A new year and a pivotal moment for Putin and Russia

Why We Wrote This

President Vladimir Putin is succeeding in pushing forward his geopolitical agenda while strengthening his hand at home. But 2019 could sharply test his momentum on both fronts.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 20, 2018. US and European sanctions have restricted Russia’s access to international capital markets, limited imports of Western energy and military technologies, and spooked international investors.

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Two hot spots are likely to dominate the thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin in early 2019: war-ravaged Syria and the core strategic priority of formerly Soviet Ukraine. In both, Russia has been flexing its geopolitical and military muscles. Militarily at least, there’s been no significant international pushback. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, the result has been a kind of virtuous circle, with geopolitical advances reinforcing his political strength at home. The new year, however, may prove a difficult and defining period in his nearly 20-year drive to restore Russia’s status as a major power. In Syria, Russia has secured its most significant Middle East gains since the 1970s, but must achieve something approaching stability. In Ukraine, the broad Western sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions there go to the heart of the difficulty Putin faces in reestablishing Russian clout. As in Soviet times, Russia has a core vulnerability: an economy disproportionately reliant on natural resources, above all oil. And independent polling suggests Russians are becoming less ready to cheer Putin’s international advances while overlooking their own struggle to make ends meet.

It is an annual, made-for-TV fixture on the world’s news calendar, a bit like a Kremlin Super Bowl, minus the drama about who will emerge as the star player. Yet President Vladimir Putin’s latest marathon press conference, in December, has set the stage for a potentially defining period in his nearly 20-year drive to restore Russia’s status as a major power.

Two hot spots are likely to dominate his thinking in early 2019: war-ravaged Syria and, closer to Russia’s borders and a core strategic priority, formerly Soviet Ukraine. In both, Russia has been flexing its geopolitical and military muscles, testing the degree to which the United States and its European allies are ready, willing, or able to respond. Militarily at least, there’s been no significant pushback, either to its 2014 annexation of Crimea or its military intervention in Syria, which turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, the result has been a kind of virtuous circle, with geopolitical advances reinforcing his political strength at home.

The new year, however, seems likely to bring new challenges. 

In Syria, Russia has secured its most significant Middle East gains since the 1970s. Although US President Trump has retreated from the idea of a full, immediate withdrawal of America’s roughly 2,000 special-operations troops, the Russians indisputably hold the key to determining the country’s political future. They have also secured a pair of important military bases there.

But Putin’s challenge is to achieve something approaching stability, reestablishing Mr. Assad’s hold on the whole of the country while calibrating and constraining other rival interests and military forces. There is Turkey, set on reining in the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria who were the Americans’ indispensable partners in fighting the Islamic State. Then there's Iran and its Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia allies. And, to the south, Israel, which has been mounting airstrikes in order to prevent Iran from establishing a military foothold in Syria and funneling more advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

In Ukraine, the challenge is different. For now, the chance of Western powers or Ukraine reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea is zero. The main question is whether and how much Putin may try to further reassert Russian influence there or in other former Soviet states like Belarus. His main concern won’t be the prospect of a military response. In November, Russia captured three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews in the adjacent Sea of Azov. The West’s initial reply has been limited to verbal condemnation and demands for their release.

That doesn’t mean there are no potential costs for Putin to consider. In fact, the main non-military effect of Russia’s actions in Ukraine – broad Western economic sanctions – goes to the heart of why his campaign to reestablish Russia as a world power may be entering its most difficult stage. However much he moves to build up Russian military and geopolitical strength, he has to reckon with a core vulnerability that echoes Soviet times: an economy disproportionately reliant on natural resources, above all oil.

In his early years in power, with oil prices buoyant, his effective renationalization of key economic sectors meant he could accomplish two widely popular things: a new confidence and assertiveness on the world stage, and an improvement in many Russians’ living standards. Now, with a tax system in which oligarchs are the main beneficiaries, independent polling suggests Russians are becoming less ready to cheer his international advances while overlooking their own struggle to make ends meet.

Even in his stage-managed news conference at the end of 2018, he felt the need to address last year’s deeply unpopular increase in the Russian pension age. Such decisions, he said, were “unpleasant … but unavoidable.” With presumably unintended irony, his further comments were straight out of the Kremlin playbook in the final years of the USSR. He noted economic difficulties in the West and recited a series of figures which, he suggested, proved life for Russians was getting better.

He then called for a new “technological breakthrough” in the economy – a message also heard in the early 1980s under Soviet rule, and an aim likely to be made even more difficult by continued international sanctions.

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