Vladimir Putin was the only candidate who did not present a program for the Russian presidential elections on March 18. There was no need.
Putin, who has been in power for 18 years, was and remains the program for Russia. The date of his latest re-election, or rather acclamation, is telling: the fourth anniversary of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
When Russia’s middle class grew in the years of the oil boom, it only challenged Putin’s authoritarianism. The annexation of Crimea signifies the prioritization of archaic ideas of national greatness over modern concepts of economic development and peaceful coexistence with neighbors and partners. “Crimea” was the president’s new deal and boosted his then ailing popularity.
Within Russia, we are unlikely to see any reforms liberating the private sector during Putin’s new term. In his first term as president, Putin was already paving the way for his version of state capitalism and cronyism. It is in line with his personal rather than institutional approach and the Kremlin’s fear of losing control. These factors also fuel repression against the remaining dissidents. They are an impediment to growth as they drive out the young and well-educated people any economy needs to move forward.
For Putin, the main task in the coming years will be either to find a trusted successor who will guarantee his and his cronies’ total impunity or come up with a pseudo-legal means by which he can remain in power after 2024 despite constitutional restrictions. At 65, Russia’s ruler appears to be in good health, but the personalization of power entails risks for stability. After all, Putin is human, too.
Outside Russia, the president has used the vacuum left by Washington’s retreat during the Obama years to impose himself as a decisive power-broker in Syria. Putin relishes this image of himself and of Russia. However, his display of strength verging on brutality depends on a lack of commitment and strategy on the part of the Western countries. Putin strikes where his adversaries are weak; he is deterred by strength and resolve.
Moreover, Putin’s intervention to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not yet over, despite the fact that as of April 2018, he has three times declared some sort of victorious withdrawal. The president’s two wars in Ukraine and Syria are costly, not only with regard to the Russian budget but with regard to the country’s reputation.
Moscow’s government and media have aligned to form a unified propaganda apparatus that consistently accuses the West of “Russophobia,” whether it concerns state-sponsored doping, the downing of flight MH17 or the use of chemical weapons. Putin is presented as Russia’s savior from, and avenger of, Western offenses. This nurtures a self-fulfilling prophecy of confrontation and isolation that has become his recipe for power.
We are likely to see more of this in the coming years on different fronts.
Friedrich Schmidt, Moscow Correspondent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.