Putin’s troubles,Holed up in his mansion, Russia’s authoritarian leader is facing serious challenges at home and abroad.
Why is Putin in trouble? Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to have attained his wildest dream in the 2016 U.S. electionwhen the Russia-friendly Donald Trump narrowly won the presidency while profiting from a concerted Kremlin effort to hack and release Democratic emails and sow disinformation. Much like Russian interference helped strengthen domestic ist celebrations in Europe, including those that supported Britain’s departure from the EU. Even though the former KGB agent succeeded in decreasing Western democracies and dividing NATO, Russia itself has not materially benefited from his interference in other countries’ politics.
U.S. sanctions ruined the Russian economy and badly hurt the oligarchs on whom Putin depends. Over the previous six months, falling oil costs and coronavirus shutdowns have deepened the harm, leaving the Russian economy crippled. At home, a botched effort on dissident Alexei Navalny’s life has galvanized the opposition, while overseas, unrest in former Soviet states -which Moscow considers its own sphere of influence–is climbing. Russia has sizable minorities of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, as well as a mutual defense pact with Armenia, while Turkey is openly supporting Azerbaijan. In Kyrgyzstan, antiauthorities protesters a week toppled the pro-Russian president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, only two weeks after Putin, in a rare in-person assembly, promised to”do everything to help you as Mind of state.” Most threatening is the uprising in Belarus, a country that Russia is jump to in a minimal federal union. Putin’s support for longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of rigging his re-election, has alienated many Belarusians. Huge weekly protests against Lukashenko show no sign of letting up, and Putin’s nightmare is that the protests could embolden his own competitions.
Who will be Putin’s opponents?
In June, Russia changed its constitution to allow Putin, that has governed since 1999, the capacity to run for two terms–effectively making him a czar and abandoning all pretense of democracy.
That change, Tatiana Stanovaya advised Foreign Policy, indicates a new era in Putin’s rule which is”much more conservative, less tolerant, more repressive.” The next month, Sergei Furgal,
The popular governor of the far-eastern area of Khabarovsk, was arrested on politically motivated charges, and the region erupted in weeks of protest. Days after, Navalny published an investigative report on his website detailing the corruption and enormous wealth of Putin’s envoy to the far-east regions, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, further inflaming anti-Kremlin opinion there.
Which might have been the impetus for Putin to try to kill Navalny. On Aug. 20, the activist was poisoned with an even deadlier strain of the banned nerve agent Novichok that nearly murdered double representative Sergei Skripal at London in 2018.
Why go following Navalny?
Russia has been”a state where members of this resistance die violently,” says Sam Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. Navalny has become a particularly annoying and dangerous competition. His popular blog and YouTube movies, slickly made and wryly comical, have subjected in startling detail how top Kremlin officials, including Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, amassed vast wealth through corrupt agreements. Lately he’s begun organizing plans for”smart voting,” assisting the opposition solidify around whichever candidate has the best chance from the Kremlin. His poisoning brought more EU sanctions, further damaging the market.
Western sanctions have erased over 6% of Russian GDP since the 2014 annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. This year , the ruble has lost 20 percent of its worth. Russia is largely dependent on oil and gas sales, and the plunge in global oil prices–exacerbated by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia–has cost it tens of thousands in revenue. The pandemic is delivering a second significant blow. Putin raised the nation’s shutdown in May, and the virus has spread quickly, giving Russia the fourthhighest total of infections in the world. (See box) Poverty and hunger are widespread. “There’s mounting internal discontent, to say the very least, over the market,” economist Igor Nikolayev told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “I’ve the impression this will make government more worried, and the danger of a domestic crackdown has become larger.”
What about the U.S. election?
U.S. intelligence warns that Putin is again interfering on the side of Trump, using”a selection of measures” to spread disinformation about Joe Biden and his son Hunter and also to undermine confidence in the validity of this vote. State TV openly mocks Trump because Putin’s poodle, while Putin himself has started extending overtures into Biden, praising him for encouraging the extension of the New START arms treaty. That’s”a very considerable element,” said Putin,”of our prospective alliance in the future”
The pandemic in Russia
Infections are soaring in Russia, which now has more than 1.4 million cases and will be incorporating some 15,000 per day. Officially, the death toll is 24,000 people, probably a severe undercount.Yet limits on gatherings are few, and colleges have
reopened. Masks and gloves are needed on the Moscow subway, however, shops and restaurants are available almost as usual, with workplaces educated to need just 30 percent of employees to work remotely. Having neglected to include the virus, Russia is pinning its hopes on vaccines. It’s already approved two different vaccines for large-scale trials and is using them until the trials have finished. Putin, meanwhile, is taking no chances. He’s sequestered himself in his palatial mansion outside of Moscow and sees just people who have quarantined for two weeks. Then, the Kremlin has said, everybody who is granted an audience with Putin must first pass through a”disinfection tube” that drives people using a fine mist of compounds.