Making Russia Great Again
Russian president Vladimir Putin has secured another six years in power after winning the presidential election held on March 18. In a widely expected win, Mr Putin secured 76.66% of the vote, while his nearest challengers, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky could garner only 13% and 6% of the vote, respectively. Putin supporters believe that the result demonstrates Russians’ high trust in and support for Mr Putin, opposition and independent monitors have called it a sham election amidst the reported cases of ballot stuffing and other cases of alleged fraud. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which observed the polls, said the election was conducted “in an orderly manner” but criticised irregularities related to vote secrecy and insufficient transparency in counting ballots. Notwithstanding the hullabaloo, Putin has gotten the election show he wanted. As he figures out what’s next, there is a greater likelihood that tensions with the West will soar to new heights, as is evident from the recent spy row with the United Kingdom and the ensuing tit-for-tat expulsion of the diplomatic staff.
Vladimir Putin now has a stronger hold on Russia — and stronger place in the world — thanks to an overwhelming mandate for yet another term as president. His domestic opponents are largely resigned to another six years in the shadows. His foreign opponents are mired in their own problems, from Britain’s messy exit from the European Union to chaos and contradiction in the Trump administration.
Even widespread voting violations are unlikely to dent Putin’s armour. And accusations that he meddled in the US election and sponsored a nerve agent attack in Britain have only bolstered his standing at home.
Here’s a look at what to expect from Putin’s next six years in power, for Russia’s rivals, neighbours and its own 147 million citizens.
New Cold War?
Relations between Russia and the West are already at their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago.
Despite a friendly-ish relationship with President Donald Trump, Putin’s new mandate gives him little incentive to seek entente with Washington, especially as the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election intensifies.
Putin-friendly leaders have made gains in recent Italian and German elections. Western countries are likely to see more Russia-linked hacking and propaganda aimed at disrupting elections or otherwise discrediting democracy — including the US midterm elections in November.
Since Putin’s domestic popularity bumps whenever he stands up to the West, expect more tough talk from Putin the next time he faces threats at home, and bolder Russian vetoes at the UN Security Council of anything seen as threatening Moscow’s interests. His claim several weeks ago that Russia has developed new nuclear weapons that can evade missile defences clearly showed Putin’s adamant determination to boost Russia’s power.
Russian-backed Syrian forces helped rout the Islamic State group from Syria, and Putin argues that Russia saved the day in a conflict that had confounded US-led forces fighting against Islamic State.
Now those Russian-backed Syrian forces are closing in on the last strongholds of Western-backed rebel forces.
Viewing that as a geopolitical and military victory over an illegal Western-led intervention, Russia is unlikely to pull out of Syria anytime soon.
An emboldened Putin could position the resurgent Russian military as a peacemaker in other regional conflicts; for example, in Libya, where Russia has oil interests and where a disastrous Western invasion seven years ago left a lawless state now seething with extremists.
To Russians, Putin’s biggest victory in 18 years in power was annexing Crimea and crushing Ukraine’s ambitions to move closer to the EU.
Putin is frustrated at the resulting US and EU sanctions but appears unwilling to make concessions that would bring them to an end. Ukraine is split between a volatile government in Kiev and a Russia-backed separatist region stuck in a frozen but still deadly conflict that serves Putin’s interests.
Moscow’s actions in Ukraine sent a warning signal to other countries in Russia’s orbit that reaching westward is dangerous. And former Soviet bloc states within the EU are increasingly drifting back toward Moscow, from Hungary and Poland to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Putin’s new mandate could theoretically hand him the power to make bold reforms that Russia has long needed to raise living standards and wean itself from its oil dependence.
But Putin has convinced Russian voters that drastic change is dangerous, and that protecting the country from threats takes precedence over improving daily life.
Experts predict he may enact some changes like expanding affordable housing and fighting corruption on a local level.
But less likely are bigger changes such as overhauling the pension system, which is unpopular among a strong Putin voting base, or spending cuts in the security sector, unpopular among the ex-KGB friends in Putin’s entourage.
Russia has weathered a two-year recession, and inflation and the deficits are low. But personal incomes have stagnated, the healthcare system is crumbling and corruption is rife.
His own future
The biggest question for Russians over the next six years is what happens after that.
Putin is constitutionally required to step down in 2024, but he could change the rules to eliminate term limits, or anoint a malleable successor and continue to run things behind the scenes.
Asked at an impromptu news conference if he would seek the presidency again in 2030, when he would be eligible again, the 65-year-old Putin snapped back: “It’s ridiculous. Do you think I will sit here until I turn 100?”
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most serious foe, will face further pressure from authorities as he works to expose corruption and official lies.
Other Putin rivals such as candidate Ksenia Sobchak and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky will try to gain a foothold through upcoming local elections and the parliament.
And members of Putin’s inner circle will be jockeying for position for the day when he is no longer in the picture.
Putin may revive efforts to promote artificial intelligence and other innovation as part of a focus on the younger generation, whose loyalty he needs to ensure his legacy outlives him.
Possible impact on Russian foreign policy
We have three tests emerging: finalizing a settlement with Japan, the conflict in Ukraine and the Syria intervention.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit Russia later this spring for yet another summit with Putin. Abe continues to strive for a settlement to the Kuril Islands matter, and for a formal peace treaty with Russia that would enhance Abe’s own standing and nationalist credentials. Putin has shown unwillingness to bend on the territorial issue in the past, but now that he has secured re-election, will he take the position that ceding some territory back to Japan is still a net plus, given the annexation of Crimea? And would he be willing to trade land for an investment that would help develop the Russian Far East?
Russian plans to bypass Ukraine as a transit country continue, despite efforts by some EU countries and the United States to impose roadblocks. At some point, it makes sense for Putin to show much more willingness to offer concessions on the Donbass question, especially with the return of a grand coalition government in Germany and the likelihood of a more pro-Russian administration in Italy. Will we see in 2018 some dramatic shift in the Kremlin’s position?
Finally, the Syria intervention has largely served its purpose. Now, the task is to disentangle Russia from a possible quagmire in the Middle East — having observed America’s own difficulties in disengaging from the region — while still retaining the benefits the Kremlin has obtained. After completing the effort of restoring the Bashar al-Assad regime’s control over most of the Damascus suburbs, Putin will not continue to offer the regime any sort of blank check, and will shift efforts to forging a series of regional balances (Israel-Iran, Iran–Saudi Arabia, etc.) based on Russian mediation.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of worsening US-Russia relations. That dynamic will not change as a result of the March 18 polls, and if President Donald Trump is removed during his first term or defeated in 2020, the Kremlin expects that any Republican or Democratic successor would be more hostile. So we are likely to see a Russian foreign policy that continues to focus on ways to divide and isolate the United States from its Asian, Middle Eastern and European allies. In that sense, not much will change as a result of the elections.
Putin is staying, but he is likely to take the initiative to shape both Russia’s domestic politics and its international position to his liking. This has been no secret to the US national-security community, but as long as the United States remains in reactive mode, Putin will continue to stay one step ahead in the game.