Book Review: Horvath, R. Putin’s Preventive Counter-Revolution. Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the spectre of velvet revolution

Horvath, R. Putin’s Preventive Counter-Revolution. Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the spectre of velvet revolution. London: Routledge, 2013. Pb. 266pp. ISBN 978-1-138-81575-9.

One of the most prominent features of the Russian national security debate is Moscow’s concern about Western regime change operations, even, potentially in Russia. Senior figures, including President Putin, frequently point to what they see as attempts to use so-called “colour revolution technology” ranging from the organisation of unlawful protests, to open propaganda of hatred in social networks to provoke civil strife and strike at Russia’s sovereignty. This is also a central point of debate Russian military thinking, as illustrated in the recent articles by Russian Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov.

Such concerns have been emphasised both by the heightened competition with the Euro-Atlantic community since 2014: the economic and financial sanctions, for instance, are understood as economic pressure to trigger popular protests to not only change Russian policy, but to change the regime. They are also prominent because parliamentary elections are due in September: Putin has stated that “our ill-wishers abroad are preparing for these elections”.

In this context, the Russian authorities have introduced a range of measures to address these concerns and respond to a “Ukraine-type” situation taking place in Russia. This has included the passing of much legislation relating to controlling public gatherings, but also major law enforcement exercises to prepare to address potential crisis-type situations. In March 2015, for instance, and following major military exercises, the Ministry of the Interior carried out “Zaslon-2015”, an eight-day exercise held across six Russian regions bringing together police forces, Interior Ministry troops and other paramilitary formations to practice joint operations to seal the borders and ensure law and order, territorial defence, counter-terrorism and the protection of strategic sites. An Interior Ministry spokesman stated that the main focus was dealing with civil disobedience and an attempted colour revolution – indeed, specifically, they were based on ‘events that took place in the recent past in a neighbouring country’. In April 2016, a National Guard, the creation of which had been long discussed, was established, drawing together Interior Ministry troops and other special forces to counter terrorism and to suppress mass demonstrations – and equipped with armour and machine guns. Recently, the National Guard held exercises in Volgograd region in coordination with air assault troops units “to resolve tasks of internal security”.

Though it does not comfortably fit into Western security thinking, grasping this intimate Russian connection between foreign and domestic threats is essential if Euro-Atlantic military and political leaderships are to understand evolving Russian security policy and respond effectively to it. The book Putin’s Preventive Counter Revolution is a good place to start.

Over seven substantive and well researched chapters, Horvath traces the rise of concern in Moscow about the threat of colour revolution, particularly the shock in Moscow resulting from Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2004 (ch.2) and the ‘spectre of a Moscow Maidan’ in 2005 (ch.3), through its responses that both mobilised elements of society in support of the regime (ch.4), and ‘tamed’ civil society leading to the ‘death of politics’ in Russia and the marginalisation of non-parliamentary political opposition (chapters 5, 6, and 7).

There are drawbacks to the book, perhaps most obviously the gap between the end of the book’s narrative (2008) and its publication date (2013/2014). Much happened during this five years, including several important official moves such as the establishment of organisations such as the All-Russia Popular Front in spring 2011. It is a shame that Horvath did not include even a brief update in the conclusion that at least pointed to the importance of these developments for his own argument – since they reinforce many of the points that he seeks to make.

Indeed, as a result of this time lag, the book has the feel of a different era, one in which the “democracy embattled” theme and focus on the “non-systemic” (i.e. non-parliamentary) opposition was paramount in Western debates about Russia. The last four sentences of the book illustrate this, as Horvath points to the re-emergence of a civic movement and revival of opposition in 2009-2010 as a ‘direct product of the violent clampdown on public space … the preventive counter revolution may have inflicted a resounding defeat on the Kremlin’s adversaries, but it did not establish a durable political order. Instead, it made further upheavals inevitable’ (p.210).

In one sense, this was perhaps true – as illustrated by the brief surge in protest demonstrations of 2011-12. But at the time of writing this review, in summer 2016, when the non-systemic opposition that Horvath describes in such detail has become only more fragmented, and with popular support for it dwindling yet further, and the most prominent figures yet more marginalised (Mikhail Kasyanov), under legal sanction (Alexei Navalniy, a photograph of whom adorns the front cover) or even dead (Boris Nemtsov), it looks very optimistic. There is some social protest in Russia, to be sure, but there is very little ground for substantial political opposition, particularly that led by the individuals on whom Horvath focuses. Again, even pointing to this would strengthen Horvath’s argument.

