For newly reelected Putin, it's all about making Russia great again

The Russian president has become increasingly assertive on the world stage. The question now is whether he'll continue on this path. A biweekly column on patterns in diplomacy

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
A man holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a preelection rally and concert at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow this month that also marked the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Crimea region.

The only missing touch from Vladimir Putin’s predictable march to another six years in power on Sunday was a new Kremlin Twitter handle: #MRGA.

“Make Russia Great Again.”

But MRGA was not just central to Mr. Putin’s election campaign. It has defined his first 18 years in power. What has changed, since Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is the assertiveness, and range of weapons, he has been ready to use in hopes of achieving that aim.

With air power, he has helped Syria’s Bashar al-Assad besiege and bomb urban areas with tens of thousands of helpless civilians trapped inside. Russia has used cyber weaponry to muddy the political waters, and even try to tip the electoral scales, in Western Europe and the United States. Just two weeks ago, a Soviet-era nerve agent was used against a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the quiet cathedral town of Salisbury in southern England.

The question now is the degree to which a reelected Putin will continue on this path – especially since he knows that, at least economically, Russia has come nowhere near to erasing fundamental weaknesses from the Soviet era.  

So far, the assumption of Russia-watchers has been that Putin has been pushing the limits internationally largely because he can. A concerted Western response to Crimea did seem at least to prevent full-scale military intervention in Ukraine. In Syria, Russia moved in militarily only when the US and Western Europe had made clear their reluctance to risk major involvement, even after President Assad used chemical weapons. The nerve-agent attack in Salisbury came at a time when – with policy toward Moscow uncertain in Washington, and Britain’s ties with European allies strained by Brexit – Putin would have not expected the degree of Western unity, and anger, it has provoked.

Russian soldiers cast their ballots in the presidential election at the polling station in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, March 18, 2018. Vladimir Putin got more than 76 percent of the vote.

There can be no doubt, however, about his continuing commitment to MRGA. Born a few months before the death of Josef Stalin, Putin grew up during Nikita Khruschev’s truncated rule, then lived under the long period of what the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later call zastoi – stagnation – when Leonid Brezhnev was in power. In the mid-1970s, Putin joined the KGB. He served in the foreign intelligence organization for more than 15 years, until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he was stationed in the former East Germany.

With its client regimes toppled in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved in December 1991. Putin himself has described this as the defining tragedy of his and his country’s life. Turning back the clock – not to Communism, but to a time of Soviet empire – is what MRGA means for him.

Part of it is geopolitics. Shorn not just of the old satellite states in East Europe but of former Soviet republics, Putin has seen Russia’s area of political and military control cut back dramatically. NATO is, essentially, on his doorstep. But the deeper roots are psychological. They come from Russia’s historical sense of being not quite a full member of the wider world. Not quite respected.

Before the election, Putin delivered a major security address. The part that grabbed world headlines was a show-and-tell presentation of purportedly new nuclear arms capable of breaching US defenses. But the words he chose to make his point were more telling. By the time the USSR collapsed, he said, Russia’s military might was weakening. “Nobody wanted to listen to us.”

Then came the kicker line: “So, listen now.”

This mix of resentment and truculence strikes a chord with many Russians. That’s one reason Putin’s message has been so successful domestically. It helps explain why he would surely have won this latest election – even without his moves to crush any real opposition, any credible political rival, any attempt by journalists to hold his regime to account.

The problem is that for all the shows of assertiveness, even aggression, Russia retains key areas of Soviet-era vulnerability. It is true that in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russians who can afford them have access to consumer products unimaginable in Soviet times. For the hundred-or-so top oligarchs in Putin’s orbit, there are levels of personal wealth dizzyingly greater than he could have imagined as a young man growing up in what was then Leningrad.

But in place of centrally run state socialism, Putin’s Russia has state capitalism, with a thin slice of oligarchical riches on top. Some parts of the economy are on a par with the world’s advanced countries. Yet they’re mainly the ones related, as in Soviet times, to the military or intelligence services. Otherwise, the economy rises and falls on the market for oil, gas, and other resources it can extract from the ground.

The collapse of world oil prices that drove Russia – and Putin’s own opinion poll numbers – into recession a few years ago has eased. Through an understanding with the Saudis to restrain world production, oil prices have recovered and stabilized. Russia’s economy is growing again, if not as quickly as before.

But the price can still fall. The Saudis are more natural allies of Washington than Moscow. Major financial centers like London also have levers through which they could crack down on billions of pounds of assets held there by Russian oligarchs.

Even with the depth of anger over the nerve-agent attack, it’s not yet clear whether the West’s diplomatic protests will give way to stronger action. But in any tug-of-war, Putin will be aware that he’s not the only one with leverage.

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