BERLIN – Has Vladimir Putin finally overreached? The Russian president is confronting several simultaneous crises. Over the weekend, Ukrainian activists blew up high-voltage transmission towers and cut off electricity supplies to Russian-held Crimea. In St. Petersburg, his home city, on Tuesday a column of 600 heavy trucks was crawling toward the city government building to protest tolls on Russian roads (a son of a close Putin friend has a financial interest in the system). And on the Turkey-Syria border, the Turkish air force downed a Russian bomber.
After annexing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, stamping out domestic opposition, deploying his military to Syria, Putin hasn’t responded to the latest outrages.
In Crimea, the lights largely have been out for almost three days, and Gov. Sergei Aksyonov has called on the population to “prepare for the worst” — that is, a blackout that could last until the end of December. In St. Petersburg, the police gave up on stopping the trucks and local officials agreed to meet with the drivers; and Putin’s response to the downing of the Su-24 has been muted and pained rather than aggressive.
On Tuesday, the Russian leader called the incident “a stab in the back” dealt by “those who aid terrorists.” He accused Turkey of protecting Islamic State militants because they smuggle oil into the country. He also claimed the plane had been sent to bomb Islamic State positions in northern Latakia province, where Islamic State may have no presence.
When Russia acknowledged that its passenger airliner had been blown up by terrorists over Egypt last month, Putin vowed to “find and punish” the perpetrators. He wasn’t as forceful on Tuesday. “Today’s tragic events will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations,” he said. “We will never tolerate crimes like the one committed today.” That hardly sounds like saber-rattling.
Putin’s allies and mouthpieces have sensed that no forceful response is being considered. “Ankara has clearly not calculated the consequences of its hostile actions for Turkey’s interests and its economy,” tweeted Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign policy committee of parliament’s lower house. Patriotic commentators weren’t happy with the implication that the response would be purely economic. “What, you’re going to wag a finger at them?” one wrote in response to Pushkov’s tweet. “To hell with the Turkish economy,” another wrote. “What are we going to do about the Bosporus?”
A purely economic response could include a ban on air traffic between Russia and Turkey and a freeze on joint business projects, Nikolai Levichev, deputy speaker of the lower house, suggested. He also called for an evacuation of Russian tourists from Turkey — one of the two most popular holiday destinations for Russians, along with Egypt, which is now off-limits. One of the biggest tour operators, Natali Tours, announced Tuesday that it would suspend packages to Turkey.
Any economic sanctions against Turkey probably would hurt Russians as much as the Turks. The economic ties between Russia and Turkey were a potential growth area: Putin and his erstwhile friend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had vowed to raise trade volume from about $25 billion expected this year to $100 billion by 2020. Russia already was Turkey’s biggest import partner last year thanks to big energy purchases, but Russian oil and gas suppliers need the market. Turkey’s importance as a trading partner grew last year after Russia introduced a food embargo aimed at countries that have imposed sanctions in response to its aggression in Ukraine. Imports from Turkey dropped 38.5 percent year-on-year in January through September, but imports from the European Union plunged 43.1 percent.
If the ties are frozen or severed, neither country will gain. In both, the stock markets dropped after the bomber was shot down.
Putin is discovering that he may have overstretched. He cannot send troops into southern Ukraine to restore power to Crimea, because that would cause international outrage and endanger any chance of forging an alliance with Western countries in Syria. Nor can he risk a military confrontation with Turkey, a NATO member that could cut off Russia’s main supply line to Syria — across the Mediterranean. Russia can’t manage several simultaneous conflicts with its most important neighbors, especially as domestic discontent with austerity measures appears to be rising.
Putin’s Russia is not exactly weak, it’s just alone and unloved after alienating even potential friends such as Turkey and Ukraine. In the near future, if pressure rises on any of his multiple fronts, Putin may feel cornered. In a book of interviews published in 2000, “First Person,” he described a formative episode in the dingy St. Petersburg building where he lived as a boy:
“There, on that staircase, I figured out once and for all what the world ‘cornered’ means. There were rats in the hallway. My friends and I would always chase them with sticks. Once I saw a huge rat and started pursuing it until I chased it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. So it turned around and threw itself at me. It was unexpected and very scary. Now the rat was chasing me.”
Now, however, it’s Putin who may be cornered. He has pushed around his regional partners and rivals, his Western adversaries and a supine population for 15 years. If they all turn on him, he may not have a long-enough stick to fight all of them off.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of five books.
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