The post-Geneva changes in Russia’s behavior are not quite going in the direction United States President Joseph Biden had indicated after inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet and deescalate the dangerously high tensions between the two countries. Biden seems to have calculated that the restored Western solidarity demonstrated during his trip to Europe earlier this month would persuade the Kremlin autocrat to cut down on aggressive escapades and settle into a more stable and predictable course. Putin, on the other hand, concluded from the “constructive” exchange that Biden wanted to minimize distractions from his demanding domestic agenda and principal focus on China (see EDM, June 17, 21). The proceedings, thus, prompted the Russian head of state to test transatlantic ties even harder, assuming that they are long on discourse but short on substance (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, June 24). The recalibrated selective pressure is not so much a misreading of Biden’s message but a predictable consequence of the deteriorating internal situation in Russia, from which Putin needs to escape by scoring points in the European arena.
A recent climax of this reenergized Russian power projection was the provocative—but failed—live-fire intercept of the United Kingdom’s destroyer HMS Defender, which performed an innocent passage near Crimea on June 23 (see EDM, June 24). In part, this attempt to scare-off an “intruder” was supposed to tangibly back up the Russian top brass’s assertive statements at the annual international security conference in Moscow (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 24; Kommersant, June 25). But more importantly, by demonstrating a readiness to engage in high-risk provocations, Moscow singled out the UK as the prime target, assuming that other European states would refrain from supporting it and take care not to trigger Russia’s ire (Izvestia, June 23). To reinforce the impact from this incident, Russian ships from the Mediterranean squadron intend to launch missiles near the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is en route to the Pacific theater to perform counter-terrorism combat missions (RIA Novosti, June 26).
British officials dismissed Russian rowdiness and remonstrations with firm indifference, but Putin simultaneously approached France and Germany with a different message. He apparently assumes that these two major promoters of European integration would be ready to go a step further than Biden’s conditional offer of normalization and make a real “reset” with Russia (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 24). At the same time, the Kremlin leader is perfectly aware that relations with Russia are a major issue in the fast-approaching German elections, which will produce a successor to experienced Chancellor Angela Merkel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 22). So instead of unleashing gangs of “trolls” engaging in cyber-sabotage, Putin published an article in the German daily Die Zeit, appealing to German interests in mitigating confrontation and putting the blame for present tensions squarely on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Snob.ru, June 23).
Merkel surely recognizes the falsity of Putin’s promises of reconciliation, but she finds it politically expedient to claim and build on the success of the controversial Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline project; and she has an eager ally on restarting dialogue with Russia in French President Emmanuel Macron (Kommersant, June 26). They joined forces to turn this proposition into a common European position at the European Union summit last week (June 24), but encountered unexpected resistance not only from the usual suspects like Poland and the Baltic trio but also from Sweden, the Netherlands, Romania, and other disbelievers in Russian moderation (Novaya Gazeta, June 26). Putin may not be all that upset about not receiving a collective invitation from the EU, because he always prefers to deal with European neighbors in a one-on-one format. Still, he cannot shrug off the EU’s decision to prepare new sanctions, which will be further hardened in response to Russia’s next aggressive move (Izvestia, June 25).
This decision draws on the newly emerged resolve in Brussels to punish the authoritarian regime in Belarus—not only by ostracizing its elites but also by enforcing broad but carefully designed economic sanctions (Kommersant, June 25). Russia will have to cover a large portion of this damage. Even more irritating for Putin, however, was the unexpected swiftness of the notoriously slow Euro-bureaucracy in converting the political condemnation of misbehavior by his maverick fellow-autocrat, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, into practical punishment (Russiancouncil.ru, June 25). Lukashenka might threaten to introduce martial law in response to the Western pressure, but Putin seeks to make sure that the firm EU stance on Belarus will erode and crack when the question about dealing with Russia comes up (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 24).
This prospect is far from hypothetical and may arrive sooner rather than later because of the severe impact of yet another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on Russia’s political stability (Znak.com, June 26). The sharp spike in deadly infections, heavily concentrated in Moscow, revealed not only the falsity of Putin’s multiple statements on overcoming the disaster but also the true scope of the associated bureaucratic mismanagement (Rosbalt, June 22). The political paradox of the unfolding crisis is that the liberal opposition advocates in favor of vaccinations, while Putin’s core electorate remains broadly reluctant to take the shot (Moscow Echo, June 25). This profound mistrust in the heavily advertised Russian-produced vaccines and frequent readiness to sabotage orders issued from the top of the vertical of power testify better than any opinion polls to the unreliable ambivalence of Putin’s support base (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 25). Parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-September are being controlled tighter than ever before; but the lack of choice, accompanied by widespread discontent with Russia’s self-serving authorities, may unleash a new wave of angry and chaotic protests.
Political planners in the Kremlin assumed a level of economic recovery and restored social optimism by this point, but now they must contend with a much different reality—of protracted recession and rising angst. The government nonetheless remains stingy with financial stimuli and social support, while inventing new explanations for why military funding is being prioritized over the long-neglected and overloaded healthcare system. Putin’s siloviki (“power ministries” personnel) are eager to escalate tensions with the allegedly hostile West to keep the defense and security budgets high; but a total all-encompassing confrontation, from the Arctic down to Syria, is too risky considering Russia’s overstretched capabilities. Biden’s tentative initiative tempts Putin to declare a purported readiness for normalization. Yet at the same time, the Kremlin aims to chip away at the small but crucial weak links in transatlantic relations, in search of “victories” that will look grand in Moscow but negligible in Washington. Playing on European discord might appear an infallibly smart strategy, but it cannot deliver on Russia’s urgent need for internal reforms.