The Russian Security Council held a virtual session last Friday (August 7), and President Vladimir Putin opened with the proposal to discuss the “international situation in general”; if his subordinates had any other business, it could be discussed “in a routine manner” (Kremlin.ru, August 7). This setting of the agenda thus projected the impression that Russia’s ruler sees no serious problems in foreign or domestic affairs and merely wanted his loyal lieutenants to confirm the perfectly smooth start of August, which in Russia often devolves into a month of troubles (Newsru.com, July 5). The content of their presentations was not revealed, but there is no reason to doubt each functionary was eager to say exactly what the boss wanted to hear. Days earlier, Putin’s diffident top subordinate, Dmitry Medvedev, reassured a gathering of young activists that all pressing issues affecting Russia, such as tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, were under control (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 5). The reality, however, is much more disturbing.
The COVID-19 pandemic in Russia continues to spread, and the official data of about 5,500 new infections daily hides the true scale of the disaster. The mortality rate is purportedly quite low, but the demographic statistics show that, in June, the number of excess death reached 25,500 people compared with last year (Kommersant, August 7). Opinion polls show that 66 percent of respondents mistrust the government’s figures, of which 27 percent do not trust them at all; 49 percent worry about catching the coronavirus (Levada.ru, July 31). Restrictions on public gatherings across the country have been relaxed or outright lifted, but Putin continues to take his personal safety extremely seriously: every person is subjected to two weeks in strict quarantine before coming near the president, who prefers to conduct state business from his “bunker” (Nv.ua, July 31).
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is resolutely ignoring the public mobilization in Khabarovsk (see EDM, August 3, 4), now in its second month following the arrest of the popular governor, Sergei Furgal, and growing angrier since the appointment of a substitute, who is entirely ignorant of local problems (Moscow Echo, August 5). The discontent stems from the protracted socio-economic depression typical of Russia’s entire vast Far East region, which, though recognized in Moscow as strategically pivotal, has habitually been neglected by the center’s economic policies (VTimes, August 7). The government assumed that some symbolic social disbursements would suffice to ensure passive resignation, but it has been unable to provide more subsidies to quell the unexpected series of street protests (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 29). The Kremlin is reluctant to disperse the daily rallies by force, fearing a greater explosion of discontent; yet, it is even more reluctant to compromise, fearing to show weakness. Nonetheless, hopes for a gradual dissipation of this current protest energy may be totally misplaced (Znak.com, August 8).
One critical problem that has finally culminated is the political upheaval in Belarus. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was able to secure a victory of sorts in the presidential elections on Sunday, August 9, but had to rely on various manipulations, despite the special appeal from France, Germany and Poland (RIA Novosti, August 7). Lukashenka’s campaign positioned him as the sole individual capable of defying pressure from Russia; and the arrest of 33 Wagner Group mercenaries was seen by some as a calculated master-stroke—but one that many Russian commentators described as an offence too far (TASS, August 4). Trying to explain away the humiliating scandal, the Russian authorities cooked up a story about a provocation by the Ukrainian special services to hire a gang of Russian veterans of dirty wars and lure these mercenaries to Minsk (Kommersant, August 8). Crude as that fake was, it opened for Putin an opportunity to call Lukashenka and pretend that the “misunderstanding” had been sorted out (Izvestia, August 8).
The reluctant and terse phone call could not undo the damage to Russian-Belarusian “brotherly” relations, however, or hide the exposed fact that their much-praised military integration is mostly fictitious (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, August 6). Kremlin policy-planners assumed that a weakened Lukashenka would be more pliable, but now they have to acknowledge that the erosion of his long-lasting regime, built on the remnants of the Soviet economy, is a problem for Russia (Meduza.io, August 7). Any concessions he may be forced to make, for instance regarding the establishment of a Russian military base, could trigger massive public protests and bring back the risk of regime failure (Forbes.ru, August 6). Putin has no remedy for the challenging fact that the legitimacy of Lukashenka’s leadership has been badly undermined by this year’s turbulent presidential campaign, no matter what final election results his government may present (Moscow Echo, August 7).
Neighboring Belarus may be the most demanding, but it is by no means the only foreign policy problem Putin has been silent about. Last week, Turkey declared and demonstrated resolute military support for its ally Azerbaijan in the latter’s confrontation with Armenia, but Moscow has chosen not to respond (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 2). The Kremlin maintained that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque was Turkey’s internal decision, even after Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Putin and asked him to take a stance on that issue (RBC, July 23). No meaningful Kremlin reaction has also been forthcoming to the publication in London of the report on Russia’s interference in the United Kingdom’s elections nor to the United States’ Department of State report on Russian disinformation and propaganda (Kommersant, July 21, August 7). Neither the rising tensions in US-China relations, nor the escalation of hostilities on the China-India border, nor Germany’s firm objections to Russia’s return to the G8 has prompted Russia’s leader to make any proactive moves.
It is not that Putin has gone on vacation after overseeing the naval parade during the last weekend of July (see EDM, July 27, August 6). Yet, he is not bracing to decisively suppress the brewing “color revolution” in Belarus by providing “brotherly” support amounting to a de facto annexation. Such a coup would surpass Russian capacity for mobilizing its military capabilities, economic resources and domestic public support. More broadly speaking, Russia’s bad governance—resulting from the entrenchment of its corrupt, autocratic regime—simply cannot generate effective responses to the challenges arising in increasingly complex societies within a fast-transforming global system. Putin has shown himself not up to the task, while his court fears bringing these problems to his attention. But in the meantime, millions of Russians hear the chants of “Down with the tsar” coming from Khabarovsk and songs of “Change, we want change” from Minsk.