Is Vladimir Putin losing steam?

Is Vladimir Putin losing steam?
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It would be easy to look at the enhanced global stature of Vladimir Putin, following his summit with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE this year and his high profile role in shaping the future of Syria, and assume that all is well in Moscow and that the Russian president has the wind at his back. That view is belied, however, by a spate of negative trends and developments that are gradually chipping away at his popularity, and increasing his susceptibility to a messaging campaign that highlights his governing shortfalls.

Consider the Russian economy. Despite surging oil prices, the overall economic outlook remains grim. Russian gross domestic product grew by an estimated 7 percent annually from 1999 to 2008, but by less than 1 percent annually from 2009 to last year. The International Monetary Fund estimates growth of less than 2 percent this year and next year, which means Russia will continue to fall further behind more advanced nations.

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Putin has long expressed his desire to diversify the Russian economy away from its dependence on oil exports and to increase its competitiveness, but the lack of meaningful progress in this area is jarring. According to an index of global economic freedom, the transition to a market economy has largely stalled, and Russia currently ranks 41st in among 44 countries in the European region. While the World Economic Forum last week bumped Russia up in its annual rating of the most competitive nations, the country was still only ranked 43rd and given especially low marks in the areas of transparency and innovation.

Meanwhile, the effort Putin made to improve the budget outlook for the government by raising the retirement age, a proposal he launched over the summer during the World Cup, sparked intense public criticism and served only to erode his popularity. Under the proposal, the retirement age would have increased from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. Putin eventually backtracked on key elements of this fiscal reform, but not before suffering a sharp drop in his approval ratings.

The continuing high poverty rate in Russia, at nearly 20 million people, is an especially sensitive part of the broader economic challenge for Putin, especially at a time when the 10 wealthiest Russians have, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, added more to their fortunes this year than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. The vast wealth that Putin himself owns has contributed to a perception in some circles that he and his friends are getting rich while most Russians suffer.

The conflict with Ukraine is also not trending in favor of Putin. Indeed, rather than gradually reasserting Russian influence over Ukraine and preventing its integration with the West, which have been primary goals for Moscow since seizing Crimea in 2014, the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction. Integration with the West will surely be a long process, but it is already clear that Ukrainian links with Europe, from trade to tourism, are on the rise, while just the opposite is occurring with Russia.

In terms of public mood, a poll earlier this year revealed that nearly half of Ukrainians now favor closer integration with the European Union, as compared to only 12 percent who endorse moving closer to Russia. So while Putin has succeeded in claiming Crimea, he has also lost the goodwill of a generation of Ukrainians in the process. The growing gulf between the countries was reinforced last week when the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had historically taken direction from Russia.

Some other nettlesome issues that Putin has been struggling with of late include the sharp international reaction to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom, and the surprising failure of candidates preferred by Putin in two recent elections in far east Russia. Putin is especially sensitive to political developments in the far east, given its importance to his variant of a Pacific pivot and its key role in the 2011 protests against the government that eventually swept across the country.

So what does this all mean? While none of these challenges poses an immediate threat to his grip on power, they should remind us that Putin is far better at creating a perception of his strength and political momentum than is warranted by an objective analysis of the underlying economic, political, and social conditions in Russia. At a time when United States government officials warn that Moscow is continuing its campaign to weaken American democracy and influence our elections, the vulnerabilities offer a fertile playing field for Western messaging efforts inside Russia, especially those highlighting the lagging economy and the practical cost of official corruption on the lives of ordinary Russians.

Putin has his minions who have been both aggressive and effective in recent years in sowing political discord in the United States and the European Union. Given that Moscow continues to meddle, as evidenced by the federal criminal charge filed last week against a Russian citizen for interfering in the American elections in 2016 and 2018, it is probably now time for Western leaders to move beyond sanctions and to embark on their own carefully targeted messaging campaign in Russia.

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.