President Vladimir Putin concluded 2015 with the approval of a revised National Security Strategy, which defines the strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a threat and commits to countering it by securing the unity of Russian society and by building up the country’s defense capabilities. In the course of the past year, Russia entered into a complex and self-propelling crisis—and the Kremlin’s only anti-crisis response has been to exploit the confrontation with the West as a means of sustaining “patriotic” mobilization and explaining away Russia’s deepening decline by pointing to hostile outside pressure. The new Strategy is more frank than the previous edition in defining the increase of NATO military activity and building of a missile defense system as “unacceptable.” At the same time, it is also dishonest, claiming the expansion of a “network of US military-biological labs in the states bordering Russia.” Finally, it is self-complimentary, describing Moscow’s foreign policy as “open, rational and pragmatic,” as well as out of touch with reality by asserting that “Russia’s economy showed a capacity for strengthening its potential despite the instability of the world economy” and the enforcement of sanctions (Kremlin.ru, December 31, 2015).
Russia’s security is severely affected by the Ukraine crisis, and the Strategy gives due attention to this disaster, putting the blame for supporting the “anti-constitutional coup” squarely on the United States and the European Union and asserting that Ukraine has become a “long-term source of instability in Europe and on Russia’s borders.” Putin had a telephone conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, on December 30, agreeing to extend the Minsk agreement for another year (Kommersant, December 30, 2015). The ceasefire is, in fact, the only part of this deal on which all the parties agree, but it remains fragile. Meanwhile, Moscow finds it increasingly difficult to provide supplies for and security inside the “rebel”-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—and cannot withdraw its battalions or accept a major defeat of its policy of “asserting [Russia’s] status [as] one of the leading powers in the world” (Lenta.ru, December 12, 2015). While the intensity of the propaganda war against Ukraine has been significantly reduced, since the start of 2016 Russia has enforced new trade sanctions that aim to push Ukraine into sovereign default (Rbc.ru, January 1, 2016).
The key means of turning political attention away from the deadlock in Ukraine is the military intervention in Syria, which has marked a major departure from Russia’s cautiously opportunistic policy in the Middle East. About a third of Russians mention the Syrian intervention as a major event in 2015; only 9 percent name the February Minsk Two agreement as such (Levada.ru, December 28, 2015). Yet, the National Security Strategy has no entry on the Syrian war, while suggesting that the rise of the so-called “Islamic state” was the result of a policy of “double standards” executed by “some states” engaged in the struggle against terrorism. Putin still insists that Russia’s operation in Syria is on track but probably understands that the initial triumphalism has dissipated, giving way to worries about new setbacks and the risks of an unplanned exit (Kommersant, December 25, 2015). The severe deterioration of relations with Turkey has become a direct consequence of the poorly prepared intervention, and Moscow keeps adding new sanctions and launching new insults, all the while rejecting any signals from Ankara on its readiness to de-escalate the quarrel (Newsru.com, December 31, 2015).
These stubborn efforts at using trade as an instrument of policy might appear odd given that they hurt Russian consumers more than the “enemy” even as Russia’s profile in the global economy is quickly shrinking (Rosbalt, January 2, 2016). They reflect, however, the recognition in the Kremlin of the profound impact of Western sanctions—and of the failure of Moscow’s various intrigues aimed at securing their relaxation. It took four quarters of recession—after four quarters of zero growth—for the Russian government to abandon hopes for a rebound from a “bottom” of the crisis, and to acknowledge that the drastic devaluation of the ruble has not generated any stimulating impact for domestic producers (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 30, 2015). Putin almost certainly sees the disconnect between Russian’s economy based on the export of raw materials and commodities on the one hand, and the fast-moving global economy on the other. But he also cannot admit the fiasco caused by the policy of harvesting ever-growing rents, so the new Strategy recycles the economic guidelines from the old one despite their glaring irrelevance (Vedomosti, December 24, 2015). It prescribes a steady expansion of social programs, while their deep curtailing is set to continue; and the real question for the power-holders is about the availability of resources for sustaining the ambitious and increasingly militarized policy of projecting power (Polit.ru, January 2, 2016).
The only way to ensure an affirmative answer is to sell to the masses the idea that they must be ready to endure hardships in order to uphold Russia’s greatness. Thus, the new Strategy aims at protecting Russia’s “cultural sovereignty” by blocking external “destructive informational-psychologic influence.” No useful tools exist yet for policing the Internet, however; and the vicious TV propaganda is becoming stale and tiresome (Meduza.io, December 24, 2015). As the chain of crisis situations increasingly becomes the new norm, Russians tend to lose interest in Syrian adventures or missile defences and start to ponder their deteriorating quality of life (Gazeta.ru, December 30, 2015). Revelations of hyper-corruption in the highest echelons of law enforcement, which a year ago made no impression, have again started to produce angry resonance in public opinion (Rbc.ru, December 24, 2015).
In order to keep the country mobilized around the cause of confronting the West, such revelations have to be stopped and the voices of dissent must be silenced. The murder of Boris Nemtsov last February was supposed to shock the liberal opposition into despair, and Putin practically admitted that conspiracy by suggesting in his end-of-the-year press conference that “it is not a given that [Nemtsov] was murdered” (Moscow Echo, December 30, 2015). The opposition, however, refuses to be cowed and is determined to demonstrate that Putin’s regime is too corrupt and enfeebled by a senseless squandering of resources to execute large-scale repressions. Russia at the start of 2016 is stuck in the Ukraine stalemate and trapped in the Syrian intervention; but most fundamentally, it is caught in the conflict of governance, where every decision aimed at strengthening the regime undermines its support base and depletes resources necessary for basic functions of the state. The rulers have not only lost touch with reality—they seemingly no longer believe it even exists.