If you look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, you can see his soul. At least, that’s what George W Bush said after the two met for the first time. But whatever the former US President thought he could tell about the famously steely Russian President’s thoughts and feelings, they have eluded the rest of us. Whether hunting Siberian tigers or taking on all-powerful oligarchs, he likes to look like he’s in control, shaping events.
Now, facing unprecedented challenges at home and abroad, it looks more like it is the events that are shaping Putin. The dual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and an oil crisis have delivered a double blow to Russia’s economy. Abroad, crises in the Middle East and on his own border, in Belarus, have left the country overextended. Worse still for Putin, this has fuelled growing domestic opposition, with anti-Kremlin parties making small but significant gains at the local and regional elections this week.
After two decades in office, Putin has good reason to worry about his legacy. Having lived through the political paralysis after the fall of the Soviet Union, he has been the driving force behind Russia’s so-called “super-presidential” system. Consolidating the power in the hands of the President has created economic growth and political stability. Now, that is all at risk.
When the price of oil fell to historic lows earlier this year, it spelled disaster for Russia’s economy. For Putin, dealing with these kinds of blows is just part of the job, after countless crises and sanctions. Having witnessed Russia’s near-collapse in the debt crisis of the late-1990s, the notoriously austere leader’s plan was to simply tighten belts. But, when the country’s Finance Ministry published its budget this week there were none of the expected cuts. Instead, the Kremlin has chosen to change tack, to dip into reserves and to potentially borrow billions to sustain their spending plans.
For Putin, who prides himself on having paid off Russia’s net public debts in full at the end of last year, this can’t have been an easy decision to make. Fearing the impact of coronavirus and falling domestic support, it is understandable that he would be nervous about cutting government programmes and services, even if it would have been his preferred option.
Any fears he had about public support have been shown to be well-founded after the results of more than 9,000 local, regional and national elections were declared on Monday. Historically, the majority of these have been a long way off competitive, with candidates from the United Russia party or Kremlin-backed Independents tending to sweep to victory. Not so this time – with opposition parties winning regional seats across Russia and depriving the ruling party of majorities in two cities.
The elections were cast as a particular success for the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Putin. Before being transferred to a German hospital after what his supporters allege to be a state-sponsored poisoning, Navalny had been campaigning for a tactical voting programme aimed at ousting United Russia politicians and allies of the Kremlin. For years, Putin has had no serious domestic opposition to be concerned about, but it appears that he can no longer afford to ignore dissent.
Outside of Russia’s borders, Putin is being forced into increasingly difficult and uncharacteristic positions as well. After colossal civil protests broke out in Belarus following the Presidential election, widely regarded to have been rigged, it brought unrest uncomfortably close to Russia’s borders. While Putin has a reported personal dislike of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the potential loss of his closest regional ally will have given him cause for concern.
Ordinarily, Putin might have simply cut Lukashenko off to avoid being dragged into another conflict and given how toxic the Belarusian leader is at present. On top of this, the opposition to Lukashenko is by no means anti-Russian. In almost all cases, supporters of now-exiled pro-democracy leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya have avoided taking aim at Putin or the Kremlin. But tensions with the West appear to have fuelled suspicion of a “colour revolution”, aimed at delivering Belarus into the arms of NATO. Against this backdrop, Putin is evidently not in the mood to take risks, pledging £1.2 billion in loan payments after a meeting with the embattled strongman this week.
In the past, Putin was less risk averse when it came to foreign policy, and has turned several such crises into personal victories. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 created armed conflict on Russia’s doorstep, but ended in all-time high ratings for the President who delivered what was seen as the reunification of the region.
But now, a series of less popular and costly engagements elsewhere appear to have forced him to change his approach.
In the Middle East, Turkey and Turkish-backed militants are waging an increasingly effective war against the Russian-backed Syrian government in Idlib. Just last week, Ankara took credit for strikes against numerous Syrian government targets, as well as the downing of a helicopter. With independent polls showing that fewer than half of Russians support the campaign in Syria, it is little wonder that Putin is feeling overextended in his foreign policy.
If Putin is indeed considering how he might begin to transition away from the day-to-day job of President, then it is likely that the next few months and years will define the Russia he leaves behind. Although he may have had a firm plan for what he wanted to achieve, new and unexpected events have thrown him off course. What is clear, however, is that when it comes to his legacy, it is still all to play for.