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"Russian Plebiscite and the Third Period" by Sławomir Dębski

Russian hockey team claimed Olympic gold in South Korea. The team did not, however, compete under its own flag, but under the Olympic one due to the Russian doping scandals. Three weeks later, a plebiscite was held on the question of Russia’s short-term future. The majority of Russian citizens voted in favour of the sequel guaranteed once again by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin - at the helm of the “Team” managing the “System - the Russian Federation” for 18 years. This is how Russia’s political system was defined several years ago by Gleb Pavlovsky, a former advisor of its all presidents.1 There are many brilliant analyses of the system created by Putin - Putinism - and the processes which had led to its creation. Among the best recently published books one should name the one by Karen Dawisha Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who Owns Russia?,2 as well as a collaborative work edited by Maria Lipman and Nikolay Petrov – State of Russia. What Comes Next?.3 To answer the question as to what the Russians who decided to take part in the March 2018 plebiscite voted in favour of, it is worth reaching out for the book by Pavlovsky from 2014. For almost 12 years, its author was a prominent figure in the system of power created by and for Putin. What is more, his personal contribution to its shaping was significant.


In a book published at the time of Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory, Pavlovlsky set forth a thesis that following the end of the “Cold War” a specific systemic model was shaped in Russia – the “RF System” which “is not a state, but a statehood” (Система РФ является не государством, а государственностью).4 Let us have a quick look at what - according to Pavlovsky - the characteristic features of this specific system are: “In the RF System it is the Team (Команда) that is the source of power and delegates it to the local level. The tax system corresponds to the power structure, as money is transmitted to the centre and, subsequently, redistributed therefrom. [...] The Team would be of no importance in the Russian Federation if it had not creamed off power over finances. Has the state budget been privatised? Yes, it has, as it has become an instrument in the hands of the Team.”5 Access to the budget and control over public procurement have become the basic forms of exercising power. “In the prime of its influence, the Team’s power would often coincide with the prerogative powers under the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Today, it is pure coincidence that the powers of the Team are tantamount to the ones of the constitutional authorities. The Team does not consider constitutional provisions to be inviolable, but it is interested in the privileges arising from them. Legitimisation in the RF System does not originate from constitutional procedures, but from their management capacities.”

To put it another way, the Constitution of the Russian Federation is used by the Team as an instrument of governance. In Russia, only the ones who control both the budget and the tax system, and can manage the constitution, wield the power to rule. “The Team is not limited by institutions; on the contrary, it is inclined to use them as pawns [...] Legal standards - are blank sheets of paper bearing an emblem - sometimes for sale. […]. The Team has filled in the abandoned seat of a sovereign, public body and is proud of this. How have we prevented the breakup of Russia? By appropriating the sovereignty of the Russian Federation we saved it from being taken over by strangers.”6 The Team has its captain, power forward and coach-strategist in one person. For 18 years, this person has been Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He will again hold the position of the Team’s leader, devising the strategy of the game and scoring key goals, coupling it with the prerogatives of the President of Russia for the next six years.

Let us recall that the correlation between the formal and informal prerogatives is not necessary to rule the Russian Federation. It was absent in the years 2008-2012 when Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as the President of Russia. Therefore, in the future, it will not be necessary either. Russia is not a global football power. The Russian national ice hockey team, in turn, ranks among the strongest teams in the world. The Soviet Union boasted about its victories, and this tradition is now continued by Putin’s Team. Both Putin himself and many members of his Team ostentatiously express their love to hockey. This is the reason why they tend to think about the leader’s formal third presidential term of office as about the “third period” of a hockey game. And the third period often tends to be decisive.

It should be assumed that the RF System will survive another term of the President’s office. The Team and its only leader, being above the constitution and above the law, are able to adjust the formal and legal context to the Team’s current needs at any moment. The leader will always be able to reach out for new prerogatives, for a different or a new constitutional function. The constitution can be always replaced with a new, more patriotic one. The Union State - also referred to as the Union of Russia and Belarus - may turn out to be quite convenient. Founded in the years 1997-2000 and forsaken afterwards, it may become dusted off due to the need for a new folding screen to cover the RF System and its Team.


