The predictable monotony of the high-level panel at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last week (September 11–13) was interrupted by President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that Russia and Japan sign a long-overdue peace treaty by the end of the year (Kommersant, September 13). The idea might have looked fresh; but in fact, it was not only unacceptable but deliberately insulting to Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The latter had invested much political capital in breaking the deadlock around the territorial dispute with Russia involving the South Kurile Islands (Northern Territories). In fact, Abe discussed that problem with Putin earlier the same day—only to have his proposals dismissed on account of bothersome “preconditions” (Novaya Gazeta, September 13). Putin knows the importance of this problem for Japanese public opinion. So he dared his polite but persistent counterparts to reject his proposal, which they duly did (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 12).
What prompted Putin to assume that intransigent stance was Russia’s deepening military cooperation with China, which is a matter of grave concern for Japan (Republic.ru, September 12). Simultaneously with the Vladivostok forum, large-scale Vostok 2018 strategic exercises were held across Siberia and the Far East; and several Chinese battalions and squadrons were invited to partake (see EDM, September 5, 11, 13). Official media play up the scale and complexity of these war games with much the same vigor as they played down the offensive nature of the Zapad 2017 exercises last year (RIA Novosti, September 11). In real terms, the Russian Armed Forces cannot possibly deploy to the field even a third of the declared strength of 300,000 personnel. And the inevitable cuts in the defense budget are aggravating the effects of over-extension from Syria to the Kuriles (New Times, September 11).
Putin, nevertheless, assumes that his super-confident posture will deflect external assaults and disperse domestic doubts. On stage in Vladivostok, he instructed two Russia agents implicated in executing an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, in the United Kingdom, to come out and speak to the media (Kommersamt, September 14). They duly did. But the interview was so poorly prepared and presented such transparent lies that the blunders in organizing this “special operation” have now been even more exposed rather than camouflaged (Moscow Echo, September 14). In this odd show, the Kremlin enriched its usual denials with trolling, signaling its total indifference to the outrage in the West over the blatant crime carried out with the careless use of the deadly Novichok nerve agent (Snob.ru, September 14).
This signaled indifference has not impressed the UK government. While, in the United States, Russia’s attitude has added new urgency to deliberations in the Donald Trump administration and the US Congress about new measures against Russian “hybrid” attacks (Kommersant, September 13). Forthcoming enforcement of new US sanctions makes many beneficiaries of Putin’s crony capitalism nervous and increases the outflow of money from Russia (Newsru.com, September 14). Seeking to stabilize the ruble and reassure potential investors, who showed scant enthusiasm in Vladivostok, the Russian Central Bank has raised the key interest rate to 7.5 percent, reversing its previous cuts (Forbes.ru, September 14). It is uncertain whether this move will prompt the weakening national currency, but it will likely negatively affect Russia’s feeble domestic growth (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 13). Seeking to show readiness to withstand new sanctions, Andrei Kostin, the head of the VTB bank and one of Putin’s “pocket oligarchs,” presented a dubious plan for reducing the country’s dependency on the US dollar, which may further undermine any residual confidence in the ruble (RBC, September 14).
Yet another major setback the Kremlin is trying to deter through sheer determination is the deepening split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate (Rosbalt, September 10). Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople, has sent two envoys to Ukraine to sort out the complex disagreements among the local churches and prepare the ground for establishing ecclesiastical independence of the Kyiv Patriarchate, which is currently unrecognized by Constantinople (Kommersant, September 11; see EDM, September 13). This necessary and natural step has infuriated Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who has Putin’s ear. Thus, Moscow’s relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate, traditionally acknowledged as “the first among equals” in the Orthodox Church, have effectively been severed (Novaya Gazeta, September 12).
This politicized church quarrel upsets and confuses many Russians, and adds to the pool of discontent, which the high-volume propaganda fails to drain. The government plan for increasing the retirement age, which Putin had to endorse with only slight edits, has produced a profound shift in the public opinion (Novaya Gazeta, September 14). Protest rallies keep breaching the wall of officially prescribed stability and unity (Meduza.io, September 11). Whereas, the Kremlin’s response consists of more crude pressure on the opposition and more brutal suppression of street protests. An outstanding manifestation of this repressive course was the video-address by Viktor Zolotov, the commander of the Russian National Guard and long-term Putin loyalist. In his message, Zolotov openly threatened Alexei Navalny, a leader of the irreconcilable opposition, with physical violence (Carnegie.ru, September 11). Zolotov’s ire was triggered by the exposure of blatant corruption in his Guard’s funding, and his threats confirm that there is no way to disprove the facts and figures Navalny unearthed (Navalny.com, August 31). Putin refrained from calling his raging lieutenant to order. But this extreme yet carefully prepared outburst revealed confusion rather than determination among the regime’s guardians. And the public response has been ridicule rather than awe (Moscow Echo, September 12).
The attempts to showcase a super-confident face to multiple political challenges are a natural but inherently flawed reaction in the Kremlin to the erosion of the fundamentals of Russia’s stability. Defiance of Western pressure invites new sanctions while failing to even play as an effective propaganda instrument. Meanwhile, selective repressions of domestic discontent are counter-productive in the absence of any social “gifts” for pseudo-generous distribution. Putin’s assertive rhetoric rings distinctly false, and his shows of economic dynamism and military might leave his counterparts disappointed and wider audiences bored. He cannot chart a convincing strategic course, and neither can he deliver strong responses to current crises. Fake leadership has become the defining feature of his new presidential term, which still has more than five long and turbulent years to go. He used to be an effective populist and stern arbiter in clan squabbles, but self-aggrandizement and mendacious posturing have now overtaken his ruling style.