Please pause a moment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had little to celebrate on his 68th birthday (Oct. 7). He is reported to be hunkered down in his dacha outside Moscow, protected by a rigorous anti-infection protocol — visitors must pass through a “disinfection tunnel,” among other measures — as he struggles to deal with a series of crises on Russia’s periphery, mounting international anger over the alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and rising discontent at home. Putin’s domestic position is not in danger but if he were the master strategist many believe him to be, this could be an opportunity to reset relations with the West. Don’t count on it.
This was supposed to be a triumphant summer for Putin. In July, an overwhelming majority approved revisions to the Russian constitution that would allow him to seek two more terms as president and, if re-elected, stay in power until 2036. They also made former presidents immune from prosecution. Russia declared victory in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, a PR win that some equated with the Russian team’s victory over Spain in the 2018 soccer World Cup. And, despite fears of embarrassment, Putin’s United Russia party and its allies won 20 gubernatorial races in last month’s regional elections.
Putin is taking great pleasure in the convulsions that have seized the U.S. body politic, divisions that are intensifying as the November presidential vote approaches and which some U.S. government reports attribute to his direct orders. The discrediting of democracy and the weakening of the United States serve his strategic interests.
Yet, the satisfaction must be fleeting as his attention focuses elsewhere — in particular, three crises that are burning in the so-called “near abroad,” the former territory of the Soviet Union. In Belarus, a country that Putin and other nationalists consider part of mother Russia and which serves as a strategic buffer from the West, unrest threatens the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who has led the country for 26 years. Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator,” rigged a presidential election in August and has relied on the security forces — with Russian support — to beat back hundreds of thousands of protesters. The opposition remains undaunted and some see echoes of the unrest that erupted in Ukraine in 2014, a troubling prospect for Moscow. Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s keenest analysts, warns that Belarus poses “a more intense crisis than the one in Ukraine for Russia strategically.”
Fear of contagion seems valid after events in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet republic. Mass protest broke out last week after that government was accused of rigging parliamentary elections in favor of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s allies. Opposition groups took control of the Parliament, released imprisoned leaders and the Central Electoral Commission annulled the results. Jeenbekov is in hiding. While the two situations are not identical — Kyrgyzstan has had years of political conflict, doesn’t have the strategic significance of Belarus and there is little chance that a government there would loosen ties with Moscow — the unrest is both a distraction for Putin and a sign of weakness, especially when Putin met Jeenbekov just weeks ago and promised that “we will do everything to support you as the head of state.”
Then there is an actual war in Nagorno-Karabakh, territory in Azerbaijan that is controlled by ethnic Christian Armenians backed by Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought over the enclave for 25 years. While there have been periodic skirmishes, this looks like interstate war, with more than 250 deaths thus far.
Especially worrisome is Turkey’s backing for Azerbaijan: Ankara has provided verbal support, arms and reportedly mercenaries — a charge it denies — and seems set on playing a larger role within the region. That is a challenge to Moscow, which has been the regional peacemaker. If Russia actively backs Armenia, it cannot claim to be a disinterested third party and offer to mediate. If it doesn’t, then it looks weak.
Unrest on Russia’s borders poses two sets of problems for Putin. It undermines his image as a geopolitical mastermind and master tactician. Putin is viewed as someone who creates or uses instability to advance his and his country’s interests; in these crises he is reacting and must be careful in responding. Active intervention — taking sides — reduces his leverage. It also risks triggering more sanctions by the West, which would do still more damage to the Russian economy.
The possibility that the contagion could infect Russia itself is the other problem. The actual contagion, COVID 19, is already present, even though official figures downplay its severity. Russia now has the world’s fourth-highest number of COVID infections, although the number of deaths is purported to be low. Experts point to 25,0000 excess deaths in June (compared to the previous year) as reasons for skepticism about government statistics. Putin must also wonder about the degree to which Lukashenko’s downplaying of the virus and the failure of the Kyrgyzstan government to take it seriously contributed to the unrest in those countries.
Putin’s approval ratings remain high, however: 69% according to recent polls. In addition, the economy contracted only 8.5% in the second quarter, Moscow has international reserves to cover about two years of imports and public debt levels are under 20% of GDP, a manageable figure.
Still, incomes are falling, taxes are rising, the pension age has been raised, and the health care system is under increasing strain. The pandemic-inspired global slowdown will hammer Russia as demand for oil, upon which its economy depends, falls. The president must also be concerned by the prospect of sanctions by Europe in the wake of the alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and U.S. reaction if Joe Biden wins next month’s U.S. presidential election and follows through on this pledge to punish Moscow for its interference in his country’s domestic politics.
James Brown, a Russia specialist at Temple University Japan, neatly summarizes the outlook: “With instability among a string of allies, an oil-dependent economy facing long-term decline, and Western countries preparing new sanctions following the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the problems are mounting for Putin. Added to this, Trump, who has been conspicuous in his refusal to criticize the Russian leader, is on course to lose office. Abe Shinzo, Putin’s other champion among G7 leaders, has already departed.”
Weirdly, ironically, perversely, this could be an opportunity for Putin. Some U.S. strategists would like to reset relations with Russia and find common ground on key issues — saving the strategic arms treaty is one. An agreement on that could create momentum for other discussions. Europe would prefer to deal with Russia rather than punish it. Despite years of frustration, Japan is still looking for ways to engage Moscow and secure a deal on the Northern Territories, as well as figure out a way to give Putin alternatives to an ever-tighter embrace of China.
Putin could use his troubles to soften his hard line, acknowledging that he can only tackle so many crises at once, which creates space for diplomatic maneuver. That goes utterly against his instincts, however — he never admits to weakness. If a U.S. administration could swallow the equally powerful instinct to take advantage of an adversary when it is down, a conversation is possible. That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to all Russian transgressions; it does mean compartmentalizing the relationship. That will be difficult as Russian attempts to manipulate and influence U.S. elections must not be ignored and there must be some punishment.
The next U.S. administration is unlikely to have to figure out how to accomplish that delicate and difficult task, however, as Putin is even more unlikely to seize the moment and create an opening for himself and his country.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).