Explaining Putin’s Power Politics

3 years ago ccwa 0

Russian President Putin during his meeting with Armenian President Sarksyan in YerevanFew observers were surprised when Crimea, a semi-autonomous region in Ukraine occupied by Russian soldiers following the Ukrainian revolution, voted to secede from Ukraine. The region has long historic and ethnic ties to Russia and is far removed from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. And while the flagrant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and subsequent international crisis are certainly ominous, the reasons behind the Russian revanche may be even more worrisome. It not only shows that Russia is willing to flex its geopolitical muscles with little fear of reprisal, but that the country is led by an autocrat who is unlikely to stop his aggressive policies with the (disputed) annexation of Crimea.

When Vladimir Putin was nominated for Prime Minister in 1999, he was a middle ranking operative in the KGB and a minor civil servant in St. Petersburg after the collapse of the Soviet Union; needless to say he drew little national, let alone international attention.  However, Putin’s remarks at his confirmation were telling, and looking back at them now, oddly portentous. Putin stated “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.”

Prior to taking over the Presidency from Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin felt that Russia’s international reputation was becoming strained. Having grown up during the height of the Cold War and serving the state for many years, it is likely that Putin felt a great desire to see Russia return to regain it’s international stature following the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent decrease of Russian power and influence in Eastern Europe. This desire to reassert Russian influence in the world can been seen in a number of circumstances, from the exorbitantly expensive Sochi Olympic Games to the reinforcement of Russia’s sphere of influence in former Soviet republics.

Within four years of inheriting the Russian presidency, Putin controlled the media, gained the loyalty of most of the country’s powerful oligarchs and asserted himself as the head of a new Russia – a Russia that would not bow down to the influence of Western interlopers. His newfound power gave Putin the ability to revive Russia both domestically and internationally, and win the trust of the Russian people in the process. His subsequent successes in crushing the Chechen uprising of 1999, removing Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgian hands in 2008, as well as diffusing American plans to intervene in Syria in 2013 have left Putin as an undisputed autocrat. He has little to no opposition in the Russian government; and his approval ratings among ordinary Russians have never fallen below 60% since he assumed the presidency. He remained in power even after his presidential term ended in 2008, and was handily reelected in 2012. Putin’s influence in Russia can hardly be contested, and he has a clear plan for the future: to increase Russian power and prestige on the world stage with him at the helm.

Putin’s control of Russia, however, is more tenuous than it may seem. Much of the goodwill at home has been borne wither from Putin’s effective campaign to brand himself as a defender of Russian culture and values from the West, or the support many Russian officials have offered Putin due largely to Russian oil wealth. The increased standard of living as a result of wealth from natural gas and oil has also helped to garner goodwill from many ordinary Russians. Nationalist propaganda has fomented anti-Western sentiment in Russia, and laws targeting the LGBTQ population, freedom of speech, journalists and other political rivals remain popular with Putin’s base. Putin’s detractors – particularly young people who favor democracy and protest the authoritarian reign – are violently suppressed.

Currently, oil and natural gas prices pose a greater problem than citizen protests. Following an economic boom in the early 2000’s, the price of oil and natural gas precipitously fell, leaving both the Russian economy and Putin’s approval rating in shambles. A drop in oil prices will likely help gain some goodwill from the Russian citizenry, especially if Iran agrees to a nuclear deal and sanctions are lifted.

In this context, Putin’s invasion of Crimea following the Ukrainian revolution was meant to both gain territory for the Russian Federation, and more importantly, to shore up dissent among the Russian people. Putin stated during a press conference following the vote in Crimea that “it was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered” and that his intention was to protect ethnic Russians throughout the former Soviet bloc.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s approval rating soared to nearly 80%. Were the price of oil and natural gas to fluctuate, however, Putin’s popularity would take another hit, perhaps enough to foment widespread discontent and protests. However, were another economic downturn to hit the Russian economy, Putin could, and likely would, blame the recession on sanctions imposed by the West, increasing his image as a defender of Russia. An increasingly nationalist Russia will be more apt to assert its control over protesters denouncing Putin’s actions, perhaps even labeling them unpatriotic Western sympathizers.

Putin’s actions in Crimea indicate one of two things; either he is feeling more secure in taking aggressive actions abroad, or, perhaps more likely, he is domestically insecure and is jumping on an opportunity to both expand Russian territory and rally domestic support. Given the circumstance in Eastern Europe today, Putin will have likely have five options: (1) continue drumming up nationalism and threatening Russia’s neighbors in order to keep his approval rating up and protests down, (2) violently crush the inevitable protests against him should he fail to appeal to Russian national pride, (3) vacate the presidency, (4) diversify the Russian economy and wean the country off oil wealth or (5) find another solution to appease the Russian people.

Considering that the international response to the action in Crimea has been minimal, Russia could likely continue its revanchist policies with little international reprisal aside from denunciations and increased sanctions. Putin himself has said that a nuclear confrontation is unlikely. Potential targets for Russia’s revanchist policies are southeast Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, all of which are not part of NATO or the European Union and meaning they are cut off from direct protection by the rest of the world.

Even if Russia were able take over its neighbors, however, public approval is unpredictable and Putin may run out of ethnic Russians to ‘protect’ and neighbors to bully. Violently crushing protests may work, but that would serve as a temporary fix, and could end up sowing more anarchy, and the end result could still be a significantly destabilized Russia, not to mention the tremendous casualties such action would ensure. As for vacating the presidency, Putin abdicating power seems highly unlikely, especially given the lengths he has gone to stay in power up to this point. And while Putin could diversify the Russian economy, he is unlikely to do so; the oligarchs still wield a significant amount of power in Russia, and they wouldn’t be keen to see their influence diminished.  Thus, the only real solution is to find a way to appease the Russian people while simultaneously finding one that would be palpable to Putin himself.

The United States, NATO and the European Union could therefore offer Putin a way out of his predicament that allows him to defuse domestic problems while not appearing to back down in the face of the West. Putin is working within his circumstances just as those who oppose him are working within theirs. His circumstances are especially difficult; if he continues to flex his muscles abroad he will eventually start a war or run out of countries to invade, but if he does nothing the Russian people are likely to turn against him. Putin must act; it’s only a matter of how. Should protests engulf Russia, the situation could easily degenerate into a crisis similar to the Maidan protests in Ukraine, except that Putin would be unlikely to flee the country and would instead try to end protests. While this strategy has worked in the past, if the recession worsens, or the crackdowns become more violent, Putin could face a revolution, a scenario that would have disastrous affects for Putin, the Russian people and the rest of the world.

For all that can be said about Putin, he is certainly a skilled statesman. It’s a pity that he has put himself in a proverbial corner by crushing dissent and invading weak neighbors instead of using his power and influence to bring positive and sustainable change to Russia that would bring long-term benefits to his people and the world.

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by Joe Staff

(photo credit: veooz.com, blogs.canoe.ca)