The news on state television shows Russia advancing on every front. Top of the bulletin, most nights, are images of Russian soldiers in Syria, apparently monitoring the wobbly ceasefire there. Then come clips of meetings between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and foreign dignitaries such as United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. Later are scenes from Ukraine, a country portrayed as descending into chaos since turning its back on Moscow.
The message is easy to grasp for viewers across all 11 time zones of this sprawling country: Russia is back.
The West tried to isolate Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and failed. It is too big and too powerful to be ignored.
Much of what passes for the news on the television here is outright propaganda – independent media outlets having been marginalized or taken over by the state more than a decade ago – but the messaging works because it nonetheless contains more than a kernel of truth.
In Syria, seven months of Russian air strikes have tilted the conflict back in favour of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and have put additional pressure on the European Union by sending fresh tides of refugees in that direction. (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander in Europe accused Russia and Syria this week of “deliberately weaponizing migration” as the continent braces to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees again this year.)
The week-old ceasefire in Syria happened because Russia wanted it to. The appearance of a foreign war being halted, however briefly, by Washington and Moscow – the two superpowers of old, alone at the bargaining table – delivered a massive boost to Russia’s prestige on the world stage.
In Ukraine, where the conflict between Russia and the West began in earnest with the fall of Viktor Yanukovych two years ago, another ceasefire is holding around the Moscow-backed separatist enclaves in the southeast of the country, a peace of sorts that puts the country’s Western-backed government in a difficult corner while granting the Kremlin many of its key aims.
At home, a domestic opposition has been trembling since last year’s killing of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Kremlin adviser told The Globe and Mail last week that it was “95 per cent” certain that Mr. Putin would serve six more years in the presidency after his current term runs out in 2018.
So, two years on from the annexation of Crimea, is Mr. Putin winning his high-stakes showdown with the West? The short answer is yes. So far.
“Russia has showed that it’s much stronger than it had been regarded by international media and the international elites,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the country’s Public Chamber that monitors government decisions. In both Syria and Ukraine, “Russia has shown that it’s an actor without which it’s impossible to resolve the situation,” he said.
The longer reply is that the Russian leader, while advancing on the global stage, may have left himself exposed on the home front. And his victories abroad may soon look Pyrrhic unless his foreign-policy gains are followed by a domestic economic turnaround.
Low oil prices (Russia is the world’s second-largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia) and Western sanctions over Ukraine have shoved the economy into a tailspin, threatening the key social compact of Mr. Putin’s 16-plus years in power: Kremlin-managed economic stability in exchange for the public’s passive support for its agenda.
“The model of development that was pretty successful in the 2000s and started to stagnate in the 2010s now has been exhausted,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based foreign-policy journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“In the foreign-policy game, [Mr. Putin] is pretty successful, but the general course is pretty unclear.”
Going into Syria
Russia’s military move into Syria took the West by surprise. The Kremlin, it had been assumed, was isolated and overstretched by its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, incapable of providing anything more than diplomatic support to Mr. al-Assad, a long-time ally.
As with the seizure of Crimea – another move no Western leader seemed prepared for – Mr. Putin’s gamble has altered the rules of the game.
The gains from Russia’s intervention in Syria have been many. Most obvious has been a break in the prolonged stalemate between Mr. al-Assad’s army and the assorted rebel groups – some backed by the United States, others by Sunni Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey – arrayed against the regime. With their opponents battered by Russian air strikes, Mr. al-Assad’s forces have been on the advance in recent months, encircling the main rebel-held city of Aleppo just before the ceasefire took hold on Feb. 27.
Mr. al-Assad, whose area of control was at one point reduced to just Damascus and the Mediterranean coast heartland of his Alawite sect, now speaks of recapturing all of Syria.
But the most important victory has been the restoration of the idea that Russia matters. The next U.S. president – whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or someone else – will have to talk to the Kremlin about Syria. Ignoring Moscow is no longer an option.
“Russia’s presence [in Syria] changed almost everything in terms of the situation on the ground and the political dimension, which was absolutely not expected and not envisioned by Western counterparts. Russia basically escaped isolation,” Mr. Lukyanov said.
