Over the past six years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to deal extensively and regularly with internal issues, but has been keenly interested in foreign policy affairs. It has been easy for Putin to achieve victories abroad. He built a top-down system in Russia, where everything is now centered on his figure. Russia is relatively weak overall – its economy is under-reformed and is only a fraction of the American or the Chinese economies -, but since all political resources are concentrated in Putin’s skillful hands, he can make his country punch above its weight.
In turn, Russia’s inflated presence on the world arena feeds the internal propaganda machine. Even the country’s international defeats are interpreted as proof of its great power status. The doping scandal with Russian athletes, for instance, has been portrayed as part of a campaign to diminish a resurgent Russia. While campaigning, Putin said that doping accusations were specifically released ahead of the presidential election to make Russians angry with the government. In the same vein, Russia’s alleged meddling into the American election, regardless of whether it actually happened and to what extent, is also used as a testament to the West’s inveterate desire to discredit one of the last outposts of true conservative values.
Over the past 18 years, Putin has used several drivers tofuelhis legitimacy as the ruler of Russia. His first term was defined by the concentration of power in the Kremlin, away from the oligarchs and “regional tsars”, by various fiscal and administrative reforms and rapid economic expansion. His second term moved away from reforms and saw the state’s increasing role in the economy, the process that was propelled by a rainfall of petrodollars. In 2008, Dmitri Medvedev replaced Putin as president. Medvedev tried to promote a broad modernization program and attempted to push a reset button with the United States, only to be shouldered by Putin in 2011, when he announced that he wanted to move back to the Kremlin.
Until then, the main vehicle of Putin’s power in Russia was internal policy, most of all economic growth and general improvement in the standard of living. During his third term in the Kremlin, this situation began to change. As the economy faltered under the weight of Western sanctions and falling oil prices, foreign policy came to the fore. This process was defined by the wars in Ukraine and Syria. Both of these conflicts have been put on hold for the indefinite future and therefore the main challenge for Putin today is to find a strong narrative that will feed his legitimacy for the next six years.
The Ukraine conflict was predetermined by the painful collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russia and Ukraine formed the industrial, cultural and political core of the country. In retrospect, the chances were slim that their separation could be peaceful. In the 1990s, Moscow quickly rejected the idea of joining the West, while for Kiev becoming part of Europe turned into a national idea and the saerch for a partly new identity. Russia and Ukraine appeared in two separate camps, while the political elites in Moscow were not willing to let Kiev go. The 2014 political upheaval in Ukraine transformed the two former brothers into outright enemies. It also fundamentally changed Russia’s course – on the one hand, its economy began to stumble, on the other, foreign policy turned into the main source of pride both for the Kremlin and the wider Russian public.
Russia’s involvement in the civil war in Syria was a natural consequence of what happened in Ukraine. Following the downing of the Malaysian airliner in Ukraine in July 2014, sanctions were imposed on the key sectors of the Russian economy. Moscow became isolated from the West. To break out of isolation and to feed domestic propaganda, Putin sent fighter jets and bombers to Syria. The Russian involvement was a game-changer for the Syrian conflict. Moscow scored many points – suddenly, it became an indispensable player in the Middle East. Leaders of Turkey, Israel and Iran all began to seek Russian assistance. Russia also showed the West that it is too big of a player to be ignored. Domestically, however, it was harder to explain why Russian servicemen had to die in Syria to buttress the regime of Bashar al-Assad and why the government had to spend billions of dollars on the effort at a time when the country’s infrastructure was badly underfunded.
The real result of Russia’s involvement in these wars was not as important. It is not clear what Russia actually gained out of Syria – it will now have a permanent anchor in the center of volatile Middle East, but it is not clear what it will get economically. In Ukraine, Russia obtained Crimea and is ready to derail any attempts by the government in Kiev to join NATO, by controlling the insurgency in the East, but it also made most Ukrainians consider Russia a true enemy. Many Ukrainians turned away from Russia for a long time.
Still, the main consumer of these foreign policy narratives was the Russian public and Putin is now using them in an attempt to be re-elected. However, the Russian campaigns in Ukraine and Syria can only be sold as the Kremlin’s past achievements. The doping scandal and the US election interference campaign are also turning old. Putin’s campaign website credits him with “raising Russia’s influence in the world,” but it does not contain any campaign platform. Many Russians are proud about their past, but they are also uncertain about their future.
On the campaign trail, Putin cruised across Russia’s industrial regions, usually meeting with workers at local factories. I followed him on one of these trips and almost universally people said that they support Putin because of his bold foreign policy. However, they would like to see more change internally. Real incomes have been falling in Russia steadily since 2014 and the poverty level is on the rise, reaching 20 million people or 13.8 percent of the population (Russia has a very low poverty treshold of just about $200). In 2017, the number of births went down by 187,000 in a country of about 145 million with worrisome demographics.
Putin is therefore now facing a dilemma: his bullish foreign policy coups made him even more popular among the Russians. However, these coups have created an appetite for more foreign adventures. This fixation on foreign policy will become increasingly difficult to afford and there are no obvious new international issues that Russia can exploit – Russians care about Ukraine, but it was already difficult to sell the Syrian project. Any Russian expansion in Ukraine will invite more sanctions and cause pain on the Russian economy. At the same time, in order to achieve economic improvement inside the country, Russia needs better cooperation with the outside world, most of all with Europe. Only then will it suddenly appear that Russia should pay the price for the Kremlin’s preoccupation with foreign policy feats as in recent years.