international analysis and commentary

A cautious President Putin in a chaotic environment

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Vladimir Putin won his third term as president in a way that even he did not expect. Russia’s top politician had to fight for this victory much harder than in past elections. The change in the political atmosphere in the country, clearly expressed by the large-scale protests in Moscow this winter, compelled the prime minister to run a US-style campaign. He visited most of the regions, held dozens of meetings with different social groups, published seven articles on all aspects of policy, made sure that his campaign was heavily publicized and reaffirmed his ability to mobilize his core supporters.

What lessons did he learn from that? Putin seems to be aware that something has changed in Russia. He partly blames foreign instigation for this, but to a large extent he understands that society has become more dynamic and wants change, at least in personalities. Putin even acknowledges that the protesters are a product of his own rule – relatively wealthy young professionals who want more diversity. The problem is that the president seems to be convinced that those demands, however well-intentioned, are wrong and unacceptable. Talking in February to a group of political commentators, he passionately defended the principle of gradual change, arguing that it would still be too early for a wide-ranging liberalization of political life, as the state system remains extremely fragile: it will take years to stabilize and complete the consolidation of the Russian state. He even used a very interesting word in describing the country’s top priority:  “dostroika”, i.e. to finish building. Any Russian citizen over 30 years of age remembers Gorbachev’s term perestroika – rebuilding. Putin and like-minded skeptics of perestroika thought from the start that there would be a fine line between the best intentions and total state collapse; they now firmly believe that the only sensible course is a cautious approach. This is the classic position of Russian conservatives who always call for more time: the problem, as history teaches, is that they never get enough time – life destroys all calculated plans of gradual reforms.

The challenges that lie ahead for Putin will not be easy. Russia faces numerous problems, one of which is conceptual in nature – the search for a political model to replace the one that worked relatively well in the 2000s but has been exhausted for objective reasons. The choice of such a model depends on the current and future Russian leaders. However, Russia and its policies are strongly, almost fatally, dependent on a host of external factors that are beyond Moscow’s control. It can only react to them and basically do damage control.

What will happen in the European Union? The prospects of the world economy and the oil market, which have a decisive influence on the Russian economy, depend on the ability of the EU to overcome the eurozone crisis and, more broadly, the crisis of the European integration model. Will US politicians manage to halt their runaway debt? Will America’s financial system start to gradually recover? Will China be able to maintain the same growth rates as before, thereby remaining the engine of the world economy? What will happen in the Middle East, which plays a key role in world energy markets? The answers to these questions are unclear, and once they start to emerge, Russia will have to adapt its policy as it goes along.

Domestic events are also a cause for concern. Despite Putin’s impressive win, the mood in the country has changed and the politically active part of society will demand progress, especially if some of the aforementioned uncertainties should result in crisis, instability and lack of confidence. A fresh groundswell of discontent (the current one will soon subside) would put the government in a difficult position.

In today’s interconnected world, turbulence inside a country resonates in the outside world. This happens not through the malice of certain actors but by virtue of how the global environment functions. As soon as instability inside a system becomes visible to the rest of the word, it begins to interact with external actors. Owing to information and communication links, a variety of actors can set off chain reactions, turning into catalysts of instability. Thus, governments everywhere have to learn how to walk on thin ice and face true dilemmas. For instance, the suppression of protests could actually invigorate them and lead to even greater external involvement. But allowing protests to proceed could also result in escalation, as they start growing and attracting global attention.

Russia, of course, is not the Arab world; luckily, there is a whole range of possibilities between surrender and crackdown. The danger is that mistakes and miscalculations in managing this domestic/international mix are always easy to make.

As for foreign policy proper, we should not expect major changes in Moscow: after all, even during Medvedev’s tenure as president, Putin’s role in it was crucial. Indeed, nothing Medvedev did was against Putin’s will, although the former had some space for maneuver. Putin perceives the world as a very dangerous and unpredictable place, in which Russia must be ready to counter numerous challenges and threats. This renders his current core message somewhat more cautious than that of five years ago, for instance. The tone today is one of alarm and concern, more than aggressiveness. Even criticism of the West is now expressed differently than in the past, almost in despair. He seems to be saying, “all you do makes the international situation worse, whatever you try to achieve.”

In sum, despite his strongly nationalistic rhetoric, Putin’s credo in world affairs will most likely rely on the medical principle “do no harm”. Recent developments have shown that serious strategic planning is virtually pointless in the current unpredictable world. It appears that the way Russia has traditionally responded to continuously changing foreign impulses remains the only rational choice. It is for this that the former and future president is preparing himself and the country.