In key global debates, Russia’s voice has been uncharacteristically timid lately, and various Russian domestic controversies are developing without the usual heavy-handed interference from the Kremlin—almost as if President Vladimir Putin has lost interest in the affairs of state. Such local disturbances as protests in Arkhangelsk against the construction of a waste-processing plant for treating garbage from Moscow may, indeed, not quite rise to the level of his attention (RBC, May 15). He was, however, expected to take a firmer position regarding the mass demonstrations in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a cathedral; instead, Putin simply “advised” that the authorities conduct an opinion poll about the matter (Yezhednevny Zhurnal, May 24). The Yekaterinburg conflict reflects a major issue of the political role of the Russian Orthodox Church and its top–down symbiosis with state structures, to which Putin used to pay keen attention (Carnegie.ru, May 20). Yet, as might have been expected, this current neglect of domestic matters is not caused by an overabundance of demanding international concerns.
Earlier this month, expectations were running high in the Kremlin regarding the resumption of high-level dialogue with the United States. Two meetings between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US State Secretary Michael Pompeo as well as a phone call from President Donald Trump generated anticipation of a tangible rapprochement ahead of a possible face-to-face Putin-Trump discussion during the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, in late June (Profil, May 17). It soon transpired, however, that no sanctions relief for Russia was in the cards and that the territory of common interests is much smaller than the area of profound disagreements (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 19). For Washington, much more important at the moment is addressing global competition with Beijing and satisfactorily concluding the complex US-Chinese trade talks; whereas, Moscow cannot afford any deviation from its present course of “strategic partnership” with China, even though it is being charted predominantly by Beijing (Russiancouncil.ru, May 16). Russia has no way to benefit from the possible economic war between the US and China, but the negative fallout could be quiet severe (Newsru.com, May 24).
Though Moscow tried to gather enough discussion points for a profitable conversation with Washington, nothing resembling a useful deal has emerged so far. Indeed, Putin’s meeting with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un last month (April 25) yielded no promising bargaining chips and was followed by missile tests (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 6). Meanwhile, Russia cannot afford to step back from its support for Iran, which remains an indispensable ally in executing the intervention in Syria (Rosbalt, May 22). And Moscow’s attempt to gain the status of a stakeholder in the Libyan war without committing any serious resources faltered as “Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s road-mobile forces became stuck near Tripoli (Russiancouncil.ru, May 23). The crisis in Venezuela also continues to oscillate, but the Kremlin cannot gain any dividends from its “principled” support of Nicolás Maduro’s embattled regime (RBC, May 16). The list of topic appears long, but reciting disagreements makes little sense: Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid saw no benefit from her recent initiative to visit Moscow for talks with Putin (Russiancouncil.ru, May 22).
Moscow was careful not to leave any traceable cyber-trail or cash flows that might implicate it in interference in the European Parliament elections last week (May 23–26). Still, the eagerness of many European far-right political entrepreneurs to secure Russian funding came to light, and the Austrian government was brought down by one such high-profile revelation of this greed. That news upset the carefully prepared, propaganda-heavy gathering of the pro-Kremlin “Valdai Club” in Vienna (TASS, May 24). Support for more defense spending still remains ambivalent in many European states, including Germany, but Russia has become so toxic that even reasonable cooperative ties have been compromised. The outflow of European capital from Russia is illustrative of this reality. Notably, net disinvestment from Cyprus, which used to be a “safe haven” for Russian money of dubious origin, reached $10.3 billion in 2018 (RBC, May 24).
Progressing economic weakness is a major underlying cause of Putin’s political passivity, to the degree that he is aware of this feebleness. The official statistical agency Rosstat has been struggling to supply bits and pieces of “positive” data at the expense of its credibility (Newsru.com, May 24). Putin’s directive to channel state investments toward ambitious but vague “national projects”—like, for instance, boosting “human capital”—cannot eliminate the risk of a new recession (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 21). Instead, the main effect has been to create some new targets for bureaucratic predation, while disposable incomes in the most vulnerable social groups keep shrinking (Novaya Gazeta, May 22).
Even the state-funded polling agencies cannot camouflage the unprecedented decline of public confidence in Putin’s leadership (Vedomosti, May 24). In the absence of foreign policy “victories,” economic misery gradually prevails over the aggressive propaganda narrative; and local protests, like in Yekaterinburg, become vents for the building frustration (RBC, May 24). It does not help the cause of state support for the Orthodox Church when news about the construction of a new lavish residence for Patriarch Kirill breaks in social media (The Bell, May 21). Corruption has become a major irritant for public discontent. And the revelations of fortunes amassed by mid-ranking operatives from the Department of Economic Security in the “omnipotent” Federal Security Service (FSB) add to the impression of a deeply rotten state apparatus (Kommersant, May 17).
Putin cannot dispel this impression, almost certainly realizing that corruption is no longer a useful instrument of his foreign policy but instead a drain on available resources. Highlighting Putin’s helplessness in presiding over this pyramid of corruption is the arrival of youngish Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine. For sure, Zelensky is yet to prove himself as a leader capable of driving Ukraine’s badly needed reforms; but already, his inauguration answered the profound nationwide desire for change (Moscow Echo, May 20). Ukrainians’ readiness to rid themselves of their old corrupt political elites resonates in Russia and puts Putin under unexpected pressure, as much as Zelensky’s political style of joyful informality challenges the stifling ceremony in the Kremlin. The fast-rising public demand for change leaves Putin outside the multiple emerging political agendas. And his subordinates’ attempts to maintain control by legislating the creation of a Russian Internet separated from the global World Wide Web are recognizably incompetent. Putin’s options are limited to old-fashioned police repressions inside and military threats outside—but he shies away from the risks associated with executing them.