No surprises happened in Russia on Sunday, March 18, in the carefully orchestrated voting procedure generously described by the media as a “presidential elections.” But many questions loom over the beginning of the new term that Vladimir Putin claimed. His “campaigning” gained some momentum in the last couple of weeks, but it remained short on message and profoundly boring, projecting primarily the maxim that there could not possibly be any alternative to the 65-year-old leader. Profound effort was directed toward ensuring high participation in the voting, so that the proposition to boycott the show, advanced by Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader who was denied the chance to be on the ballot, would be defeated (Kommersant, March 16). Navalny will now have to reconsider his political strategy, but he hardly has a shortage of targets when it comes to attacking the ruling elite, which has failed to gain any new legitimacy in this manipulated and falsified pseudo-democratic process (Novaya Gazeta, March 15).
Russia is certainly not unique in faking a democratic façade for a corrupt authoritarian regime, but what makes it special is the eagerness with which it is willing to engage in an escalating confrontation with the West in order to prompt this regime. Indeed, the majority of post-Soviet authoritarian leaders, from Kazakhstan to Belarus to Turkmenistan, prefer to maintain usefully lukewarm relations with the United States and the European Union and see no need to pursue drastic militarization. Putin is as generous with promises and cheap gifts as any other populist dictator, but his most meaningful and emotionally charged electoral declaration was about “wonder-missiles” (New Times, March 12; see EDM, March 1, 5). Russian top brass have done their best to follow up with confirmations of forthcoming tests, but most of Putin’s March 1 video-show to the parliament depicted fanciful weapons systems designed to break through the non-existent US missile defense “shield” (TASS, March 15). Yet, he failed to scare the US administration and other Western counterparts into making him a nice negotiation offer, and it is not certain that he even managed to overly impress the domestic audience (Vedomosti, March 14).
Missiles are most certainly not the main means of the new East-West confrontation, and Putin has experimented recklessly with a variety of “hybrid” means, only to find them backfiring with far-from-perfect timing. It is doubtful that he had planned the heavy-impact political crisis with the United Kingdom to explode on the eve of his elections, but special operations, particularly delegated to some expendable “assets,” have their own schedule and tend now to produce far heavier resonance then in the Cold War era (Meduza.io, March 13). The Kremlin had to show resolve and to fake outrage in order to turn the scandal into an electoral advantage (see EDM, March 15), but the denials are hardly a useful mobilization technique (Republic.ru, March 14). Expelling British diplomats in retaliation for the first series of measures taken by the UK is easy, but the demonstration of Western solidarity with London cannot be countered (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 15). The habitual discourse of Russia as the besieged fortress” has grown stale; every tightening of sanctions adds to the discontent among the elites; and Putin’s persistent attempts to weasel out of the international isolation have been derailed yet again (Rosbalt, March 14).
The Kremlin could have hoped to effectively counterpunch the punishment administered by the UK, even if supported by the European allies. But the simultaneous hits arriving from the US are hard to stomach. The new sanctions targeting the “troll factory” exposed by the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller were expected, but the punishing measures against the command of Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) came as a surprise (Grani.ru, March 16). The fact of continuing attacks by Russian hackers on US energy infrastructure is now established, and Moscow is worried that the West might respond in kind (RBC, March 14). Russia is nowhere close to being a “superpower” in cyberspace, and the Kremlin feels free to play fast and loose with hackers and “trolls” only because it assumes that the US or the UK would not dare to resort to direct cyber-strikes. On top of that, Mueller is now investigating the Russian connections of the Trump Organization, and this threatens to curtail Russian export of corruption (see EDM, March 6, 2017), which is a political instrument no less important than the export of natural gas (Kommersant, March 16).
Putin starts his late-autumnal presidential term without a single foreign policy achievement or initiative. His proposition to build a Eurasian union of sorts has floundered, so that now the Central Asian leaders prefer to sort out their quarrels without Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 16). The strategic partnership with China has lost positive momentum, and Xi Jinping’s decision to make himself an irreplaceable leader does not necessarily bring him closer to Putin (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 27). The option for combining confrontation and cooperation in relations with the US is closing, and the departure of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State is seen in Moscow as a loss of an important interlocutor who understood the mechanics of doing business with Russia (Russiancouncil.ru, March 14).
The new mutation of the Syrian war caused by the defeat of the Islamic State has eroded Russia’s ability to control its course; and this month’s meeting of foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan, was an exercise in sweet-talking the deepening disagreements (Kommersant, March 17). The Russian military is worried about a new US strike on Bashar al-Assad’s motley forces, perhaps jointly with Israel, which could again bring the regime to the brink of collapse (Newsru.com, March 16). Putin, however, has become cost-conscious about the never-ending task of rescuing the friendly dictator-in-distress.
This lack of a meaningful foreign policy agenda is unusual and uncomfortable for a leader like Putin, who is used to performing a high-wire act on the international arena. Many practical questions are mushrooming, including how to protect the fortunes of Kremlin-loyal oligarchs squeezed by sanctions and how to minimize casualties in Syria while preserving Moscow’s controlling interest there. And when lumped together, all these boil down to an impossibly big question: “Now what?” The temptation to break out of this deadlock with one bold strike will grow as Russians start questioning the need for Putin’s continued leadership.