He’s been in power for as long as many Russians can remember. He carried the last presidential election with nearly 77 percent of the vote. And his country commands such attention abroad that its cartoon about a little girl and her bear buddy has been cast by some in the West as a hybrid-warfare “superweapon.”
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has rattled Russian sabers and Western nerves with warnings about a range of real weapons Moscow is deploying or developing, grabbing headlines and reviving memories of the nuclear-armed standoff between the two Cold War superpowers. His country has clout in the Middle East for the first time in decades, and closer to home it holds on tightly to Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsula that he claims is as sacred to Russians as the Temple Mount is to Muslims and Jews.
In some ways, Putin is riding high. But early in a six-year term that could be his last, there are cracks in the facade — indications that all is not going as smoothly as a president who recently said his “love for Russia…has increased manifold” since he came to power nearly 20 years ago might hope.
Even if fraud is factored in, Putin can cite his March electoral landslide as evidence that Russians love him back. Or at least like him. Or see little alternative. But nearly half a decade after the president gave his relationship with the public a big jolt by seizing Crimea from Ukraine, some of the romance seems to have drained away, leaving a simple question: Has Putin lost his touch?
Some signs say yes, and so do some analysts.
“He is losing his connection with the Russian people,” says Mark Galeotti, an author and expert on Russia and a senior nonresident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
On The Road Again
Putin has made raising Russia’s profile on the global stage a big part of his agenda, and he often seems most animated on trips abroad. Staged or spontaneous, that phenomenon was on display when he and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman — who was facing opprobrium over the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — greeted each other with an ebullient high five at a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on November 30.
At home, Putin — a leader with a penchant for telegenic stunts and forceful phrases — has shown flashes of apathy in his new term.
“Putin didn’t even try to hide his boredom” at a high-profile gathering of foreign-policy experts in October, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote. And a month after his May 7 inauguration, Putin looked disinterested at times on the Direct Line program, the annual marathon call-in show he uses to show he’s got his finger on the country’s pulse.
“It’s all very well being willing to high five with a fellow autocrat,” Galeotti says. But Putin has been making fewer trips around Russia to keep local officials in line and “demonstrate that the tsar still cares about his subjects.”
Those Were The Days
Putin’s poll numbers could certainly be better — in fact, they have rarely been worse. The economy is sluggish, Western sanctions seem like they’re here to stay, and the search for a unifying national idea is still on — or may be over without a satisfactory result.
The Kremlin tends to portray Putin as something like a tsar, or even a savior: a matchless leader who lifted Russia off its knees after the difficult decade that followed the Soviet collapse. But 19 years after Boris Yeltsin handed him the presidency, and with three full terms behind him, he seems to be struggling to give the country new momentum — or even keep it running in place.
In his first two terms, in 2000-08, Putin was “in a blessed situation,” Galeotti explains. “There was ample money, the economy was buoyant” — with high world oil prices fueling strong GDP growth, and Western preoccupation with terrorism, among other things, meant a “permissive international system” for the relatively unknown Russian president.
“Now, money’s tight and in some ways getting tighter,” Galeotti says. And “at the same time that Putin seems to have fewer resources at his disposal, the job is getting harder.”
For one thing, the economic conditions are tougher. And animus in the West — which began rising with Russia’s takeover of Crimea and has been exacerbated by its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote and use of a weapons-grade chemical poison in Britain, among other things — means there’s little chance of relief from painful sanctions.
At least three times in the past year — in his state-of-the-nation speech in March, his inaugural address in May, and his annual press conference on December 20 — Putin called for a technological “breakthrough” to bolster the economy and raise living standards. There’s little sign of that; quite the opposite, Audit Chamber chief Aleksei Kudrin warned in late November, saying the economy was in one of its longest, deepest slumps since World War II.
