The new Russia Direct report analyzes the reasons behind the political, social and cultural transformation that is taking place in Russian society and examines what it might mean for the future of Russian foreign policy.

A protester holds a poster with portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during an opposition rally in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Russia's opposition rallied in an outlying Moscow neighborhood to decry the rule of President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP / Ivan Sekretarev

The question of whether Russia poses a threat to the outside world has been discussed in Western media ever since Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. With the continued impact of economic sanctions and the escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, this question is more relevant than ever.

Policymakers and experts in the U.S. and Europe continue to ask whether the new, more conservative Russia that has emerged over the past 18 months is something to be worried about or whether it might be possible to find ways to co-exist with this new, changed Russia.

The new Russia Direct report, “Decoding Social Transformations in Russia,” provides the background and context needed to answer this question. In the report, Russian sociologists, economists and political analysts share their views Russia’s transformation over the past year and assess what these changes might mean for the future of Russia’s foreign policy.

As one of the authors of the report, Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of American Studies at St. Petersburg State University, argues, “In the final account, it is the internal development [of Russia] that will create conditions for the transition of power into other hands and set limits for Russia’s foreign policy ambitions abroad.”

Yet, the domestic situation in Russia is rather paradoxical at the moment. While the economic crisis is still far from being tackled and the level of well-being of the population has been falling, public support of the state government and President Putin, more particularly, have not suffered much.

The factors behind this are explained in great detail by sociologists from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Building on their research findings and public survey data, Svetlana Bardina, Viktor Vakhstayn and Pavel Stepantsov argue that one of the main reasons behind the “paradox of Russian optimism” is connected with the ability of Russians to minimize the role of state in their lives through wide networks of informal contacts.

As the experts write, “People are aware of the negative processes underway in the country’s economy but they do not tend to associate these developments with their personal situation as they are used to solving their problems by working through informal channels.” This factor appears to also contribute to President Putin’s high public approval ratings.

Tsvetkov discusses another paradox that characterizes Russian society’s current approval of Putin. Examining the U-turn from liberalism to conservatism in Russian society, he provides an overview of factors that made the transition in Russia possible. The sanctions regime introduced by the Western powers with the aim of shaking the Kremlin’s public support did exactly the reverse – it helped Putin get his ideas across to the Russian audience and strengthened his political positions, the expert writes.

Andrei Kolesnikov, senior associate and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees but thinks that the high rating doesn’t represent an active support, but a passive one. “Putin’s high approval rating reflects the desire of people to live their day-to-day life, not to bother the authorities and not to be bothered by the authorities,” he said in an interview published in the new report.  

Explaining the strategic policy priorities of the Russian government, Kolesnikov also says that one of things that will be important will be to retain the support of the people at current levels. This suggests that the Kremlin needs to continue a “half-cold and half-hot hybrid war” and mobilize people around anti-Russian sanctions. In this case, people will feel they are living “inside a fortress” and the level of their support of the state will remain high.

The potential for social protests in the near future, thus, remains rather low, even with risks emerging due to thousands of Ukrainian refugees coming to Russia to escape the war. This is another issue analyzed in the report by a demography expert from Kazan State University, Vasil Sakaev.

What might provoke a new revival of the Russian protest movement is the inability of the state to cope with numerous social divides made more urgent by the economic crisis, says Yuri Korgunyuk, head of the Political Science Department at the INDEM Foundation.

Following from his historical analysis of the inherent cleavages that have characterized the development of the Russian political space, he argues that future developments will depend upon the ability of the Kremlin to cope with its political opponents while not resorting to escalating the already difficult situation with strengthened propaganda or repressive methods.

What are the origins of Russia's conservative transformation? Does Russia pose a threat to the outside world? Download the report and find out.