Week of Ceremonies Marks Wobbly Start for Putin’s New Presidential Term

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 73

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin began his new presidential term by holding a week of events to demonstrate his continued reign but has not received the blind following he anticipated.
  • The Kremlin is playing up its nuclear capabilities as a response to the expansion of European support for Ukraine leading up to a high-level peace conference in Switzerland this summer.
  • High-profile positions in the Kremlin have been switched, with Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister, Andrei Belousov as defense minister, and Sergei Shoigu replacing Nikolai Patrushev as secretary of the Russian Security Council.

The Christian Orthodox Easter service in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral on May 5 began a week of pompous performances for Russian President Vladimir Putin (Vedomosti, May 5). It continued with his inauguration ceremony on May 7, followed by a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council (EEC) the next day and the Victory Day parade on Red Square on May 9. The intention was to start the new presidential term, which was secured in a crudely manipulated election, with a patriotic bang. Yet, each event was held in a dubious context, and Patriarch Kirill’s grandiose showing could not hide the schism in Orthodox Christianity caused by his blessing of Russia’s war against Ukraine (Svoboda.org, May 7). The snow-chilled, abbreviated Victory Day Parade was reminiscent of the severe freeze in the Moscow region at the start of the year and the catastrophic flooding in the Orenburg region a month ago, which all bode ill for the next chapter of Putin’s long reign (Kommersant, May 9). 

The terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall concert on March 22 was perhaps the worst of the omens. Its shadow hung over the EEC summit, attended by the presidents of member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as presidents of its prominent observers, including Cuba, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (Kommersant, May 8). Tajik President Emomali Rahmon aired the issue openly, complaining about double standards in the struggle against terrorism. He did not dare to more explicitly criticize Moscow’s mass mistreatment of labor migrants from Central Asia after the attack executed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (see EDM, March 26, 28; see Terrorism Monitor, May 6; Meduza, May 9). Increasingly bitter discord is deepening between Russia and Armenia. Yerevan feels so betrayed by Moscow in its conflict with Baku that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stopped paying membership fees to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 8).

The Victory Day parade has long been transformed from a celebration of great Soviet sacrifice into a feast of Russian militarism (The Moscow Times, May 9). This year, Putin sought to emphasize Russia’s nuclear might. Yet, rolling out the usual three SS-29 Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles across Red Square would hardly be enough to draw the desired emphasis (Novaya Gazeta Europe, May 9; Izvestiya, May 11). As a result, a day before the inauguration, he upped his brinkmanship by announcing preparations for an exercise of non-strategic nuclear forces (Izvestiya, May 7). No date has been set, and few details have been given about this drill, supposedly to take place in the Southern Military District and Belarus. While the dual-use delivery systems are not only regularly exercised but are also performing multiple combat missions, this is the first time that significant emphasis is being placed on preparations for the use of non-strategic nuclear munitions, thousands of which are locked up in centralized storages (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 6).

The Kremlin presents this demonstration of nuclear capabilities as a response to the expansion of European support for Ukraine. In particular, Russian officials single out the United Kingdom’s consent to Kyiv for launching strikes deep into Russia’s territory, such as the drone strike on the Gazprom oil refinery in Bashkortostan (The Moscow Times, May 7; RBC.ru, May 9). France is another target of this rhetoric, as President Emmanuel Macron elaborates on his proposition that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops can be deployed to Ukraine to prevent a Russian breakthrough (RIAC, May 7). This initiative remains controversial, and Moscow seeks to exploit the disagreements while threatening that European airbases used for servicing F-16 squadrons could be targeted for nuclear strikes (TopWar.ru, May 11).

Putin issued this nuclear threat on the day that Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, absent at the ceremonies in Moscow, began his state visit to France. Russian commentators are eager to present Chinese top-level diplomacy as seeking to intensify the economic tensions and security divide between Europe and the United States, as well as discord within the European Union itself (Rossiiskaya Gazeta; see EDM, May 6). Moscow is worried, however, about the message of a firm European commitment to ensuring Ukraine’s victory that Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented to Xi (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 7; Novaya Gazeta Europe, May 10). The unequivocal Chinese opposition to threats of nuclear escalation may constitute a complication for Putin’s forthcoming visit to Beijing (Kommersant, May 7). 

Such escalation is hardly needed so long as Russian troops keep pushing Ukrainian defenses back. Still, it is significant that these relentless attacks have failed to deliver any real gains (except for a few villages in the Kharkiv region) or to add any victorious fanfare to Putin’s week of ceremonies (Meduza, May 10). The Kremlin leader seems comfortable with holding the strategic initiative, which has become costly in terms of casualties and has opened the door for Ukraine to receive more Western weapons and munitions for its newly formed brigades (Republic.ru, May 7). A turn in the tide of war is looming, and the Kremlin is not prepared. Putin is also unprepared for a Ukrainian peace offensive, which is set to receive a boost from the high-level peace summit in Switzerland scheduled for mid-June (Svoboda.org, May 9).

The high-profile week in Moscow appeared to end with Putin’s reappointment of Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister. This had been widely expected due to the government effectively delivering on the demands for re-orienting the economy toward waging the “long war” (Novaya Gazeta Europe, May 10). The real surprise came on Sunday evening when Sergei Shoigu, who cut an authoritative figure commanding the parade, was replaced as defense minister by Andrei Belousov, who had held the position of first deputy prime minister but has minimal defense experience (Kommersant, May 13). Shoigu replaced Nikolai Patrushev as secretary of the Russian Security Council, a position Patrushev had held since 2008. The other aging siloviki (security officials) in Putin’s court retained their positions. The immobility of the top elite constitutes a significant weakness in Russia’s capacity to stay in the war. These servile and corrupt courtiers increasingly struggle to meet the looming tests set by an ever-changing conflict.

The prevalent opinion among Russia watchers in the West and the disconcerted Russian opposition is that Putin will claim the next presidential term and even the one after. The real question is whether he will be able to hold on to power for the next six years of this illegitimately gained and progressively deteriorating presidency.