And that has implications for Ukraine, the other front in this Cold War-esque struggle.
The West’s official position is that sanctions against Russia – targeting its defence, energy and banking sectors – will remain in place until Moscow fulfills its obligations under a peace deal signed last February in the Belarussian capital of Minsk. Among other measures, the Minsk deal calls for the Ukrainian government to regain full control of its border with Russia, a step that would make it far more difficult for Moscow to supply its allies in the mini-states of Donetsk and Lugansk. Nothing like that has happened. Meanwhile, Russia says that it’s the government in Kiev that hasn’t fulfilled the Minsk deal.
Mr. Lukyanov said the Kremlin is happy with the stalemate in Ukraine. Crimea is in Russian hands. The existence of the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” effectively blocks Ukraine from joining NATO. And the political situation inside the country is deteriorating on its own, with President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – co-leaders of the pro-Western revolution that deposed the Russian-backed Mr. Yanukovych two years ago – turning on each other with accusations of corruption. There’s growing fatigue in Western capitals with the slow pace of reforms in the country.
There are already signs that Western solidarity over Ukraine and the sanctions is cracking. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi raised eyebrows in Washington and Berlin when he announced two weeks ago that he would attend the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, a traditional showcase for Russian businesses. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has suggested that he may do the same.
Western diplomats whisper that the Kremlin may prevail simply because it cares more about Ukraine than the West does.
An end to the sanctions row would allow Mr. Putin to turn his attention back to what Mr. Lukyanov called Russia’s “existential, conceptual deadlock” over what to do next.
TV vs. fridge
Russia’s economists and political scientists talk of a battle between “the television set and the fridge.” The TV – which largely skips over the large and mounting economic troubles, or blames them all on external enemies – has been successful in convincing Russians that their country is getting stronger and that they should therefore be proud of their government.
Their increasingly bare fridges tell a different story. The unanswered question is how long Russians are willing to listen to the arguments from one appliance over the evidence in the other.
So far, the TV set rules. The Russian economy is forecast to shrink for a third consecutive year in 2016. The era of high oil prices appears over, at least for now. The ruble is worth less than half what it was during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, before the revolution in Kiev, the seizure of Crimea and all that has come since.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama extended sanctions against Russia for another year. Canada, despite the Liberal government’s stated desire to resume contacts with Moscow that were suspended by the Conservatives, is moving slowly on the relationship and is likely to follow the White House’s lead on sanctions.
Yet Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain near 85 per cent.
“In some senses, people are eating this feeling of being a great power, in addition to real foodstuffs. It’s a substitute for a good economic performance,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “People feel themselves in a besieged fortress. They feel Stockholm syndrome affection toward Vladimir Putin, and they try to find external enemies, such as the West.”
But the problems are real and piling up. Oil prices remain well below $40 (U.S.) a barrel, down from more than $100 when Mr. Putin signed the papers to formally annex Crimea, and much lower than the $50 assumed in Russia’s budget forecasts for 2016. (More than half of government revenues traditionally come from oil and gas exports.)
The ruble has correspondingly plunged from 33 to the U.S. dollar before the Crimea takeover to more than 80 earlier this year before recovering to just over 72 to the dollar on Friday. Ordinary Russians have been hit hard in the wallet: Official inflation was 15.5 per cent last year. Fruit and vegetable prices rose at double that pace.
With Mr. Putin unwilling to trim back on military adventures, the cuts have come elsewhere. In January, all departments – except the Ministry of Defence, which accounts for roughly a quarter of all government spending – were told they needed to cut 10 per cent from their budgets. State pensions, normally sacrosanct, were quietly de-indexed from the inflation rate, as Finance Minister Anton Siluanov warned that the country risked depleting the $50-billion remaining in its Reserve Fund, one of two coffers the government has built up as buffers against financial collapse, perhaps by the end of the year.
