On Wednesday, as his Black Sea warships provoked an international crisis by besieging the Ukrainian navy in the Kerch Strait, as his fighter jets prepared to end a ceasefire and resume a bombing campaign in northwest Syria intended to secure Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, and as the scope of his financial and political relationship with Donald Trump was about to be revealed in a guilty-plea confession signed by the U.S. President’s lawyer, Vladimir Putin was asked by a group of reporters on what he planned to do when his current term of office ends in 2024, at which point he will have ruled Russia for nearly a quarter century.
“What’s the hurry?” the Russian President asked with a Cheshire-cat smile. “I’m not planning to go anywhere for now.”
That might well be his political manifesto. Mr. Putin’s continuing control over Russia’s 144 million people is all but guaranteed – but that absolute power, as we saw vividly this week, is secured through an ever-evolving range of actions designed to sow chaos and instability around the world.
The challenge, for the rest of the world, is to resist the military and political damage caused by Mr. Putin’s outbursts without responding in a way that further secures his hold on power. That balance might be impossible to achieve.
I don’t believe Mr. Putin is a master strategist who, with his latest assault on Ukraine, is unfurling the latest step in some grand plan for world domination, or at least for Russian domination. His actions tend to be spasmodic and improvised, short-term tactical moves engineered as responses to, or deflections from, what he perceives as threats to his standing.
But there is a consistent pattern to Mr. Putin’s actions – a cyclical pattern. And we have just reached another trough in that cycle.
The last trough was in 2012, when things were not good in Russia. The ruble was weak, and consumer prices were rising fast, with the consumer price index increasing by 6.1 per cent that year. U.S. sanctions were beginning to bite and there was a widespread belief that both the 2011 parliamentary elections and Mr. Putin’s 2012 re-election had been rigged.
Middle-class Russians took to the streets in numbers not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. From the end of 2011 until well into 2013, Mr. Putin’s hold on power seemed to have become fragile, with his approval ratings plummeting to all-time lows (that is, to 60 per cent), and his domestic opposition suddenly sounding hopeful, despite years of harassment and intimidation.
And then Mr. Putin escaped that trough by invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The effect on his political standing was immediate, sending his approval ratings into the 80s and all but silencing his opposition. The angrier the world’s reaction, the more Mr. Putin’s nationalist message resonated, and the more he was able to export that message to the political figures he inspired and financed in Hungary, Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States. Putinism, both at home and abroad, seemed to have reached a historic peak in 2016.
Now he has hit another trough. Oil prices are low, and Russia’s economy remains heavily dependent on resource extraction, as Putinism has not been good for innovation or diversification. The international sanctions that resulted from the 2014 Ukraine invasions are having a significant effect on the economy and the ruble, as interest rates and anxiety rises. Facing a fiscal crunch, Mr. Putin raised the retirement age by five years, provoking big protests this summer. A big part of Mr. Putin’s domestic popularity is found in the fairly generous terms he offers government employees, pensioners, soldiers and other loyal constituencies; when those payoffs become unaffordable, he faces angry reactions.
Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have once again fallen to the low 60s. And every time that has happened, violence has erupted on his country’s frontier.
It’s probably unwise to view his latest assault on Ukraine – a military attack that has violated international laws and left eastern Ukraine landlocked and endangered – as purely a “wag-the-dog” scenario, a political plot intended to deflect domestic unhappiness with foreign adventure. Mr. Putin does not play chess; he prefers judo and hockey, in which one seizes sudden opportunities and openings to momentarily weaken the other side and maintain the upper hand.
His attacks on Ukraine have not been good for him in the long run. Russia is weak and isolated. Yet Mr. Putin has enough allies and like-minded leaders abroad to make him seem part of some grand drama in which his ultra-nationalist demagoguery is heroic rather than pathetic. That is now his only source of political fuel. A strong and principled response may give him the short-term rebound he seeks – but patient application of democratic principles remains the only way to stop Putinism in the long run.