Putin’s problems

Enemies of democracy and enemies of the United States – by no means the same thing, although there’s a fair degree of overlap – were cheered last week by the scenes of an insurrectionary mob running riot in Washington. In both ideological and practical terms they could hardly have wished for a better start to 2021.

But some of them, at least, may have concerns. For authoritarian governments, supporting insurrection is a risky business: no matter how congenial it might seem, there’s always a risk of setting an unfortunate precedent. That’s the theme of a piece at Politico at the weekend, in which Leonid Ragozin looks at the Russian reaction to last week’s events.

Ragozin argues that president Vladimir Putin and his supporters are trying to “tread a thin line: Taking advantage of the prime opportunity to troll America, while avoiding encouraging similar unrest in their own country.” Putin’s fear of insurrection is, he says, “the main driver of his foreign and domestic policy.”

To some, the difference between a popular revolution and a gang of Trumpist thugs ransacking the Capitol might seem fairly obvious. But that’s not a distinction that Putin is able to avail himself of, particularly after having spent years trying to convince the Russian public (and gullible outsiders) that the overthrow of pro-Russian governments always represents a western-inspired putsch rather than any sort of genuine popular movement.

Putin’s relationship with far-right nationalists has always been an equivocal one. While they might seem to be his natural constituency, he is aware that they also represent a force outside of his control whose interests may not always coincide with his. His constant references to “fascists” in Ukraine are not just a matter of psychological projection or a cynical strategy to discredit a democratic government; they also reflect a genuine fear that, as Ragozin puts it, “the far right could form highly efficient militias capable of tipping the scales in times of volatility and disorder.”

The more general point is one I’ve made a number of times: that internationalism on the left can sometimes be a real thing, but different far-right nationalisms are incompatible in principle. So, for example, Poland’s right-wing nationalist government looks as if it should be an ideological soulmate for Putin, but in fact is virulently anti-Russian, trying to paint its liberal centrist opponents as Russian pawns.

Putin may sometimes fantasise himself as the head of a great transnational far-right movement, but in reality there is no such thing. He will always put Russia’s interests – and his own – first. Many European (and even American) far-right leaders will happily take Putin’s money, but their efforts to align their countries with Russian policy will stop at the point where they think they might damage their own chances.

The US election result capped off a difficult year for Putin. His support for Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has been successful in the short term, but risks converting the country’s democratic opposition into a specifically anti-Russian movement, posing a longer-term threat to Russian influence there. The parallel with Ukraine, now very firmly out of the Russian orbit, should not be overstated, but is real nonetheless.

The crisis in Belarus also increased suspicions of Russia among its neighbors, especially in the Baltic states. Moldova also edged closer to the west and away from the Russian sphere of influence. On Russia’s southern flank the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was a further setback, increasing Turkish influence in the region and drawing attention to Russia’s unreliability as an ally. And the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was a public relations disaster.

Russia’s position still has significant underlying strengths; Putin’s two decades have added to his country’s power and prestige more than they have detracted from it. But the impression at the moment is that that power is stretched too thin. Russia’s leaders are trying to do too much with too little, and with a political system that insulates them from public opinion – in a way that might make life more comfortable for a while, but at a long-term cost.

And Putin himself, now 68, is clearly not the dynamic leader he once was. With a less friendly counterpart in Washington the going is unlikely to get any easier for him. Constitutional amendments last year promise him an additional two terms if he wants them, but it would be no surprise if he was starting to look forward to the day when Russia’s geopolitical role will be someone else’s problem.

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