Opposition activist Alexey Navalny has been barred from competing in Russia’s presidential election next year. The decision by the Central Election Commission (CEC) exposes as hollow President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he wants Russia to have a “competitive” political system. That is unlikely so long as Putin remains in power.
Navalny’s rejection was expected. Russian law prohibits anyone from running for president who has a criminal conviction. Navalny counters that the criminal charge and subsequent conviction was designed to keep him out of politics. He was convicted of fraud, the decision was overturned by the Russian Supreme Court and he was retried and found guilty in a proceeding and verdict that virtually repeated the first trial. That piece of theater won condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights.
The CEC decision was anticipated. It eliminates the most prominent alternative to Putin, but it was done in a way that allows Russia to claim that it is a country ruled by law. It was also unnecessary, however. Putin enjoys great support among the Russian people and the opposition is too divided and too small to win a national ballot.
Navalny will appeal the decision, but that is unlikely to have any impact. He has also called for a boycott of the ballot, but that too will not shake the administration or change the outcome. Navalny is popular among Russia’s young voters who are increasingly angered by grim economic prospects and corruption among elites. Their dissatisfaction is an important part of the Russian political and social landscape, but it cannot counter the entrenched power of Putin, his supporters in government and business, and nationalists who applaud his agenda and the rejuvenation of Russian power in the world.
The bottom line, then, is that it is time to start thinking about the next phase of the Putin presidency and its implications. Since Putin is now seeking his fourth term as president — he has been ether president or prime minister since 1999 — we very much have the measure of the man.
Putin is an autocrat, with no taste or tolerance for challenges, either domestic or foreign. He believes that Russia is a great power that enjoys neither the power nor the status that it deserves. He aims to maximize Moscow’s influence, to dominate Russia’s periphery, and ensure that his and his country’s concerns are reflected in political outcomes around the world. He considers the United States to be the primary check on those ambitions, but he is also contemptuous of European leaders. He seeks to drive wedges between Washington and its partners to undercut U.S. influence and because a weaker U.S. is good for Russia.
Relations with the U.S. will be conflicted. U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have genuine affinity for Putin and Russia, the one constant in his chaotic foreign policy. He wants to work with Putin and to give him space to solve problems, a process that would extend Russian influence. Unfortunately for Trump and Putin, the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has a more malign view of Russia’s power and seeks to check its spread. That tension will persist.
Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping enjoy a close relationship and that will endure since both countries seek a more multipolar world in which U.S. influence is diminished and that of their own country increased. They have similar views on global problems such as North Korea and Iran. They do not want war; they prefer that international institutions play a limited role in resolving problems as they do not want to legitimize external pressure on sovereign governments; and they want to be part of the solution to maximize their status and influence.
Chinese and Russian interests are likely to diverge, however. China is ascending and Russia is, for all Putin’s efforts, largely treading water. Both Moscow and Beijing want to be the primary power in Central Asia. And there are deep-rooted social and historical considerations that could put the two countries in opposition when it comes to the long-term future of the Russian Far East.
Those tensions provide opportunities for Japan. Tokyo does not want Moscow and Beijing to consolidate a relationship that permanently aligns the two countries. Japan would like to offer Russia strategic options. Japan also wants to resolve its territorial dispute with Russia that has persisted since the end of World War II. That is not going to be easy, however. Putin is more inclined to take territory than to give it away. In addition, Tokyo must be careful to not open too wide a gap between its thinking about Putin and that of the U.S., its ally and partner.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has good relations with both Trump and Putin, he may be able to thread that diplomatic needle but it will be difficult. Success demands that Japanese leaders have a clear-eyed, unsentimental and realistic assessment of Putin and his thinking about power.
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