Putin’s Staying Power

July 17, 2017
By Leon Aron | Opinion Contributor

Whether Russia is the main threat to the U.S. is debatable: There are quite a number other very qualified candidates for this title, including North Korea and the Islamic State group. But, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney so presciently noted in 2012, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, at the moment, is almost certainly the main geopolitical foe. (Full disclosure: I was co-chair of the Russia Working Group in the Romney campaign.)

The reason is not in any inherent “evil” of Russia or Russians. Rather, it is a combination of factors that have propelled nations toward hostility with one another since at least the Peloponnesian War: pride, fear, revenge or glory.Putin is an ardent Soviet patriot. Unlike former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he saw the end of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe which must be avenged. Similarly, Putin deeply resented the post-Cold War world order, which, in his view, the U.S. dominates and, as he put it, “rules by the gun.” The answer to both developments is to avenge the humiliation by restoring Russia to the Soviet Union’s glory.

Yet these sentiments, no matter how intensely and deeply held, remained largely dormant as policy guidelines in 2000-2008, when Putin’s popularity (and his regime’s legitimacy) rose steadily because of economic progress and rising incomes spurred by the skyrocketing oil prices, from under $20 when he was first elected in March 2000 to $145 when he left the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev’s placeholding.

This was no longer the case when Putin came to his third presidential term in 2012. Although oil was still very expensive, the increasingly toxic domestic investment climate rife with bureaucratic racket and shakedowns of businesses slowed economic growth to a crawl. By the end of 2013, Putin’s popularity was the lowest it had been since 2000.

He needed, quickly, to introduce institutional reforms to clean up the toxic domestic investment climate – or find another basis of popular support for his regime. He found one by reaching for the ideology of resentment and imperial restoration. It was the biggest gamble of his political life, and it worked. There followed the annexation of Crimea, the invasion and proxy war on Ukraine and the saving of Russia’s oldest continuous Middle East client, President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Putin’s popularity was back in the stratosphere.

Could he start looking inward again, as in 2000-2008, toward the economic progress rather than aggressive foreign policy? Sure. But reforms are always risky: Gorbachev’s fate must be among Putin’s most horrifying professional and perhaps personal nightmares. At the same time, the benefits of his foreign policy have so far dramatically outweighed the costs. So why mess with success?

In any case, don’t look for any moderation between now and spring 2018, when Putin will assume his fourth presidential term. That he will “win” the election is a given: No real opposition candidate will be allowed to run, not to mention appear on national television. But how he wins matters a great deal to Putin personally and to his government, which otherwise, by opinion polls, is deeply unpopular. And who can blame the Russians, angry at the ubiquitous corruption, thievery and callousness of authorities at every level? By the latest count, 15 percent of the population is below the “living minimum,” meaning 22 million people have not enough money even for food, and, after four years of recession, the projected growth of barely over 1 percent this year is not going to lift Russia’s huge and heavy boat.

As a result, Putin does not want to resort to electoral fraud and thus risk protests all over Russia. No, he needs, and without doubt wants, fireworks, thrills, the outpouring of popular gratitude and adulation. He needs a national-patriotic military triumph, humiliating the enemy (NATO, the U.S.) and adding to the glory of the lost empire.

Putin’s options are not hard to glean: Putin will never accept a democratic, truly independent, thriving and Europe-oriented Ukraine next door. His plan for Ukraine is simple: a Russia-controlled state – or a failed state. So why not kill two birds with one stone and attempt to bring about a collapse of the pro-Western government in Kiev to crown Putin’s re-election, most likely by engineering Ukraine’s battlefield defeat, which the monopolistic Russian state propaganda will dress up as protecting the motherland from yet another NATO attack? (Putin has called Ukraine “NATO’s Foreign Legion.”)

The overthrow of President Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime in Belarus, formerly the closest ally but of late dangerously flirting with the West, risking another so-called color revolution next door and refusing Russia’s repeated requests for an airbase. The installation of a puppet pro-Russian regime in Minsk will also give Putin direct access to the entire length of the border of Poland, the key state on NATO’s eastern flank, currently separated by Belarus, and will allow for the deployment of Russian troops over Ukraine’s northern border and within a mere 100 kilometers (65 miles) over flat terrain from Kiev. So watch out in September for the “joint” Russian-Belorussian Zapad,or “West,” military exercise in Belarus (likely the largest military drill in Russia’s post-Soviet history). There is a chance that the Russian troops may decide to stay for a while.

Russia’s exploiting potential instability in Kazakhstan, in case of the passing of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, to occupy and annex the country’s northern regions, which historically are at least as “Russian,” ethnically and historically, as was Crimea. (A colleague visiting Kazakhstan in spring 2014 reported Kazakh officials saying that “Crimea is our 9/11″— a deafening wake-up call to clear and present danger.)

But the key prize by far will be achieving something that even the Soviet Union could not pull off: exposing NATO as a paper tiger by destabilizing Estonia and Latvia, NATO members with very sizeable ethnic Russian minorities. The “tripwire” deployments of token U.S., British, Canadian and German troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are not likely to deter Putin if he truly thirsts for a pre-election triumph. A tripwire works only to the extent of the tripper’s perception of the ensuing explosion. Yes, there is Article 5, extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over our NATO allies. But a nuclear war with Russia over Latvia and Estonia? In the meantime, the grossly inadequate conventional defense of the NATO’s eastern flank could be very tempting not for rolling tanks into Tallinn or Riga, but for executing the “Crimea scenario” by sending in “little green men,” special operations troops without insignia, to seize Narva in Estonia or Daugavpils in Latvia, disclaim any responsibility for the intrusion and foment (or fake) a “pro-Russian” uprising in the areas.

Of course, these are worst-case scenarios, fraught with real risks for Putin. In Russian history, change of regimes or even revolutions have quite often begun with a military defeat or frustrated foreign policy: the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cuba missile fiasco in 1962 and the dismissal of Nikita Khrushchev as premier two years later, the disastrous Afghan War of 1979-1988 and Gorbachev’s perestroika. Still, Putin has shown the willingness to roll the dice. His domestic political imperatives are growing urgent — and he has been lucky so far.

This is a dangerously explosive combination. Let’s hope the West is prepared to handle it.