If the Russian President’s high-stakes plan to weaken the West fails to pan out soon, he could find himself facing growing unrest at home. Illustration by Chris Slane.
Pressures are building in Russia over a system of governance marked by economic stagnation, widespread corruption, rampart inequality and growing repression.
Since his return to the Russian presidency in 2012 and after mass demonstrations against him fuelled by vote-rigging allegations in the parliamentary elections, Putin has hardened his conviction that the West is inimically opposed to his regime.
In an echo of the Soviet past, he has found it politically convenient to speak of a Western threat and cast domestic opponents as traitors and tools of foreign interests.
In this vein, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine during the past three years has generated the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West in the post-Cold War era, but it has enabled Putin to play the patriotic card at home.
In 2013, Moscow used economic pressure on Ukraine to block a proposed trade association agreement with the European Union, and when angry anti-Government protests toppled the Yanukovych leadership in Kiev in February 2014, the Kremlin reacted with force.
After annexing Crimea in March 2014 and then actively supporting armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s Russia was targeted by several rounds of international sanctions from the US and EU. The Putin Government retaliated with sanctions of its own against a number of Western countries, including Germany.
Meanwhile, Moscow has opposed Western diplomatic efforts to remove the Assad dictatorship from power during the Syrian civil war and intervened militarily in September 2015 in a six-month operation to safeguard its Syrian ally.
More discreetly, Putin has sought to undermine what he sees as Moscow’s adversaries in the liberal international order. This strategy has involved, among other things, backing socially conservative, extreme nationalist forces – in the UK, Germany, France and the US – that oppose globalisation and promise “to take back control” of their countries.
To this end, the Kremlin has used the Russian state media to emphasise the ideas and activities of the Brexit leaders, to depict Angela Merkel’s refugee policy in Germany in a wholly negative way, to indicate a clear preference for anti-establishment politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, and to largely trash the views of those who do not subscribe to this political line.
In addition, there is evidence the Putin regime has provided some financial backing for far-right nationalist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) in Germany as well as the National Front in France.
Many members of the US intelligence community also believe Russia used its cyber capabilities to interfere in the 2016 US election. It is alleged Russian security services penetrated Hillary Clinton’s private email system and passed on stolen emails to WikiLeaks and were also behind a separate hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, which caused turmoil within that party.
A direct threat to Putin’s legitimacy
So why is the Putin regime backing ultra-nationalist parties and politicians in the EU and the US? Above all, Putin’s strategy is intended to weaken the unity of these Western actors and contribute to a climate in which international sanctions against Moscow can be lifted.
These sanctions are seen in Moscow as a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Putin Government. They highlight that after 16 years in power, Putin has failed to diversify the Russian economy and that key figures in his regime have hugely benefited from an economy dependent on oil, gas and minerals.
Since 2014, the Russian economy has been hit by a plummeting rouble, spiralling inflation, substantial capital flight and, until late 2016, virtually no growth. Declining financial reserves have also forced the Putin Government into an austerity drive that has so far spared the military and social services from cuts, but if the reserves continue to run down, austerity might have to be extended to these politically sensitive sectors.
In short, Putin is facing conditions at home that belie his claim that Russia is a resurgent great power, and he knows he has limited time to break international sanctions and reassure his wealthy inner circle he can counter growing signs of discontent within Russian society.
In the past, some of Putin’s harshest critics have met a bloody fate, and his utter determination to remain Russia’s strongman should not be doubted. But the size and scope of the challenge to Putin’s rule seem to be growing just a year before the 2018 presidential election is due to be held.
On March 26, a wave of unsanctioned rallies were held across Russia to protest corruption in the Putin Government. The angry protests followed allegations that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been enjoying a lavish lifestyle when many Russians are economically struggling. The recent terrorist attack in St Petersburg that killed 14 people could further compound domestic disquiet.
Although the Putin regime was encouraged last year by the narrow victory of the Leave camp in the referendum on British membership of the EU and also by Trump’s presidential election victory, it would be premature for the Kremlin to count on the prospect of a divided West and the end of sanctions on Moscow.
First, the UK’s Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Trump are already finding it tough to deliver on their respective nationalist agendas in today’s interdependent world where economic, environmental and security concerns rarely respect territorial boundaries.
Second, democracies such as the UK and US retain the capacity to change policies that are not working. People in both countries can now begin to see the effects of what they voted for in 2016 and there are indications that many of them may not like what is emerging.
And that, in turn, makes politicians such as Trump less predictable than Moscow would like. The American missile strike last week against Syria – a key Putin ally – underlines this point.
If Putin has underestimated the resilience of the liberal order in the face of nationalist populist forces in 2017, he could yet find the task of convincing Russians there is no alternative to his own authoritarian rule more difficult than expected.
Robert G Patman is professor of international relations at the University of Otago.