BERLIN – A mere two weeks after delivering a weak, stumbling state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin is back on form as a consummate populist demagogue. His confident performance, and his combative answers to questions that obviously were not pre-approved, seemed designed to demonstrate that he was in control of Russia’s economic situation and not about to back down from his aggressive stance on foreign policy. Putin projected confidence that Russians will stick with him even if they grow poorer.
On Wednesday, Alexander Tkachev, governor of Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, told Russians they’d better tighten their belts to pay for the annexation of Crimea in March: “Didn’t we all applaud, didn’t we all say it was great, we’d done great, Crimea was ours?
“That means we must share not just the responsibility, but also this burden, these losses.”
It sounded like a reasonable, pragmatic line to take, but Putin knew it was untenable: According to a recent Levada Center poll, only 6 percent of Russians are willing to put up with falling incomes in exchange for territorial gain.
Putin’s spin on why Russians should stick with him through the hardship was different:
“No, this is not payback for Crimea. This is payback, or, rather, payment for our natural desire for self-preservation as a nation, as a civilization, as a state. … Sometimes it occurs to me: Perhaps our bear should sit back peacefully, stop chasing piglets around the taiga woods and just feed on berries and honey? Perhaps then they’ll leave him alone?
No they won’t, because they will always want to put him on a chain. And as soon as they succeed in putting him on a chain, they will rip out his teeth and his claws.
“Today, that means the nuclear deterrent. As soon as this happens, God preserve us, the bear won’t be needed and the taiga will immediately be grabbed. We have heard many times almost from officials that it’s unfair that Siberia with its immeasurable wealth belongs entirely to Russia. Unfair, how do you like that? And grabbing Texas from Mexico was fair.”
This tirade shows why Western leaders have found it impossible to talk reasonably with Putin. He appears so out of touch he could have been from another planet. The U.S. grabbing Texas from Mexico? An invasion of Siberia by covetous Westerners? Seriously? It’s useless to point out to him that Texas’ secession from Mexico in 1836 resulted from a revolution, not a land grab, and ended in Texas setting itself up as an independent state for the next 10 years; it makes no sense to tell him the story of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright complaining about the unfairness of resource distribution is apocryphal, a Russian invention.
In a certain sense, Putin is still living in a 19th century of his own making: His comments on Ukraine, Russian history, geopolitics or the economy range from mildly untrue to fantastical. So how can foreign interlocutors expect to hold a reasonable conversation with the man?
In truth, there’s very little evidence that Putin is interested in a reasonable conversation with his Western counterparts. He has become entirely consistent in offering the same emotional narrative to all audiences; his rhetoric is a bizarre kind of political shiatsu that only hits the right spots when the listener is sympathetic from the start. If it doesn’t work with someone, Putin doesn’t care. Answering a question on whether he feared a palace coup, he said:
“We have our official residence, the Kremlin, which is well-protected. And that is also a factor of our state’s stability. But stability is not based on that. It is based — there can be no more solid base than the support of the Russian people.
“I think you won’t argue with me if I say the main points of our foreign and domestic policy enjoy such support.”
Putin wears that support — which still stands above 80 percent, according to polls — like armor. At the press conference, he was happy to take a question from a Ukrainian journalist in a sweatshirt bearing the logo “Ukrop,” pro-Russian separatists’ derogatory name for Ukrainian troops, and didn’t bat an eye when the question turned out to be about Russian soldiers dying in eastern Ukraine. (They were there because their heart called them, Putin said.) The anti-Kremlin TV channel Dozhd asked him about how he could tell the Russian opposition apart from a fifth column doing the West’s bidding, and a provincial reporter queried him about his friends getting rich during his rule. His answers were glib and sarcastic, and contained no revelations except for his belief that Russians will back him regardless of the economic circumstances.
As I have said before, it’s a gamble. As in the state-of-the nation address, Putin did not spell out a coherent policy for dealing with low energy prices and Russia’s subsequent currency crisis. He did let on that he was holding “friendly” conversations with the owners and managers of big companies, leaning on them to sell more hard currency, and that the conversations were having an effect. On Thursday, the daily newspaper Kommersant reported that state companies would be hit with a mild form of capital controls, forcing them to convert dollar and euro revenues into rubles, and that large private companies would be “monitored” for compliance with this policy.
That may help slow the ruble’s decline. These days, it makes sense to watch Putin’s speeches on a split screen, one half showing his tense posture and the other displaying the ruble’s exchange rate against the dollar. Throughout the speech, rate volatility remained low, the ruble sinking momentarily when Putin deployed his bear analogy, only to later make up the loss. At about 61 to the dollar, the ruble is now way above its historic minimum of 77 to the dollar, reached on Tuesday.
Putin on Thursday repeated like a mantra that the currency crisis had “external reasons” and that it would blow over within two years as Russia adjusts to low oil prices. The aggressive rhetoric from the Russian leader is meant to tide his supporters over during that magical “adjustment.”
It’s a depressing response for those who thought economic strain would make him more malleable. Putin is thinking more, not less, about why a bear needs his teeth and claws.
Based in Berlin, Leonid Bershidsky is a writer and a Bloomberg View contributor.
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