Under the banner of “Belarus is ours!” the former President of Russia may become the first President of the Union of Russia and Belarus. Some of you will probably recall that, several years ago, such manoeuvre was planned by the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who hoped that the ailing Yeltsin would transfer the power over the ‘federal state’ right to him, uniting Belarus and Russia under Lukashenko’s rule at the same time. Those were, of course, pipe dreams. For the Russian society, Belarus constitutes one of its regions. “The word «region» means «somewhere in a back country», «regional» means «minor» - points out Pavlovsky.7 For Russians, Belarus constitutes an entity  abit closer than the “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье) - a concept created by Russian political technologists in 1990s for political reasons, in order to politically overwhelm the post-Soviet area which disintegrated after the collapse of the USSR, and which should remain under the Russian rule - that is: the Team’s. This term was defined by Pavlovsky in the following way: “the near abroad - borderless borderline of the Russian Federation, an area of interference of its policy, which here ceases to be the internal [policy] but does not become the foreign [policy]. The brotherhood of nations of the near abroad is about their mutual deprivation of sovereignty. But when somebody shouts “the territory of Russia” the entire System perturbs fearfully as in the case of an enemy raid (вражеском посягательстве).” Such perception of the post-Soviet near abroad has practical implications in the RF System. Russian policy towards this area has always been overseen by the administration of the President of the Russian Federation, not by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That was already the case at the time of Yeltsin’s rule. This inconspicuous institutional solution constitutes not only a continuation of the Soviet traditions, when it was not the Soviet government that dealt with the issues of “federal republics”, but Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but also a symbolic signal that the RF System does not recognise the sovereignty of the states formed on the “Russian territories” following the collapse of the USSR. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in turn, supports Russian policies I towards the sovereign states. In 2008 in Bucharest, at a closed meeting with the heads of NATO member states, Putin addressed George W. Bush, the President of the United States, with a statement that “Ukraine is not even a state.” “«What is Ukraine?» – was the rhetorical question asked by the captain of the Team. And he would explain to the astonished leaders of the democratic world that: «One part of its territory belongs to Eastern Europe, and another one was gifted to it by Russia». At this point, he unambiguously made it clear that if Ukraine is indeed admitted to NATO, this state will cease to exist,” as was reported by the “Kommersant” daily newspaper.8 Putin threatened that if the aspirations of the societies belonging to Russia’s “near abroad” - namely Georgia and Ukraine - to regain sovereignty by becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and breaking out of the area of “mutual deprivation of sovereignty” receive a positive response from the NATO member states - then he will annihilate the artificial sovereignty of the “near abroad”, and the “Russian territories” once “gifted” to Georgia and Ukraine will be taken away from them. Pursuing a policy towards the “near abroad” was, therefore, from the very beginning a personal prerogative of the “Team’s captain and key power forward”, who would allow nobody else to score goals in this game. No wonder then that Sergei Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was not invited to the famous deliberation in the Kremlin on the night of 22 February, 2014, during which the decision about aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea was taken. That matter did not fall within his competence. The situation was similar in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, and then recognized the statehood of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since the RF System can recognize the fiction of the statehood of Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan, it can equally recognize Abkhazia, South Ossetia or even Luganda and Donbabwe - the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic.

The situation related to Belarus is, therefore, similar. It may, as well as may not, exist. The RF System and its governing Team believe that this is a merely tactical issue dependent on their decisions and needs. The aim of the Belarussian-Russian agreements from the end of the 1990s was to create a formal and legal stepping stone allowing the emergence of a new state. The adjectives “common” or “federal” may be easily dropped at any time during editing the announcement of activation of the agreements. The stepping stone has been laid, transit of any troops has been allowed at any moment, as there is only one-way traffic and there is no a drawbridge. The Russian Foreign Minister may even not be invited to the meeting on implementation of the federal agreements of the Union State of Belarus and Russia either. There is also no certainty whether the Belarussian President or Minister receives the invitation. The decor will depend on the current needs of the Team and its leader.


