“Boring” is perhaps the prevalent impression of President Vladimir Putin’s televised four-hour-long Q & A session that aired last Thursday (April 16), which was meant to demonstrate his good health and relaxed attitude to the great many problems worrying his loyal subjects. The three key points he stressed were that everything is under control, the economy is set to improve from the low point of the crisis, and there will be no war (Slon.ru, April 17). His command of facts and figures was far from convincing to support the first point, and the everyday reality of falling incomes disproves the second one; thus, the commitment to peace inevitably looks dubious. Triumphalism over the “spectacular” annexation of Crimea was gone, overtaken by a return to “mundane” issues such as degenerating health care and the credit crunch to small businesses, which have fueled domestic discontent. And under the Putinist system, such discontent can only be neutralized by a new patriotic mobilization (Moscow Echo, April 17).
The Russian president has not found any inspirational idea for such a mobilization and even implicitly distanced himself from the rabid conservatism targeting “corrupt” Western values, which is fanned by the official propaganda (Novaya Gazeta, April 16). Reportedly, more than 3,000,000 questions and pleas were recorded for last week’s carefully staged performance. Putin attempted to highlight a few “human stories” but clearly preferred to push the pesky details to subordinates (Gazeta.ru, April 16). Russia’s governors and ministers, however, excel in explaining such problems away. Thus, Nikolai Rogozhkin, the presidential envoy to Siberia, suggested that the devastating forest fires raging in Khakassiya were caused by arson executed by specially trained oppositionists (Newsru.com, April 17). Sabotage is indeed a perfect cover-up for man-made disasters caused by rampant embezzlement. And it is typical in this respect that one issue that has disappeared completely from Putin’s discourse is the fight against corruption (Navalny.com, April 17).
The focus on economic matters yielded few opportunities for positivity, and Putin’s promises of recovery in a year or two clashed with the increasingly pessimistic forecasts from the International Monetary Fund (RIA Novosti, April 16). The staged debate with former finance minister Alexei Kudrin was intended to prove that Putin holds social problems close to his heart, but revealed only the president’s lack of understanding of the fundamental exhaustion of the old economic model. Kudrin later expressed his disappointment at the Kremlin’s procrastination with addressing the accumulating challenges (RBC.ru, April 16). This inability to face the real issues and propensity to self-delusion regarding the robustness of state finances undermines rather than boosts confidence in Putin’s supreme “manual management”; quite probably, it condemns the ruble to a new plunge (Slon.ru, April 16). The Kremlin apparently clings to the belief in the forthcoming appreciation of oil and refuses to acknowledge the fact that the “shale revolution” in the United States continues to transform the global energy markets (Kommersant-FM, April 17).
Adopting a soothing tone and cutting down on the usual acerbic accusations and crude jokes, Putin stayed clear of foreign policy matters except for a couple of acid asides about the US desire to turn Russia into its “vassal” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 17). This moderation was more than compensated for by aggressive rhetoric at the high-level security conference staged in Moscow, in parallel with Putin’s show (RBC.ru, April 16). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov condemned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) enlargement and the US ballistic missile defense system. The guest of honor at the event was Hyon Yong-Chol, the minister of the People’s Armed Forces of North Korea (Kommersant, April 17). While Putin was careful to include only terrorism, organized crime and xenophobia in his list of threats to Russia, his ministers concentrated on the threat of “color revolutions” and argued that the US “has crossed all thinkable lines seeking to pull Kyiv into its orbit” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 17). In this context, the reasserted pledges to build up Russian military might describe not a strategic commitment but a surge attempt while sinking in a quagmire, because neither Putin nor the top brass can disprove Kudrin’s point that economic backwardness is eroding Russia’s defense capabilities (Forbes.ru, April 16).
The obvious target for this surge is Ukraine. Putin’s rhetoric about political solutions to this crisis—the blame for which he put squarely on the authorities in Kyiv—was far from reassuring. He persisted with denials about the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, and gave an evasive answer as to Moscow’s intentions regarding possibly recognizing the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” (Newsru.com, April 18). Only 16 percent of Russians think that the hostilities in eastern Ukraine are over or will be over by summer, and 24 percent believe that they could continue for many years. Whereas, 30 percent are certain that Russian troops are deployed in the war zone (Levada.ru, April 6). Gerasimov argued that the next “aggressive move” from Kyiv, goaded on by “Western curators,” could constitute a military danger for Russia (Lenta.ru, April 16). The arrival of US military instructors to the Lviv region for training Ukrainian National Guard units is condemned by the Kremlin as a “destabilizing factor,” and violations of the ceasefire have, indeed, become more frequent (RBC.ru, April 17).
Typically, such commentary by high officials is merely camouflage for Russia’s real intentions. But Moscow is unlikely to try to escalate the conflict in the coming few weeks as the Russian Armed Forces are going through the spring draft cycle. Even more importantly, Putin obviously wants to stage picture-perfect May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Red Square, even if the list of confirmed foreign guests is embarrassingly short. By mid-May, however, these restraining influences will disappear, and any sudden exacerbation of the economic crisis (the recent strengthening of the ruble actually makes it more vulnerable to a new collapse) could trigger the order to launch a new military offensive. Neither Lavrov nor the top brass are apparently involved in the decision-making on this crisis manipulation; while Putin’s performance indicates that he is briefed primarily by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and is supplied mostly with news and analysis he wants to hear. His leadership style is turning increasingly self-defensive and mistrustful of even the top elites, whose predatory corruption curtails his options for playing a benevolent “father of the nation.” Peace just does not work for him, and it remains to be seen how far he is prepared to go on the “hybrid war” path.