Feeling threatened at home and abroad, Putin takes the offensive. Will it backfire?
Vladimir Putin just escaped a violent death. Or at least that's what state television told the Russian people last week, after an alleged terrorist plot to assassinate the prime minister was uncovered by the secret services. Putin accused Chechnyan rebels of being behind the plan.
Not many people believe so. Yet, whether true or not, the story is a good metaphor of how cornered Putin finds himself in the build-up to the presidential election - and how he choses to respond. The prime minister, feeling pressured on several fronts, saves face by attacking first.
Putin's assertiveness has long been correlated to energy prices. Oil peaks boost the regime's balance sheet and provides funding for vast social programs, ensuring the leader's popularity remains robust. This has allowed Putin to speak from a position of strength for most of the past decade, giving him room to tighten his grip on Russia's politics, business and society. It has also led him to grow more aggressive abroad, for example when he launched verbal onslaughts on the West and military campaigns against his neighbours. Record prices in 2005 and 2008 respectively saw Putin's aggressive condemnation of US foreign policy in Munich, and his flash invasion of Georgia.
Today oil prices are sky high, and Putin is more confrontational than ever. The prime minister vetoed UN resolution condemning the Syrian regime this month, attracting opprobrium from nearly every other member of the organisation. Last week he also accused the US of endangering global stability by adopting a hegemonic stance on Iran and plotting a ballistic missile shield in Europe. At home he's cracking down on liberal media outlets, such as Ecko Moskvy's, an outspoken radio station he tolerated until recently. And he accuses foreign forces of being behind the on-going street protests demanding a re-run of this winter's parliamentary elections.
Yet this time Putin's stance is not an attempt to leverage on his country's strengths - rather, it is a failed bid to hide his own weaknesses. The challenge is primarily domestic. Frustrated by what they perceive as economic and political stagnation, the middle class created by a decade of oil-fuelled economic boom is taking to the streets - and continues to do so, despite Putin's pledges for more handouts. His popularity, although higher than in December, is still far below those he enjoyed in the past decade. And his grip on civil society is increasingly challenged by the rise of social media, which the regime struggles to contain. As a result, Sunday’s presidential ballot will be the tightest he's ever seen; he may even be forced into a second-round, a half-humiliation in a country without credible opposition.
Russia is also increasingly isolated abroad. Its main ally in the Middle East, the Syrian regime, is weakened by economic sanctions, worsening internal strife and possible international support to the opposition. Iran, another potential friend in the region, is also facing Western sanctions and threat of military action. Venezuela's president, Chavez, is ailing. Belarus and Ukraine, on Russia's Western flank, are embattled. Cuba is slowly warming up to the West. And Western nations have ever-tougher words against the regime, whose attitude Hillary Clinton recently qualified as 'despicable'.
Putin's biggest weakness, however, is the economy. In order to keep its finances afloat - and keep on appeasing the crowds with wage rises and subsidies - he needs an oil barrel priced above $120. Russia will probably get it, for now: tensions in the straight of Hormuz and tentative optimism about the eurozone crisis drive the prices upwards. But this is not a given in the long run, with prospects of durable slow growth in the developed world and easing tensions in the Middle East. And even if things stay as they stand, $120 a barrel is not enough to keep on lifting living standards again – high inflation means Russia would need a sustained barrel price between $150 and $200 to go beyond just maintaining its citizens' purchasing power.
Putin's troubles are not only Putin's business. In the short-run, his determination to hold on to power will make him a tricky partner for the West and an ineffective leader for Russia. In the long run, however, things should improve: according to Renaissance Capital, a Moscow Bank, a country of the size and per capita wealth of Russia, facing tough economic conditions, has a 33% chance of becoming a strong democracy in a given year. Putin will probably last longer than that - he can always rely on Russia's fiscal bazooka. But the day when he will run out of ammunitions no longer looks so remote.