Let us give the floor to Pavlovsky once again: in the Kremlin, “power is perceived as a successful intrigue carried out to capture it [Власть переживают как удачную интригу на перехват]. Hence the childish cynicism, called «geopolitics» in the Kremlin: first come, first served. They believe [there] that the situation is the same everywhere. Does France send its troops to some Central African Republics? Paris wants to seize the Central African Republic! «That is obvious» from Moscow’s point of view. Americans want to rule Syria, and if they succeed, they will get their teeth into Ukraine! The cult of laughing all the way to the bank tells of limitations of the right of possession. In the RF System, possession is associated with seizure without legal basis and, from a technical point of view, reversible. Therefore, they do not manage the possession, but they «tack it on around the perimeter» (крепят по периметру) before one comes to claim it back. Calendars in the Kremlin still bear a page with the date 22 June, with one reservation: everything that is not necessary to defend one’s homeland should be sold as soon as possible.''9

Let us stop for a moment and focus on this quotation. Certainly, this is not a political science analysis, but rather a picture of the line of thought common in the RF System. In Russia, the belief that geopolitics constitutes the sole paradigm clarifying the relations between states is so prevalent that, basically, it would be difficult to explain why the Team wielding authority at this moment in time should represent an exception from the rule. In Russia, geopolitics is a scientific discipline which uses objective methods, just like chemistry, physics or philosophy. It is lectured at universities, students are examined on it, and scientific bookstores abound in course books and monographs devoted to this subject. This is the “scientific” context in which functions the Team, additionally overwhelmed by the gangster-sport myth of rivalry, “scoring goals” by kicking the ball into the goals of other “teams” in the world. Since the situation all around the world is the same as in Russia, also international politics is about the same thing as a game of hockey - you need to score the maximum number of goals and, on the other hand, do your best so as not to let too many of them in. There are no referees in this hockey game. Rules of international law or international morality are treated as decorations. One of the most common methods of justifying the Team’s right not to abide by them is whataboutism, which is about pointing out that the West did not abide by those same rules in other situations, and applied double standards towards Russia. After the annexation of Crimea, in the atmosphere of growing nationalist sentiment, nobody in Russia acknowledges the moral high ground of the West resulting from respecting the provisions of international law, including the unilateral prohibition of the use of force or threatening to use it. Hence the passionate interest of Russian elites in the disclosure of corruption cases in western countries. Did Orbán, Fico, Berlusconi, Sarkozy or Schröder not become corrupt? Therefore, pointing out that the Team was corrupt as well is nothing but an attempt  “of putting the puck into Russia’s net”. “” By the way, this line of thought constitutes the best explanation of why the former Chancellor of Germany, the European fount of political morality, was such a valuable asset for the Kremlin and Gazprom: owing to his activity, the Team became equal to other European “teams.” He would justify the cynical approach towards the world whose duty ambassadors for many years had been Sergei Karaganov, Aleksey Pushkov, Sergei Markov or Dmitry Peskov, and recently Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today and Rossiya Segodnya - acting as a explainer of the current ideological approach of the Team, more or less the same function as the one performed by Andrei Zhdanow in the Stalin era.


Pavlovsky, who himself could go down as master of cynics, believes that it is the specific experience of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that are responsible for the popularity in Russia of such an approach towards the surrounding reality and the external world. In the West, he evoked the feeling of success and ideological victory, which was perfectly pictured by Francis Fukuyama in his famous essay The End of History? published in 1989 in the American quarterly “National Interest,” and three years later, in the book The End of History and the Last Man.10
In Russia, in turn, after seventy years of the unsuccessful communist experiment, “freedom” and “liberalism” transformed into nihilism - a sense that after taking off the ideological corset there are no values, moral standards or social rules left, therefore no holds are barred. Only under such conditions was it possible to form the belief that the least depraved community in the Russia of Yeltsin was the one formed by the officers of communist special  services, KGB and GRU, the true patriots who form the Team ruling the RF System today, and they have just extended their term of office. No wonder then that joining the army and working in special services are perceived as the most perspective paths of social advancement in Russia today. An opinion poll conducted in February 2018 by FOM indicates that acquiring the status of a “middle class” member is not the most widespread social aspiration - as it is not resourcefulness that pays off, but wearing epaulettes. As many as 45% parents want their children to pursuit a career in FSB, FSO or SVR RF.11 These results are certainly affected by the state of social anxiety due to the annexation of Crimea and the prospects of possible new annexations.