While the unemployment rate remains steady at 5.8 per cent, that number is considered misleading as many Russian companies have reduced hours – asking employees to come in for only two or three shifts a week, instead of five – rather than resorting to layoffs. On Wednesday, the government warned that 500,000 factory workers were “at risk” of losing their jobs outright in the months ahead.
“People don’t seem to connect the President’s activities with the economy,” said Stepan Goncharov, an analyst at the Levada Analytical Centre, which conducts regular polls of Russian public opinion. “The President remains a figure who is not to be criticized. He’s connected with the successes in foreign affairs. People think he is increasing the international prestige of Russia.”
While the centre’s surveys show that support for Mr. Putin is undiminished, the responses to other questions its pollsters asked reveal that the economic crisis is starting to bite. Seventy-five per cent of Russians said the country’s standard of living fell in 2015, up from the 57 per cent who said it fell in 2014.
The last time Russians felt this gloomy about their personal economic situation was the height of the financial crisis of 1998.
“Putin seems to be winning right now, in this situation, because he pays a lot of money for defence, for his foreign policy. But when you provide this hard-line foreign policy, and you don’t provide [domestic] reforms, things can change drastically and suddenly,” said Dmitry Gudkov, the lone Kremlin critic in Russia’s 450-seat parliament, the Duma.
“We have a lot of conflicts in our society, a lot of contradictions that are not being solved.”
Cracks at the base
There were maybe 100 of them, white-haired pensioners all, blocking a street in the former Olympic city of Sochi to protest against government plans to cut their transportation benefits. The same mid-January day, a different group of pensioners staged a similar protest in Krasnodar, another south Russian city. In December, it was truck drivers who were up in arms, choking highways around Moscow to protest the introduction of new toll roads that the government said were needed to raise revenue.
The protests, though small, were nonetheless significant because they represented cracks – however tiny – in what some here call the Putin Majority. These were not the Moscow intelligentsia who take to the streets for occasional rallies, including a march on Feb. 27 to mark the anniversary of the Mr. Nemtsov’s killing just outside the Kremlin walls.
Pensioners and truck drivers – working-class Russia – are Mr. Putin’s support base, people who have voted for him at every opportunity since he appeared on the political scene at the end of the chaotic 1990s. They admire his tough style of leadership, and don’t share Western concerns about issues such as media freedom or gay rights in the country. They’re the ones who say they’re willing to tighten up spending to help pay for the return of Crimea and the restoration of a powerful Russia.
The pensioners and the truckers were careful to make it clear that they were not protesting Mr. Putin, only appealing to him for help. Still, the demonstrations have given the opposition hope that working-class Russians may soon – though not yet – be ready to listen to its argument that Mr. Putin is the problem, rather than the man with all the answers.
Duma elections are scheduled for September, and while few expect the vote itself to produce change, the last elections in 2011 – and evidence of fraud favouring the pro-Putin United Russia party that came to light – brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Moscow and other cities, briefly shaking Mr. Putin’s grip on power.
Mr. Markov, the government adviser, said the Kremlin saw those protests as an American-funded effort to oust Mr. Putin, and expects another push either this fall or around the presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2018, the same year Russia is due to host soccer’s World Cup.
“I think it will be a repeat of what happened before,” he said, referring to how the protests of 2011 and 2012 largely ran out of momentum on their own. “Those who will go to protest will be strong, but also their isolation in society will be much bigger this time.”
However, he warned that Mr. Putin would never capitulate the way Mr. Yanukovych eventually did when faced by swelling street action in Kiev. He said the Kremlin would use “all means” to defeat a U.S.-backed “coup.”
Mr. Putin recently told the heads of Russia’s FSB (the former KGB) that they needed to be ready to “quash” any efforts to “split our society” during the election period.
Opposition figures say such talk reveals how nervous the Kremlin, despite all its successes, really is about what might come next. Some believe that the television set is slowly losing its edge over the reality in Russians’ refrigerators.
“This is not the behaviour of a government that has 80-per-cent support, or whatever they say,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition figure who survived a severe poisoning last year that he believes was an attempt to kill him. “This is a regime that is afraid of the slightest challenge to its authority. I think they have a right to be.”