Careful Russia watchers may also take issue with some of Horvath’s points of emphasis. He is stronger on the assertion of Russian conspiracy theories and criticising the Kremlin than he is on elaborating the mechanics of the Kremlin’s approach to creating and supporting organisations. He focuses much more, for instance, on figures such as Gleb Pavlovskiy, calling him the “grey cardinal” of Russian (counter-colour) revolution politics, rather than more senior officials such as Vladislav Surkov, who from his position in the Presidential Administration, oversaw Russian domestic politics and the development of the concept of “sovereign democracy” throughout the period covered in the book. Furthermore, Horvath goes rather easy on the non-systemic opposition, painting some of the main figures in somewhat rosier terms than they deserve, while under-emphasising both the numerous frictions between them and their lack of wider support across the country that undermined any real challenge they posed yet further.

But if the “Russian democracy embattled/non-systemic opposition” aspect is less relevant in today’s era of “Russia as authoritarian challenge to Euro-Atlantic security”, Horvath’s book has two important advantages for readers today. First, it provides a great deal of context and background that will be important to those who have only come to studying Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis that began in early 2014. It illustrates well the point that Moscow’s thinking about security threats dates back to the early 2000s and the “electoral uprisings” and “colour revolutions” in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), and the Russian leadership’s view that it was Western support for opposition parties and activists in these countries that made the movements what they were. At the same time, it illuminates the strong continuity in both themes and people involved, particularly in terms of Moscow’s relationship with Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in 2004. Horvath also provides an important service by focusing on the monetisation protests of 2005, often forgotten, but still the most substantial in terms of size and impact of the anti-Putin protests (they obliged the leadership to reverse course), and the creation of organisations such as Nashi, a state-sponsored youth movement in response to the Orange revolution, examining both in some detail.

This leads to the second advantage: the book’s exploration of the leadership’s efforts simultaneously to ‘mobilise’ patriotic support through patriotism while ‘immobilising’ the opposition, particularly through sustained legislative pressure on Non-Governmental Organisations and civil society. It is Horvath’s discussion of this balancing of “mobilisation” and “immobilisation” measures that is relevant for a Western audience that seeks to understand Russia today; indeed, it is this that ensures that the book retains its value, linking his argument about events a decade ago with developments that are significant today.

If there has been much legislation enacted to control public protest in the last 18 months, this builds on that which was introduced a decade ago. And if Putin’s high popularity and the attempt to mobilise patriotism has been evident during the annexation of Crimea in spring-summer 2014, the roots of this can be found in Nashi and the Russian leadership’s responses to the Orange revolution in 2004-5. It was during this period that Moscow began to learn about deploying its own “counter-revolution technology”. On one hand, such lessons were positive: the creation of “spoiler parties” and demonstrations in support of the leadership to counteract protest demonstrations, tactics that are much in evidence today.  But on the other, it taught the Russian leadership about the problems inherent in attempting to do so, such as managing internal political friction and gang militancy, even violence (see, for instance, Horvath’s discussion on pp.116-18).

In many ways, variations on this evolving theme of mobilisation will remain central to understanding Russian politics and security for the foreseeable future, looking ahead to the looming electoral cycle in Russia that has begun this summer leading to parliamentary elections in September, and then on to presidential elections scheduled for 2018.

This is because the Russian leadership is attempting to consolidate state power in the face of threats that they see as combining external and internal elements – in effect, concern about Western “hybrid warfare” and regime change. Today, there are other elements of mobilisation that are more prominent, such as the modernisation of the armed forces. But the origins of this lie process in the early 2000s, and Putin’s Preventive Counter-Revolution makes an important contribution to understanding them.

Dr. Andrew Monaghan is a Visiting Fellow at the Changing Character of War programme, Pembroke College, Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow in the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, where his work on Russian mobilisation is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. He is the author of The New Politics of Russia – Interpreting Change, published by Manchester University Press.