In the plebiscite conducted in March 2018, Russians voted in favour of the continuation of the systemic model of the RF System governed by Putin’s Team. Of course, those were not free elections. The institution of voting constitutes a rite which has long since had little in common with democracy. The Team was, however, interested in its result, as it brought forth the desired confirmation of the Team’s invincibility and ability to send the puck into  the goals of all potential competitors. Nevertheless, an internal sparring match constitutes only a preparation for a rematch in international politics. An incident in Salisbury where, almost at the same time when the Russian plebiscite was held, a former officer of Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a novichok nerve agent. All norms of the unwritten code of conduct governing the relations between the competing secret services applicable during the Cold War were infringed at that moment. There is considerable evidence to suggest that by using the chaos and economic weakness of Russia, British intelligence enjoyed considerable successes in its activities on the Russian direction. It probably managed to recruit at least several officers and agents of Russian secret services. The attempted murder of Skripal seems to be an attempt to settle old scores with a simultaneous introduction of a unilateral annexe to the old codes.

The innovation is that today there are no rules, neither written, nor unwritten ones. On 19 March 2018, Margarita Simonyan captured the mood present in the RF System and Putin’s Team while commenting on Twitter the result of the plebiscite. Addressing the representatives of the West, she wrote: “We no longer want to live the way you live. For fifty years - implicitly and explicitly - we wanted to live the way you do, but we no longer want it. We do not respect you anymore. And we do not respect all those supported by you here. At the same time, we do not respect those who support you here.” Simonyan is 37 years old. She certainly did not say that on her own behalf. In the short term, the RF System will plunge not only into stagnation, but also into the desire for revenge. Putin’s Team intends to score goals against the West ...


Firstly, it despises Poland even more than the West. The prevalent opinion in the RF System is that Poland is a completely undeserved beneficiary of Russia’s weakness and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is believed that this happened not because of the extraordinary condition of the Polish State - even though the processes of Poland’s modernisation and economic development are watched by Russians with interest, but as a result of Russian mistakes and omissions. One can often hear an opinion that Russian troops pulled out of Poland and other Central European states too early and too easily, which paved the way for NATO enlargement. This is, of course, a totally ahistorical line of thought, but it fits in with the communication strategy of the Team, which likes to be presented as the only effective and efficient crew Russia has ever had and which is Russia’s last hope.

Secondly, in Poland-Russia relations, Poland as a medium-sized country and former Russian “colony”, is considered as a grossly overestimated country, not deserving to be taken seriously. One can notice that there are psychological factors involved here, being the consequence of the worldview prevalent in the Team. Accepting Poland as an equal partner would mean accepting the consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the Team, even if it does not intend to regain everything that was lost during the period of Russia’s vulnerability, is not ready to accept the thought that something has been lost forever.

In relations with the West, the Team seeks to impose a paradigm of relations based on three simple rules:

1)    The West is to consider the entire post-Soviet area, the entire Russia’s “near abroad” to be a zone of superficial sovereignty of the states situated within it. This area is to be totally dependent on the decisions of the Team and the RF System.

2)    The former states of the Eastern Bloc, including Poland, are to become a zone of limited sovereignty under a formal or informal agreement concluded between Russia and the West. This should be a buffer zone between the West and the RF System.

3)   The West is to agree to reintroduction of world governance based on the “Concert of Europe” model: Russia, China, the USA, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Decisions taken within this group would be subsequently imposed on other participants of international relations. Only the acceptance of such a model will be considered by the Team as the confirmation of regaining by the System the position once occupied by the Soviet Union.

