“Big mistake”—that was how Russian President Vladimir Putin recently described the determined efforts in the United States to investigate Russia’s interference in the US elections last year. He characterized the present level of bilateral relations as “close to zero” and warned that further “absurd” attempts of “certain political forces” to escalate tensions “according to the political calendar” would bring the situation to a new “Caribbean crisis” (Kremlin.ru, March 30). His take on the US political timetables may be confused because the next cycle of elections comes only in November 2018; but his reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amounts to a barely veiled threat. Certainly nobody today wishes to replay that dramatic historical political stand-off, which put both sides’ nuclear forces on high alert. So Putin wants Washington to disregard the Russian cyber-attack and to treat the evidence as “lies and provocations” in order to avoid having to respond to the offense—and thus to forestall the necessity for a Russian counteraction.
The Kremlin leader issued this hard-to-refuse offer in a rather off-handed manner at a question-and-answer session that was the high point of last Thursday’s (March 30) international forum “Arctic—the Territory of Dialogue,” held in the northern city of Arkhangelsk (Kommersant, March 30). The key point of that carefully staged gathering was to lure Western investors into joint projects in the Russian Arctic, despite the fact that developing the under-explored oil and natural gas reserves there will not be cost-effective at this point, particularly due to anemic global oil prices (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 30). The presidents of Finland and Iceland were not particularly tempted and instead emphasized environmental and climate challenges to the region. But the person Russian officials really wanted to see at the forum was US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom Moscow expects to prioritize energy sector interests (Polit.ru, March 31). Tillerson, however, chose to attend the meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) foreign ministers, in Brussels, where he asserted that the Alliance was fundamental to countering Russian aggression. This rhetoric left the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs perplexed (RBC, March 31).
Putin expressed a readiness to wait for the US administration to sort out the scandals in Washington and start working on improving relations with Russia in the interests of the “majority” of American people (Grani.ru, March 31). Yet, his own bureaucratic machine is demoralized by cadre reshuffling. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in particular, is severely compromised by the most recent corruption scandal (Rosbalt, March 31). Putin himself cast doubt on Medvedev’s status in the much-reduced circle of old loyalists, declaring him sick while the prime minister was enjoying a skiing holiday. But later, the president felt obliged to show confidence by taking Medvedev along on the Arctic trip (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, March 30). This did little to help the latter’s reputation: Medvedev’s Twitter post from Franz-Josef Land received hundreds of ironic comments with advice that he take up permanent residence there (Meduza.io, March 30). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the third person present along with Putin and Medvedev at an off-the-record session in an ice cave, while Sergei Ivanov, the former chief of the presidential administration and Medvedev’s old rival, patiently waited outside (Moskovskii Komsomolets, March 29). Putin may need a scapegoat for the protracted economic misfortune, and Medvedev is showing insufficient zeal in the position of the head of government. Nevertheless, keen observers concluded that, based on Medvedev’s bored-looking expression during the Arkhangelsk meetings, dismissal is not yet in the cards (RBC, March 29).
Putin’s well-orchestrated political intrigues were offset by a series of unauthorized protest marches on Sunday, March 26 (see EDM, March 30). They were initiated by Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the underground opposition. Nobody expected tens of thousands of people across all corners of Russia to defy the official ban on staging these rallies (RBC, March 27). What came as a major surprise for both the authorities and opposition leaders was the active involvement of students and the younger generation, which used to be quite indifferent to political appeals (Inliberty.ru, March 31). Navalny’s fierce campaign against corruption corresponds to perceptions that the government is totally or significantly corrupt (expressed by 79 percent of respondents in a recent poll) and targets the belief that this evil could be curbed (shared by 74 percent of Russians), but not on Putin’s watch (Levada.ru, March 28). The young urban crowd may appear to care little about elections, but they are quite immune to the TV propaganda—and the indignation over bureaucratic predation and arrogance spreads fast through their social networks (Novaya Gazeta, March 28).
Putin cannot connect with this newly emerged electorate and has a deep fear that the anti-corruption protests will explode into a violent “Arab Spring”–type mess (Grani.ru, March 31). He condemned the protesters’ “illegal” actions but remains hesitant about punishing the hundreds of detained demonstrators with appropriate severity (Novaya Gazeta, April 1). Unleashing the full power of the police state against teenagers could antagonize their parents, particularly in the lower middle classes, where the pain of economic decline is most severely felt. Truck drivers, for that matter, have attempted another strike, and in some areas, like Dagestan, the National Guard troops had to be deployed to suppress it (RBC, March 31). Throwing Navalny behind bars is easy, but it could trigger a chain reaction of radicalization of the protests and brutal violence by the police; the risks of over-reaction, a typical feature of authoritarian regimes, could, thus, spiral out of control (Carnegie.ru, March 31). Putin’s courtiers planned a year-long dull and tightly managed election campaign, and now they seem to be losing control not only over the agenda but also of the schedule (Snob.ru, March 27).
President Putin cannot blame this eruption of protests on US sponsorship, but he worries that every street action is interpreted in Washington as a sign of the erosion of his regime—and he fears appearing weak above everything else. While demanding improved relations with the United States, he cannot suggest any positive agenda, so he needs the US administration to come up with one. A convincing show of force is needed to stimulate the Washington establishment to turn its attention to Russia, and away from Russian connections/corruption scandals. Any proactive projection of power—from the Arctic to the Caucasus, and from Mariupol to Benghazi—is certain to produce a new crisis and add to the burden of Russia’s interventions. But Putin may feel that he is more ready for a test of wills than his purportedly disunited Western opponents.