2020 should have been a great year for Vladimir Putin, but, like for so many other people with big plans for this year, it is ending quite disappointingly.
The year promised much in the way of maintaining Putin in power for years to come. Growth returned (already in 2019) to levels unseen in years and a referendum in June on a new Constitution, which would allow Putin to stay in office until 2036, passed by a sufficient margin – even if aided by irregular and suspicious methods. Abroad, Russia solidified its presence in Syria and expanded its commercial and security interests across Africa. In its relations with the West, Russia effectively withstood sanctions by accepting the economic consequences and increasing resilience of the sectors most critical to Putin: those in the hands of his elite.
Western pressure over the war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the use of a form of chemical weapons in the UK against former Russian intelligence agents also failed to change Russian behavior. Meanwhile, a normalization of sorts occurred through Donald Trump’s pursuit of cooperation with Putin – even after various investigations demonstrated the mechanisms by which Russia had interfered in domestic US politics.
From that promising position, the problems began and continue to mount. While no single challenge is insurmountable, the diversity and scale of Russia’s difficulties are beginning to identify the country’s social and diplomatic limits.
Due to the global economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 virus, the economy is forecasted to decline by 6% over the entire year due to a collapse in energy demand. Meanwhile, protests in the far east of Russia have not subsided in months.
Further afield, aggressive behavior by Russian forces against American counterparts has prompted the US military to send more troops, armored vehicles and fighter jets to Syria. Russian mercenaries in the Wagner private military and security group have left Libya due to the tough fighting. In the United States, Trump, due to his various shortcomings and problems, appears poised to hand a sweeping victory to the Democratic Party – which might exact revenge for the electoral interference in 2016.
In Russia’s border areas, however, the situation looks even worse: the kaleidoscope of challenges runs the length of its western and southwestern borders and will test the durability of the years of effort Putin has put in to reestablishing Russia as the dominant regional power. In Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Kyrgyz Republic, Russia has struggled to come to grips with a popular revolt against Kremlin-backed leaders and especially foreign participation in local affairs – which was unthinkable in the years when Russia was on the ascendancy.
In the Baltic Sea, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is only 100 kilometers from completion, but the fallout from Alexei Navalny’s Novichok chemical weapon poisoning has slowed the final permissions. This may portend further economic sanctions on Russia under the Biological Weapons Convention (dating back to 1975). This pipeline is meant to limit Russia’s dependence on pipelines running through Poland and Ukraine and provide Germany an inexpensive source of natural gas, a political combination long decried by Central European politicians.
In Belarus, an openly rigged election in August to keep long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko in power has sparked weeks of mass protests, leading Putin to back Lukashenko to avoid another Ukraine-style social revolution. International condemnation against Lukashenko has mounted as violence from his police against the population has increased and as he has jailed or exiled his opponents. His chief rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, called for a nationwide general strike on October 26th. A successful action would put Putin in the position of continuing to fund Lukashenko’s hold on power or dealing with the ouster of yet another loyal regional leader.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, the challenge to Russian authority is perhaps the most drastic. Russia has so far provided little support to Armenia in its war against Azerbaijan over the disputed territory (legally part of Azerbaijan, but conquered and occupied by Armenia since the war in the early 1990s). Armenia is a member of Russia’s NATO-like Collective Security Treaty Organization and for years the implicit deterrent threat of Russia kept Azerbaijani revanchist claims at bay. However, at the beginning of the conflict, Putin asserted that Russia’s security guarantees to Armenia do not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Reports published in Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading newspapers, have also detailed the staggering amount of Turkish support to its client, Azerbaijan, long predating the onset of violence. In combination, this means that Turkey’s initiative has resulted in its first intervention in the southern Caucasus since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s two attempts to broker ceasefires between the sides have both failed, not least because the war has turned existential for the Armenian side and the Azerbaijani side is not likely to stop fighting while it is winning on the battlefield and Russia is hesitating to commit forces on behalf of its client.
In the Kyrgyz Republic, where Russia has an air base, the third successful revolution this century has removed the president, and much of the existing leadership, in favor of members of the opposition. While the causes of the revolutions are manifold, popular anger over corruption linked to investment from Russia and China was a key inspiration for the revolution.
Some years ago, Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev claimed that “Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions where it has privileged interests.” In the great power competition in which Russia has long sought to be a central player, key requirements include the ability to call upon allies, to act as a regional hegemon by projecting power over weaker neighbors, and to withstand the pressure of rival powers.
Along each of these dimensions Russia has had a bad year and with domestic growth and satisfaction at low points, this suggests that Putin will spend the rest of 2020 and probably the next year playing defense and ceding the initiative to others. Not a good look for a hegemon.