What should be Poland’s political response to the Team’s aspirations? Admittedly, the Team does not home in on Poland, but it does perceive it as a hostile state, scheming against the RF System and undermining its objectives. In this context, the Eastern Partnership and the politics of President Lech Kaczyński took on a symbolic meaning. The Eastern Partnership is a political initiative of the European Union addressed to the states of the Russian “near abroad.” For this reason, it is considered to be an element of a strategy hostile to Russia. In the Kremlin, the Partnership is perceived as a project challenging Russia’s privileged position in the post-Soviet area and hampering the restoration of paradigm of “spheres of influence” in international politics. People also remember there that the Partnership was introduced by the European Union upon the initiative of Poland (in point of fact, Poland and Sweden) in response to Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008 - which is not entirely true, as the initiative was already mentioned in the conclusions of the European Council in March and June 2008, that is before the military conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Lech Kaczyński, in turn, is remembered for the fact that he was one of the very few European politicians who would fiercely and publicly oppose to Putin. Therefore, he became the symbol of Poland’s attitude towards the Team. In the Kremlin, it is also believed that the words said by the President on the Independence Square in Tbilisi at the time when Russian tanks were advancing on the city constituted a response to Putin’s speech made during the NATO summit in Bucharest, and that the words were addressed to him. It is, therefore, worth quoting the key part of his speech: “We are the presidents of five states: Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We are here to take up the fight. For the first time in years our northern neighbours, [...] our eastern neighbours show their true face that we have known for hundreds of years. Those neighbours think other nations should be subordinate to them. We say no! [...] Russia [...] believes that the era of the empire that collapsed nearly twenty years ago is coming back. And that domination will be a characteristic of that region again. It will not. Those days are gone once and for all. Not for twenty, thirty or fifty years! We have all got to know this domination at the same or different time. That domination which had brought disaster upon all of Europe. That breaking of human personalities, imposing foreign systems, a foreign language. But what is the difference between the situation we have today and the one we had many years ago? Today, we are here together. Today, the world had to react even if it had been reluctant to do so. And we are here today so that the world reacts even stronger. In particular, the European Union and NATO. When I initiated our arrival here, some had thought the presidents would be afraid of coming here. No one was afraid. Everyone came, because Central Europe has courageous leaders. And I would like to tell this not only to you, I would also like to tell this to those from our common European Union that Central Europe, Georgia and our entire region will matter, we are an entity. And we know perfectly well that today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic States, and then, maybe also Poland, my country! We strongly believed that NATO’s and EU’s memberships had put an end to the era of Russian appetite. Now it turns out that was a mistake. But we can stand up to it if those values that Europe is to be based on are of any relevance in reality. If they are to be of any relevance, then we have to be here, the entire Europe should be right here. There are four NATO member states here today. There is Ukraine here, a large country. There is President Sarkozy here, the current President of the European Council, but there should be twenty-seven states here.”12 The intervention by the Polish President and his mobilising of the leaders of Central Europe, the European Union and NATO turned out to be the right response to the way of operating of Putin and his Team. Perhaps crucially, this is still remembered in the Kremlin.


Therefore, what should be the response of Poland to the Team’s attempts to take revenge in the West and the desire to extend the Russian Federation System? While shaping Polish policy related to the Team’s aspirations and the tactics employed by it in relation to the West, it is worth remembering what the Team considers to be the greatest inconvenience. The speech delivered by President Kaczyński in Tbilisi - which is regarded by the Team as a goal scored against it - contains three main clues:

1)   Poland should aim at generating a joint response of the Western democratic societies to the RF System and the activity of the Team.

2)   Close cooperation between Central European states should constitute an instrument mobilising the West to formulate its common policy and counter the Team’s aspirations to take revenge.

