoever becomes the US president, Washington’s basic policy toward Russia won’t change very much. While Trump has said that war in Ukraine will end if he’s elected, he also said that the US won’t cooperate with Russia. There’s little chance of cooperation between the two countries for a significant period of time.

Hankyoreh: North Korea and Russia appear to have traded weapons for food. What are the chances of them staying close down the road?

Shin: Putin will probably visit North Korea after the election, but that’s not his top priority. His greatest interests are first, the war in Ukraine, and second, building relationships with the Global South through BRICS and expanding trilateral cooperation with China and India. The Middle East and Northeast Asia come after that.

Russia’s decision to import shells from North Korea is largely designed to refill stockpiles during the protracted war in Ukraine. In exchange, Russia is setting aside former scruples to restore a relationship through food shipments and other forms of cooperation.

Improving ties with North Korea should be viewed in terms of maintaining an important channel for exercising influence over Korean Peninsula affairs in the years to come. In the long term, Russia cannot be overdependent on China if it’s to be a global player during times of tension in East Asia. It’s also important for Russia to secure an independent source of influence in the conflict between the US and China. In that sense, North Korea is highly valuable for Russia. That’s something we shouldn’t disregard.

Hankyoreh: Russia regards South Korea as an “unfriendly” country. How do you see Seoul-Moscow relations moving in the future?

Shin: While Russia has sternly warned against supplying Ukraine with armaments, it has also signaled that it’s still working to maintain good relations with South Korea. Seoul may have officially adopted a strategy of aligning with pro-Western liberal democracies, but it shouldn’t throw up barriers to the Global South or the Eurasian powers of China, Russia and India.

Treating Russia like an enemy will only make it harder for South Korea to defend its interests in a time of volatility. Flexibility is a critical diplomatic skill for geopolitical middle powers. Even if we can serve our interests through a clearly defined strategy, we need to simultaneously have the flexibility to work on improving relations with those countries.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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