The Russian political class suffered a massive shock from President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly last Wednesday (January 15) in which he delivered three unexpected bombshells (see EDM, January 16, 2020). The first was a set of vaguely formulated revisions to the Russian Constitution—even though Putin had pledged in 2005 never to open this fundamental document to changes “under any circumstances” due to unpredictable risks to political stability (Meduza.io, January 16, 2020). The second was the resignation of the government led by Dmitry Medvedev, a loyal lieutenant, who held the position of president in 2008–2011 and then smoothly returned to the role of prime minister (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 15, 2020). The third surprise was the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin, heretofore the head of the Tax Service, as the prime minister, which propelled the obscure bureaucrat to the highest level of officialdom (Carnegie.ru, January 16, 2020). Pundits of all persuasions in Moscow have been busy trying to make sense of this uncharacteristic rush by the usually procrastination-prone Putin to reconfigure the country’s political arena, but hardly any attention is being paid to the consequences for Russian foreign policy.
The foreign ministry and a few semi-official mouthpieces have asserted that the course of external affairs will remain unchanged, but a shakeup of this magnitude will inevitably resonate in Russia’s international positions (RIA Novosti, January 18, 2020). Putin is facing growing public discontent caused by the sustained decline of personal incomes, which cannot be compensated with proposed social handouts, and it is significant that he has opted for a domestic reshuffling at the top—and not for another foreign policy gambit, such as in 2018 (Rosbalt, January 16, 2020). At that time, he captured much attention with the presentation of an array of innovative weapons systems; in contrast, last week he mentioned only briefly that new missiles have been secured, allegedly giving Russia an advantage in the global arms race—a claim worth treating with skepticism (Moscow Times, January 16, 2020). Public enthusiasm about super-missiles evaporated after several bad accidents involving nuclear assets in 2019, and Putin is currently trying to justify cuts in defense expenditures. Medvedev, in his newly created (and not as yet legally approved) position of deputy chairperson of the Russian Security Council, will have to distribute these cuts and handle the bitter complaints that will come from the military-industrial complex (Moscow Echo, January 17, 2020).
Medvedev’s demotion also has implications for foreign policy because for many external stake-holders he looked like the embodiment of a new generation of Russian political elites supportive of modernization and liberalization. Additionally, foreign peers tended to see him as a useful interlocutor due to his presumed close relations with Putin, who trusted Medvedev with performing presidential duties and disregarded the numerous political intrigues targeting the seemingly hapless former prime minister (Forbes.ru, January 16, 2020). Mishustin will hardly be able to represent Russia convincingly on the international stage, and revelations of his habitual involvement in corruption will certainly not help (Navalny.com, January 16, 2020).
One particular legacy of Medvedev’s presidency is Russia’s consent to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–led intervention in Libya in 2011; and since then, Putin has worked hard to erase that entry from the records of Russian policy in the Middle East. Last year, Moscow provided support and sent “Wagner” mercenaries to the nearly victorious “field marshal” Khalifa Haftar. But the latter’s siege of Tripoli was resolutely broken by Turkey, which has recently begun sending military aid to the government of Fayez al-Sarraj (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2020). Putin tried to sort out the disagreements with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and called a meeting of the leaders of the warring sides to Moscow, but Haftar refused to compromise and left abruptly (Kommersant, January 15, 2020). Putin had to agree to attend the subsequent conference on Libyan reconciliation in Berlin, organized by Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday (January 19), leaving the boiling political mess in Moscow unattended (RIA Novosti, January 19, 2020). The results were inconclusive, but Putin has lost the initiative and found himself reduced to an observer of the bargaining between big stake-holders.
This episode illustrates the erosion of Russia’s influence in the Middle East, and the upsurge of domestic political uncertainty is set to accelerate this process. Putin is respected in the region as a versatile interlocutor; but now he will not only have less time to participate in complex international dialogues with multiple disagreeable parties to overlapping conflicts, but also less to say. Moscow hoped to benefit from the escalation of the conflict between Iran and the United States following the spectacular elimination of Qasem Soleimani, but Russia found itself marginalized (Russiancouncil.ru, January 9, 2020). The death of the Quds Force commander leaves various pro-Iranian militias in Syria free to pursue their own agendas, which may endanger Russian bases (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2020). Erdoğan remains adamantly against the long-postponed offensive on the rebel-controlled Idlib province, denying Russia an opportunity to score a victory (RIA Novosti, January 18, 2020). Even the rapport with Saudi Arabia is weakening as Russia keeps exporting more oil than its quota agreed to in the OPEC+ format (Forbes.ru, January 14, 2020).
Russian foreign policy may further slacken if Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister since March 2004, capitalizes on the government reshuffling to insist on his own retirement, which he has hinted at by dodging questions about his prospects in the as-yet-unnamed new cabinet (RBC, January 17). Lavrov will turn 70 in March and he might, indeed, fancy a quiet life in a comfortable dacha in the elite Zhukovka village (The Insider, January 17, 2020). Putin likely believes the professional diplomat knows rather too much about the style and substance of presidential policymaking, and so he has never accepted Lavrov into the inner circle of his aides and lieutenants.
The upheaval of Russian politics initiated by Putin may take many unpredictable turns, but its general direction is clear: the boss seeks to reconfigure his dominance in such a way that all disloyal thinking by elites about a successor will be extinguished. This simultaneous maturing and decaying of the autocratic regime is seriously detrimental for Russia’s international position. For Western counterparts, Putin’s course signifies increasing antagonism with an aggressively anti-European Russia; and for fellow autocrats, Putin’s capacity to control the metamorphosis he has so abruptly started is by no means clear. The shakeup of bureaucratic super-structures cannot check their predatory appetites and might even aggravate the manifestations of bad governance, including the propensity to engage in boasting, bullying and blackmailing in the name of foreign policy.