This year’s United States presidential election campaign may have been like no other before it in the intensity of acrimony and the starkness of choices. But as every other, it comes to an end in the first full week of November. In its final stretch, Russian President Vladimir Putin discovered that neither outcome would actually be positive for him. Even if—bucking the majority of statistical forecasts—the Republican nominee emerges victorious on November 8, Donald Trump will be under pressure to prove that he is not Putin’s “puppet.” Whereas, Hillary Clinton, the more probable victor, has a long score to settle with the Kremlin—particularly over the Russian hacking of her e-mails (see EDM, October 24). But either way, the uncertainty over the country’s future is finally about to be settled. The new US leadership will chart a new course, and Moscow, which has taken pride in engaging in a global rivalry with Washington, will have to face the consequences (Gazeta.ru, November 3). This rather unpleasant and near-term prospect has convinced Putin to shift political gears from bold escalation of tensions to cautious back-pedaling.
The clearest signal of this moderation was seen in Putin’s three-hour performance (on October 27) in front of the “Valdai Club” of experts in international relations, which held its annual gathering a week ago, in Sochi (Kommersant, October 27). As usual, Putin went through a long list of grievances about Western aggressiveness and arrogance; but he proposed no firm responses (RBC, October 31). Veteran observers, like Alexei Arbatov, saw in Putin’s temperance a real desire to bring the risks of escalation under control and reduce the acuteness of Western concerns and accusations focused on him personally (Carnegie.ru, October 29). His toned-down rhetoric, however, was not accompanied by a single practical step toward discharging tensions. Hence, the professional “hawks” in Putin’s court are in no rush to elaborate on the theme of “détente” in the new “cold war.” Even the propaganda machine, normally attuned to the latest mood swings of the “decider,” has yet to tone down its drumbeat (Politcom.ru, October 31).
One particular area of bilateral tensions where Moscow undertook serious and risky transgressions is cyber security. US President Barack Obama has to decide in the remaining weeks of his term—and in step with the president-elect—how to respond to the unprecedented Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic campaign (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 5). The Kremlin, as well as many Russian guardians of various state secrets, have good reason to be nervous since the protection of many vulnerable Russian command-and-control systems is hardly reliable (Moscow Echo, see EDM, October 26). Putin sought to disprove the “myth” of Russian interference; but his labored denials could not erase the trails left by awkward hackers (RIA Novosti, October 27). The news leak about a planned US retaliatory cyberattack on Kremlin communications made such an impression that the Russian foreign ministry demanded from Washington an official explanation of this alleged involvement in “state cyber-terrorism” (Newsru.com, November 5).
Russia’s military intervention in Syria is also confused by the Kremlin’s contradictory orders to demonstrate force while showing restraint. Western outcry about Russian war crimes apparently persuaded Putin that the battle for Aleppo had gone too far, so he (according to official sources) turned down the request from the General Staff to resume a full-scale air assault as “untimely” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 30). Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, keeps slowly drifting in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the capacity of the naval squadron for high-precision strikes is limited and its staying power quite short. Therefore, the long-planned show of force could turn out to be a complete flop (see EDM, October 27; Novaya Gazeta, November 5). Russian media reporting on the major anti–Islamic State offensive in Mosul tends to be scant. But Putin’s sharp rebukes of the military’s eagerness to engage in mock attacks on US Navy ships and aircraft did make the news in Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 2; Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 27).
The Russian president’s uncharacteristic moderation in foreign policy is accompanied by a few benevolent gestures in domestic policy, which some optimistically inclined commentators are interpreting as a new “thaw” (Vedomosti, October 30). Meanwhile, speaking at a ceremony inaugurating a massive statue of Prince Vladimir, near the Kremlin walls, Putin called for unity in meeting “external challenges and threats.” But there is hardly any serious effort being directed at sustaining the “patriotic” mobilization (Kremlin.ru, November 4). The military intervention in Syria, for that matter, is now supported by only 52 percent of respondents in independent polls, while 48 percent express concern about the risk of escalation of tensions around Syria into a World War III (Levada.ru, October 31). Notwithstanding the propaganda noise, public attention is inevitably shifting to deepening domestic social problems. And the discussions in the government on the shortage of funding for the health care system are not producing any results (Kommersant, November 2). The disturbing news about an HIV epidemic outbreak in Yekaterinburg not only raises the issue of budget cuts but also illustrates the real-world consequences of having branded as “foreign agents” a number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) that were working inside Russia on rehabilitating drug addicts (Republic.ru, November 2). Economic stagnation brings a steady decline of real incomes, while Putin’s closest subordinates, particularly those aggrieved by Western sanctions, keep gaining new lucrative contracts and subsidies from the state budget (Navalny.com, November 2).
This transformation of Russia’s excessive income inequality into a shocking social contrast turns all Kremlin appeals for “national unity” into a travesty. Putin’s oligarchs and loyal siloviki (security services personnel) are not at all eager to pursue brinksmanship with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or to unleash domestic repressions. But they feel the acute need to ensure the continuation of their comfortably corrupt regime. They have no vision or plan for the future nor any meaningful draft for economic reforms. And attempts to utilize history to neutralize the brewing social discontent only betrays their ignorance and cynicism. This governance approach produces the need for confrontation with the “immanently hostile” West, which serves to justify Putin’s authoritarian grasp on power. He would much prefer to keep this confrontation stable and controllable—like the Cold War of his early career—but every lull in military tensions inevitably allows Russia’s domestic degradation to return to public focus. Putin’s moderation, therefore, is only temporary. And new experiments in projecting military power are almost certain in the long political year leading up to the Russian presidential elections in early 2018.