3)   Poland should also actively combat the Team’s schemes in the region and counteract corrupt practices - including by initiating European Union’s anti-corruptive activities. The team is an “unbelievably agile player”, who enters - usually by means of its Intelligence Services - into the interdependent worlds of politics, business and the criminal fraternity. By creating the network of such ties, it gains advantage over democratic institutions. This tactics should be fought as, in the long run, it leads to disintegration of democracy.


4)   The fight against corruption should be carried out also in Western European states, since the Team tries to apply a similar tactics there. It is no coincidence that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is led by a former officer of Stasi. This is an indication of the planned export of the institutional “culture” of Russian secret services. Poland should demand that the European Union delegalizes “tax havens” and eliminates the practice of avoiding taxes and “money laundering.” Otherwise, human lives may be lost at the junction of business, politics and secret services in Europe.

5)   The Team is of the opinion that any dialogues can be held exclusively on its conditions. This means that it is inclined to compromise only when this entails entangling or, ideally, corrupting the other party.

6)     The Team’s suggestions that Poland is not treated in an equal and reciprocal manner should be decisively rejected. For the aim of this tactics is to popularise the belief that Poland does not belong to the West, but to the “grey area” between Russia and the West. This is supported by the way Russia deals with the wreckage of the Polish TU-154 plane which crashed near the city of Smolensk on 10 April 2010. This wreckage belongs to Poland. After eight years of “investigation” - personally supervised by the leader of the Team - it should be returned to Poland, as was the case of the wreckage of the Malaysian MH17 passenger plane with mainly Dutch citizens aboard, which was shot down by pro-Russian separatists.

7)   Poland should demand firmly and with determination the return of the works of art and archives looted by the Soviet Union after the Second World War (20 restitution motions have been passed so far). Ignoring this issue in Poland’s relations with Russia means that Poland has accepted the paradigm of “inequality” imposed on it, which aims at shoving it into the “grey area.”

8)    All states striving for escape from the area of “mutual deprivation of sovereignty” are Poland’s natural allies. Poland should therefore forcefully counter the idea that Eastern Europe constitutes the area of Russia’s sole interests. This requires an active policy, especially towards Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia. Poland should therefore strengthen the policy of the European Union towards Eastern Europe and develop the Eastern Partnership, support civil society, freedom of speech and the shaping of the national identity of Belarussians. This is because they form the natural immune system limiting Teams’ liberty of action. Boosting the immune system of Ukraine constitutes a reason of state as well. The obvious aim of Polish politics is to condemn the Russian policy of invading its neighbours, putting an end to Russian occupation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine and regaining full sovereignty over their entire territories, including Crimea, by those states. Ukraine’s failure in the war against Russia and towards European integration will significantly deteriorate Poland’s situation and strengthen the Team and the RF System, therefore, it will also increase the threat posed to Poland. The policy of equal distance from Russia and Ukraine - is a proposal to cooperate with the Team, leading de facto to the introduction of the System’s structural solutions in Poland.

9)  And finally, we have to remember about one thing... a hockey game is won by the team which loses fewer goals, and the last Olympic victory of Russian hockey players was easier to win due to the absence of the best NHL players... Americans and Canadians.


1.          G. Pavlovsky, Система РФ в войне 2014 года. De Principatu Debili, Jewropa, 2014.

2.          K. Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who Owns Russia?, Simon and Schuster, 2015.

3.          N. Petrov, M. Lipman (ed.), The State of Russia: What Comes Next?, Palgrave Pivot, 2015.

4.          G. Pavlovsky, op. cit., p. 20.

5.          Ibidem, p. 28.

6.          Ibidem, p. 30–31.

7.          Ibidem, p.22.

8.          Блок НАТО разошелся на блокпакеты, „Kommersant”, 7 April 2008, www.kommersant.ru

9.        G. Pavlovsky, op. cit., p. 15.

10.        F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.

11.        P. Groble, Half of Russians Would Like to See Their Children Work in the Security Services, „Window on Eurasia. New Series”, 4 February 2018, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com 

12.        The visit of the President of the Republic of Poland in Georgia, 12 August 2008, www.prezydent.pl


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