Putin pressured by global crises, yet finds ways to exploit them
Low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic have weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not enough to threaten his power or constrain his foreign policy ambitions — for now.
The oil price crisis and the pandemic hit Putin at a vulnerable moment. He was in the middle of a campaign to retain power by amending the Russian constitution so that he could run again in 2024. He offered the Russian people essentially a revised social contract: additional social benefits in exchange for further expansion of the Kremlin’s powers and a continuation of his rule. COVID-19 has forced him to postpone the referendum on these constitutional amendments, delaying his power-retention campaign.
Putin’s approval ratings reportedly fell to historic lows in April. Some protests, driven by falling incomes and concern about the government’s handling of the pandemic response, have already emerged. Russians are finding new ways to express their displeasure, launching “online protests” in several cities in April, calling for better services and the end of quarantine.
Russia’s partners also are in trouble. Protracted sanctions have severely weakened Iran and Syria; the pandemic also has hurt Iran’s already-weak economy. Putin relies on Damascus and Tehran for his position and operations in the Middle East. Their struggles pose challenges for Putin, and he has little ability to address them.
These converging crises are unlikely, however, to weaken Putin significantly at home or abroad in the short-term for four reasons.
First, Putin has built up Russia’s foreign currency reserves, which he can use to alleviate some of the economic problems Russia faces for a time.
Second, Putin is strengthening his control over Russia’s domestic information space. He has adopted numerous measures over the past few years to restrict Russians’ abilities to access and shape the information space. He is using the pandemic to increase these restrictions, by empowering the federal body responsible for media censorship to hunt down Kremlin critics.
Third, Putin’s societal control mechanisms are finely honed, effective, and expanding. The Kremlin has increased the budgets and powers of the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard — which Putin directly commands — and other security services to fight COVID-19. Local Russian authorities are testing facial-recognition software and a phone-based system to track resident movement. The National Guard is helping enforce stay-at-home compliance, and the Ministry of Defense has created new military units to combat COVID-19. Putin may repurpose these tools to suppress political dissent and popular protests in the future.
Finally, no one is really challenging Putin — at least not yet. Other countries are preoccupied with COVID-19 and their own resulting domestic pressures. Putin’s brutal suppression of previous Russian protests make any renewed large-scale demonstrations unlikely.
On the contrary, Putin sees opportunity in this crisis.
He is using COVID-19 to try to compel the international community to lift sanctions on Russia and its partners, including Iran, Syria, Venezuela and others. The Kremlin is framing the West as inhumane for keeping the sanctions active during a pandemic. Beijing and Tehran are echoing this line.
Putin also is posturing as an international humanitarian. The Russian Defense Ministry delivered medical aid to the countries where Russia has strategic interests, including the U.S., Italy and the Balkans, and used those deliveries to feed the Russian propaganda machine.
The Kremlin is refining its hybrid warfare toolkit, too, as it experiments with health-focused disinformation campaigns. Likely-Russian actors launched a coordinated disinformation campaign in Ukraine in March that helped fuel local protests against the arrival of Ukrainian evacuees from China. Those protests resulted in a significant crisis-management requirement for the Ukrainian government.
Putin tried to use the cover of global crises to force concessions from Ukraine under the radar. Kyiv agreed to consider direct discussions with the Kremlin-controlled proxies in parts of eastern Ukraine that Russia seized militarily; these talks would essentially legitimize these proxies and have major consequences for Ukraine’s sovereignty and U.S. national security. The Ukrainian government later verbally rescinded its agreement to consider direct discussions, after backlash from civil society.
Putin likely will retain domestic and international positions in the short-term and might even secure additional gains if the West remains preoccupied with its own internal affairs.
Putin will, however, face increasing pressures if the converging crises protract. The cost of maintaining his power circles and keeping his own population content will grow, as will the cost of his foreign adventures.
Putin might eventually have to reassess what he chooses to invest in and on what timeline, but his goals are unlikely to change. The West should not expect that current pressures will automatically make Putin scale back his campaigns — especially in Ukraine and in Syria, two theaters that serve as anchors to his entire global power projection.
Nevertheless, now is an opportunity to test the limits of Putin’s commitments to his aggressive foreign policy. The U.S. should reinforce its partners and allies that are in the line of Putin’s fire. Finally, the West must not fall for Putin’s false narratives on sanctions relief or his posturing as a good humanitarian actor.
We must not let this global health crisis become Putin’s opportunity.
Nataliya Bugayova leads the Russia and Ukraine research team at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.. She is the author of the report “How We Got Here with Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview.” Prior to ISW, she was the Chief Executive Officer of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s independent English-language publication. She is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, where she was a student fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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