The outcome of Russia’s crudely manipulated parliamentary elections on September 17–19 was never in question: the Kremlin executed extra-rigid control over the campaigning and vote counting. But it was somewhat surprising to see how far the authorities would ultimately go to crush the supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who encouraged influencing the results through so-called “smart voting”—casting a ballot for anyone who might stand a chance against the United Russia candidate (see EDM, September 15). Many of his backers were forced into exile and labeled “foreign agents” (Moscow Echo, September 14). Government agencies even threatened to punish Google’s and Apple’s employees in Russia unless the companies removed Navalny’s voting app from their stores (RBC, September 17). Whether President Vladimir Putin wanted that or not, the elections signified a big step in the ongoing transformation of his regime from populist authoritarianism to a dictatorship that treats any dissent as a security challenge (Sobesednik.ru, September 13).
These dynamics of domestic repression are set to continue unabated, targeting the public’s discontent over deficient domestic governance, which manifests itself in economic stagnation, exorbitant social inequality, and the degradation of the health care system aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Carnegie.ru, September 16). Foreign policy causes much less angst and anxiety, so Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were chosen by the Kremlin to symbolically lead the far-from-popular “party of power” in the elections. Lavrov and Shoigu did not have to answer for the contracting incomes and rising inflation; whereas former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who still remains the formal leader of United Russia, as well as current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin both kept a low profile during the boastful but substance-poor campaign (Znak.com, September 2). What undercuts this messaging is that, presently, only 32 percent of the population expresses a desire to see Russia as a “Great Power,” while 66 percent simply prefer it to be a country with a decent level of prosperity (Levada.ru, September 10).
Putin’s oligarchs and security services personnel (siloviki) cannot possibly deliver on this sustained shift in public preference, but they can exaggerate the scope of external threats and excoriate the “hostile” West for allegedly interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs. The Kremlin views the European Union as the main sponsor of “foreign agents,” so the report on the “Directions of EU-Russia Political Relations” (approved by the European Parliament last Thursday, September 16) annoyed Moscow’s pundits (Izvestia, September 16). The characterization of Russia’s foreign policy as “aggressive and revisionist” is accurate and commonplace, but the description of Putin’s regime as a “stagnating authoritarian kleptocracy” went too far for many mainstream commentators (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 15). One of the report’s recommendations is for faster and more targeted sanctions, but what irks Russian officials the most is the demand for closer coordination of bilateral relations with the common containment course set by the EU (Kommersant, September 16).
Another key recommendation is to reduce the European bloc’s dependency upon natural gas imports from Russia, and the recent physical completion of the Nord Stream Two pipeline is particularly pertinent within this context (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 13; see EDM, September 14). Prices on the European gas market have reached record highs, and Gazprom is preparing to harvest nice profits (Kommersant, September 15). The Kremlin, however, might be less interested in revenues and more in exercising geo-economic pressure (Forbes.ru, September 17). Europe’s energy transition to “green” sources continues to progress, and the current spike in demand for gas is a transitory feature of this revolutionary development—and quite probably one of the last opportunities for Moscow to “weaponize” its role as the major energy supplier to the continent (Rosbalt, September 14).
In Russian strategy for dividing and coercing Europe into pseudo-peaceful coexistence, energy pressure comes together with military intimidation. But the main target is definitely not Germany, the main market for Russian gas; rather, it is Ukraine, which stands to lose the role of a key transit country (RIA Novosti, September 18). Demonstrative involvement in the Russian elections of Ukrainians living in the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, some of whom were issued Russian passports right at the polling stations, proved that Moscow has no intention of building peace in Donbas by implementing the Minsk agreements (Meduza, September 18). The large-scale Zapad 2021 exercises last week (September 10–16) were presented as a joint Russian-Belarusian counter-offensive against invading North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces; but in real strategic planning, the central proposition is deterring NATO from responding to a new Russian aggression against Ukraine (see EDM, September 16).
The Russian General Staff is testing capabilities to operate in several theaters simultaneously: thus, the Northern Fleet conducted amphibious and anti-submarine exercises in parallel with Zapad 2021, officially centered on Belarus (Interfax, September 14). Several unscheduled exercises were additionally staged in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in order to prepare for new security threats emanating from Afghanistan; and Russian bases in Central Asia are being reinforced (Izvestia, September 15). Moscow tries to combine these military preparations with diplomatic maneuvers aimed at engaging the Taliban, but Putin opted not to explain these ambiguities to allies and skipped the session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe (Kommersant, September 17). His excuse was the sudden spread of COVID-19 infections in his entourage, and the last person who was granted a face-to-face meeting with him happened to be Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, summoned to Moscow in the early hours of last Tuesday (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 14). Russian planes continue to deliver airstrikes in the rebel-controlled Idlib province, but the deadlocked neither-peace-no-war situation in Syria irritates conflict managers in Moscow (Carnegie.ru, September 17). It will be difficult for Putin to assuage their anxieties while sitting in his renewed self-isolation.
Russian multi-theater power projection follows its own logic, but there is a connection with the mutation of Putin’s regime into a repressive autocracy. The European Parliament’s firm rejection of the fake elections in Russia brings not only indignant outcries from the State Duma pseudo-parliamentarians but also a new spike of desire to intimidate. The Russian military may have sound risk-assessments in such volatile environments as, for instance, Syria, yet for the policymakers it becomes imperative to prove that Russia is prepared to take higher risks than the risk-averse Europeans and the casualties-conscious Americans. War-centric propaganda may have diminishing impact on Russians worried about prices and jobs; however, the political classes have internalized the idea that a war with the inherently hostile West is already progressing in a variety of “hybrid” encounters and local conflicts. Putin may prefer to stay aloof, but his regime is in trouble—and is intent on making trouble for neighbors near and far.