Russia was in a “serious stagnation pit” and any additional Western sanctions could make it much worse, said Kudrin, Putin’s finance minister in the era of oil-fueled growth in 2000-08. He said new sanctions could restrict technology transfers with the West — a development that would dampen hopes for the kind of breakthrough the president has been seeking.
With or without new sanctions, Putin’s stated goal of doubling gross domestic product by 2021 — around the time analysts believe he may start revealing his plans for what comes after 2024, when a constitutional limit of two straight terms bars him from seeking reelection — may be unrealistic.
As he headed into his current term, Putin also called for cutting poverty in half by the time it’s over.
Poverty And Pensions
Nine months later, an institute founded by presidential decree suggested that poverty is more pervasive than state statistics show. A November 21 report by the Russian Presidential Academy of the National Economy and Public Administration said 22 percent of Russians lived in the “poverty zone” while another 36 percent were hard-pressed to buy anything beyond food and clothing.
Then there’s Putin’s pension problem.
After years of hesitation, the government in June proposed a pension-reform program that will raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women.
Economists say it is sorely needed. But it has also sparked anger as a perceived violation of the basic compact that analysts say Putin has tried to maintain with the Russian people since the more cash-flush years of his first two terms — basically, you scratch my back politically, I scratch yours economically.
For hardworking, short-living Russians, the pension-age hike is more like a stab in the back.
Amid a summer surge of protests and public anger, the Kremlin tried to distance Putin from the legislation. But he signed it into law on September 3, and polls suggest that effort was unsuccessful.
Who’s To Blame?
In the past, Putin has persistently managed to avoid blame for Russia’s woes, with state-controlled media helping him pin setbacks on others — the West, his cabinet, and incompetent or corrupt lower-level officials are among the usual suspects.
But in a late-November survey by independent pollster Levada, 61 percent of respondents said Putin bore full responsibility for the country’s problems — a substantial increase over previous years — while 22 percent said he was partially responsible. The combined figure, 83 percent, was the highest ever.
And if a presidential election were held days after the survey, 56 percent of likely voters said they would cast their ballot for Putin — down from 66 percent a year earlier.
Regional elections in September also pointed to problems for Putin. Candidates from the ruling United Russia party fell short in four regions, and the Kremlin appeared to have to jump through hoops to get anything close to the desired result.
For Konstantin Gaaze, the elections made it official: “The Crimean consensus is dead.” The elections “revealed that the Russian public is frustrated, uncertain about the future, and electrified with protest sentiments,” Gaaze, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on September 21. “The largest coalition of support for the Russian regime in modern history is over.”
TV Vs. Fridge
At home, this faded glow has left many Russians fearing for the future — and getting little comfort from the Kremlin, according to Tatyana Stanovaya, who heads the political-analysis firm R.Politik.
“As post-Crimea euphoria has receded, causing the public to shift its attention from the television to the refrigerator, the issues of social injustice and declining standards of living have come to the fore,” Stanovaya wrote in late November.
But with Putin’s poll numbers down and elections causing more trouble than before, his administration is using its resources “to manage political risks instead of addressing social issues,” she wrote. “The Kremlin…overlooks headlines on social issues that fuel the public’s fear and anger, since these are not seen to pose a direct threat to its political survival.”
There are plenty of signs of concern.
Describing a “tale of two Russias,” a BBC Moscow correspondent juxtaposed an article in the official government gazette about a 1.5 trillion-ruble ($23 billion) weapons spending plan with headlines in other Russian papers that said, in effect, “Russians are poor,” “wages are falling,” and sausage prices may rise sharply.
The Russian economy is not in recession now, as it was for two years after the 2014 oil-price plunge and the onset of Western sanctions over aggression in Ukraine; but a Deloitte survey on spending plans for the winter holiday season showed that 61 percent of Russians think it is — up from 51 percent this time last year.
And a recent survey of consumer confidence found anything but, instead revealing pessimism and concerns about prices.
In a Levada poll in October about long-term planning, 46 percent of Russians said, “I don’t even know what will happen to me in the next few months,” up 10 percentage points from May 2016.
