The end of summer has brought Russia to the intersection of several long-brewing crises that the authorities sought to mitigate by applying palliative half-measures and postponing hard decisions. In foreign affairs, the sharp escalation of the civil war in Syria has exposed the difficult consequences of the breakdown of the Russia-US dialogue and derailed the final preparations for the carefully staged G20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 5–6. In Russia’s immediate neighborhood, yet another trade war with Ukraine intertwines with a business scandal with Belarus, while problems centered on semi-legal migration strain relations with Central Asia and reveal the depth of violent turmoil in the North Caucasus. In the domestic arena, multiple regional elections come to the final stretch, and the key among those are the mayoral elections in Moscow, in which opposition candidate Alexei Navalny gains new ground daily (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/navalny/1147218-echo/). President Vladimir Putin fancies himself to be the master of “manual management” of external encroachments and internal intrigues, but he appears to be stuck with bad options, which tend to energize one another.
It is the Syrian calamity that has taken the most unfortunate turn as Putin’s preference for letting the civil war take its course was shattered by the chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21. Remarkably, Putin was at a loss about how to respond to the United States’ firmly stated intention to punish the breach of international law. The Russian president simply allowed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to recycle the usual objections against interventions. Meanwhile, the vote in the United Kingdom’s parliament against partaking in a military action emboldened Putin to spell out his stance as he answered a couple of questions from well-trained journalists, which amounts to unwavering support for the Bashar al-Assad regime (Kommersant, August 31). He was remarkably bold in rejecting as “utter nonsense” the case for al-Assad’s responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, he insisted that the US evidence supporting this case amounts to nothing (http://ria.ru/arab_riot/20130831/959874770.html). Nevertheless, he characteristically referred to “our American colleagues and friends” and made a particular point of pledging to discuss the Syrian problem with US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit (http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/5912).
Obama’s extraordinary decision to ask the US Congress for a vote on the resolution approving strikes on Syria has provided Putin with another week for spinning his favorite intrigues and playing on the differences among the Western and Arab allies. His commitment to the anti-intervention position has zero flexibility, but this only means that Russia’s claim to being an indispensable power is revealed as shallow. The Kremlin’s total indifference to upholding the international norm prohibiting the use of weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons makes it rather senseless for Obama to travel to St. Petersburg and waste his time reasoning with the Nyet-sayers. Many European states, including Germany, have their doubts about the rationale for delivering a punishing strike to the Syrian regime, but they would be appalled to find themselves in the same boat with Putin (Novaya Gazeta, August 31). The European Union has a particularly low common denominator on Syria, but it is ready to take the case of Russia’s punishing trade sanctions against Ukraine to the G20 summit, which is certainly not what Moscow wants to deal with at this grandiose event (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 30).
Russian public opinion is remarkably indifferent to the fate of the al-Assad regime, but it is upset with the sanctions against Ukrainian trade and the squabbles with Belarus (where a Russian entrepreneur was put in prison), rightly seeing in those the fiasco of the much trumpeted proposition for building a “Eurasian Union” (Novaya Gazeta, August 28; http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2013/08/30_e_5615957.shtml). Syria is also overshadowed by yet another August disaster, which has this year arrived in the form of catastrophic flooding in the Far East, to which Putin was slow to respond—primarily through a useless cadre reshuffling (Vedomosti, August 29; Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 31). The natural disaster has revealed the scope of deterioration of this depressed region, which the federal authorities tried to camouflage by staging the extravagant Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok a year ago. The need for massive investment is obvious, but investors are in flight and the federal budget is under stress due to the unplanned but inescapably deepening stagnation (Kommersant, August 30; http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2013/08/30_a_5615061.shtml).
This economic zastoi (torpor) denies Russia an opportunity to contribute substantially to the G20 deliberations. But even more importantly for Putin, it creates the background of a deepening discontent for the elections in Moscow, which have already opened far greater political space than the Kremlin thought permissible (http://www.colta.ru/docs/30708). The official candidate, acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, sought to receive a “clean” mandate in a pro-forma competitive election but now he has to mobilize every administrative resource available in order to out-campaign hundreds of volunteers who are flocking to Navalny (New Times, August 26). This forced readiness to connect with the voters makes Sobyanin—quite probably against his loyal intentions—into a not-theoretical alternative to Putin, who is seen by disaffected urban middle classes as ineffectual, capricious and easily manipulated by his corrupt subordinates (Vedomosti, August 30).
Moscow is entirely capable of disproving the common sense of Putinism and giving Navalny a far stronger vote than the Kremlin experts calculate, thus sending shock waves throughout the whole bureaucratic pyramid. Putin has to endure this uncomfortable uncertainty for only a few more days, but these are exactly the days of the final preparations for and hosting of the G20 summit—and the days of debates on Syria in the US Congress. He has no more control over these developments than over flood waters in Khabarovsk and cannot temper the risks the usual way—by distributing money. The “pause” in the dialogue with the United States has not only exacerbated Putin’s estrangement from his European peers, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom any association with Putin is presently an electoral liability, but also left the respect-seeking Russian leader in a limbo of doubts about his relevance. He is apparently unable to make choices about Russia’s future while clinging to the evaporating past, and he is conspicuous primarily by his absence in the choices that Russia is making.