Russia seems like it’s everywhere these days. Headlines blast President Obama for letting Vladimir Putin outmaneuver him. At the UN, they criticized Obama because he let the Russian President ‘steal his thunder’. In Ukraine, Russian backed rebels will be coming to the table with government representatives and international mediators to hammer out an accord. In Syria, Russian aircraft are striking US-backed rebels to support government forces while Iranian troops prepare for operations against them. Is Russia all over the news because Putin and his allies are eclipsing American power?
A year after the Minsk protocol was agreed to implement a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine and nine months after an agreement to withdraw heavy weapons was finalized, a lull in fighting finally seems to be holding. In another step for peace, government and rebel forces agreed earlier this week to a deal to move small arms weapons away from the frontline. Optimism aside, this comes just days after Russia moved heavy incendiary artillery systems into the country. In all likelihood both sides are using the time to prepare for the resumption of fighting. Ukrainian commanders attest that they believe the rebels are doing so, and no doubt with increasing Russian aid.
These developments are being overshadowed by Russian moves in Syria, where Putin has ordered the launch of a bombing campaign against the enemies of embattled President Assad. Far from targeting ISIS militants and territories, the Russian military has so far bombed civilian areas and western-backed rebels. The West has responded by calling on Putin to halt the bombing of non-ISIS targets. These public statements are doing little to dissuade Assad’s coalition from acting as they please, and the flood of hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian troops to support government forces under Russian air cover speaks volumes to this.
On a quick reading Putin is staying ahead of the United States. He’s outmanoeuvring and outwitting Obama. He’s expanding Russian influence and beating down perceptions of the United States as the premier world state. He has eclipsed American power time and again.
Unfortunately, all of this overlooks the fact that Putin is digging Russia into an economic grave.
Russia is facing a litany of market issues. Economic sanctions from the west are constricting international trade and have locked down sizeable portions of Russian oligarch funds. The rest of the population has been hit by tightening credit lines and falling wages. The ruble has tumbled along with oil prices and the Russian budget has not accounted for the loss. This downturn comes amid years of growing military expenditures that are putting increasing pressure on the Russian economy. These expenditures are not accounting for military ventures into Ukraine or into the Syrian Civil War.
The tallying dollar and social cost of mounting two military adventures could easily balloon into a problem that Putin can’t outmaneuver. Any growth in dissatisfaction may be a few months off at least, and while Putin has a well-financed cluster of oligarchs to draw on for support, it’s unclear how soon the economic troubles and the new recession will bleed his support. Over one hundred of these billionaire oligarchs, “control 35 percent of the wealth in a country of more than 142 million people.”
Russia is, “going to be in recession this year; there’s a good chance they’re going to be [in recession] next year. And the three- to five-year timeline isn’t looking promising.” So what does it mean when the Russian economy is failing Putin’s ambitions? Should anyone actually expect Putin to scale back on his plans or the scale of his moves on the world stage?
No, in fact. It is noticeable that despite his economic woes Putin enjoys remarkable support from the Russian population. His incursion into Crimea and covert support for pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine is wildly popular among a nation that sees him as fending off Russia’s old enemies. To understand the general Russian perspective on this is not overly difficult. After all, Russians still oppose expanding their state and don’t want a return to the empire of the Soviet Union – they just don’t want NATO on their doorstep. For the average Russian, Putin is providing them with stability.
But Putin has overstepped. He has already delayed or cut parts from the military modernization program because it’s too expensive. The Russian economy is contracting to the levels of those before he took power 15 years ago. Obama is warning that Putin is jumping headlong into a quagmire in Syria, and even worse for Putin than Obama being correct – is that this is the first move he’s made that’s unpopular with the Russian people.
The theatrical grandstanding that Putin is used to, no matter its media popularity, will be poorly suited to explain his dive into Syria and the economic troubles that lie ahead. He’s already at a serious risk of over stretching his resources and to commit forces to the Syrian Civil War for an unpopular regime, even among his own people is a step too bold for Putin. He’s grown too ambitious, and like so many before him, it may wind up being what brings him down.
Image License – Public Domain, Pete Souza, via Wikimedia Commons.