Cronies, Corruption, And Breakfast Gloom
“Russians are tired of sitting in a pit,” was how Aleksei Levinson, an analyst at Levada, put it in the financial daily Vedomosti on December 11.
An annual Vedomosti business breakfast looking ahead to the New Year “has never been so gloomy” as this one, foreign-policy analyst Aleksandr Gabuyev wrote after the gathering in early December. Sanctions were barely mentioned, he wrote — the “real problems” cited were the prevalence of state ownership as well as “cronies, police pressure, [and] corruption.”
The seizure of Crimea nearly five years ago set in motion a series of aggressive moves that drew attention to Russia, raising Russia’s profile on the global stage. But at what cost?
Warranted or not, Putin’s hand is seen everywhere. The idea that a children’s cartoon called Masha And The Bear could be a hybrid-warfare weapon, or that Russia could be behind the Yellow Vest protests in France, is a reflection of the outsize image the Kremlin now casts abroad — a giant shadow puppet that looms menacingly on a spotlighted wall.
But pretty much every big move Russia has made beyond its borders since 2014 — or been accused of making — has brought criticism or condemnation from the West. In Syria, Putin is accused of propping up a bloody dictator; in Britain, of committing a chemical-weapons attack.
Some of the actions he may see as wins, meanwhile, could also be interpreted as Pyrrhic victories at best and dead losses at worst.
If Russian interference helped elect the U.S. president in 2016, for example, that does not appear to have brought improved ties — more than two years after the vote, they are arguably worse than ever.
And if Russia’s takeover of Crimea and role in a separatist war in Ukraine were meant to keep Kyiv closer to Moscow’s orbit, they have in some ways backfired badly: They have pushed away a population deeply intertwined with Russia for more than a millennium.
“For [a] very long time, Russia will have to live next to [a] country that sees it as [its] worst enemy,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted on December 16.
That effect, clearly undesirable for Putin, was on display when Orthodox Christian leaders in Ukraine met on December 15 to form a new, unified church free from Russian claims of supremacy or sway — “a church without Putin,” as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko put it.
Aleksei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader who was barred from the presidential ballot in March, suggested that Putin had done exactly what he claims the West is out to do: tear up Moscow’s ties with its neighbors and weaken Russia.
“That which was created over hundreds of years was destroyed by Putin and his idiots in four years,” Navalny tweeted as the clerics gathered in Kyiv. “Putin is the enemy of the Russian World.”
Another prominent critic, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, argues similarly that Putin has ruined Russia’s reputation rather than restored it.
It’s The Economy, Stupid
“The Kremlin in its current form — until Putin leaves — will never be seen as a strategic partner,” Khodorkovsky said in a recent interview.
Of course, some analysts say Putin encourages a siege mentality and whips up anti-Western sentiment to both bolster his image and draw attention away from problems within Russia itself.
But with the Crimea bump going flat, Putin may need to look for new ways to do that. And they may be hard to find.
An aggressive new adventure abroad, such as a bid to bring Belarus into Russia or under its complete control, could be prohibitively costly and difficult to pull off — as well as having unpredictable consequences.
An “attempt to fully integrate Belarus” with Russia could produce a “new crisis,” Trenin tweeted.
But doing what Russians want most would require massive political will and could also come with risks that Putin may not want at this point.
“Any kind of economic improvement would basically require truly systemic changes,” Galeotti says, such as implementing the rule of law and tackling corruption at the highest levels, where it counts. “I just don’t see him having the enthusiasm or energy to essentially declare war on his own elite.”
In any case, Bershidsky suggested that Putin has put Russia in a place that it’s going to be hard for him — or whoever comes next — to get it out of.
“Unless the country retraces some of the steps Putin took down a messianic, solitary path and reimagines itself as part of a bigger whole, it’s doomed to keep falling behind economically, demographically, and intellectually,” he wrote.