Get used to Putin’s power plays — at least until 2024

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Despite the estimated 175,000 Russian troops deployed on the Ukrainian border, and contrary to prevailing opinion, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not about to invade Ukraine any time soon. Yes, all of Putin’s top aides in the military, national security and foreign affairs — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Secretary of the National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov — describe the alleged ongoing war with the West in increasingly immediate, dramatic and frightful detail. And, yes, Putin’s third presidential term saw annual double-digit increases in defense spending, massive rearmament and the breakneck modernization of its armed forces. Russia spends more on defense today than any other major country and more than doubled its spending on nuclear weapons from 2012 to 2018.

Nevertheless, this record notwithstanding, the West is not the target audience for the militarized drama on Ukraine’s border. Putin’s main audience is internal. His brinkmanship is directly linked to what is described in Russia as “Problem 24” — namely, the fulfillment of Putin’s paramount goal to become president for life in 2024, when, at 72, he will start yet another six-year term.

This no easy task, even with national politics and television completely dominated by the Kremlin and the pro-democracy opposition devastated by jailing, exile and murder. The economy has made the job more difficult, with the longest economic stagnation in Russia’s modern history from 2009 to 2019.

The Kremlin’s response to this predicament was to shift the foundation for the regime’s legitimacy from economic progress, which made Putin so popular in his first two terms in office, to Putin as the defender of a motherland besieged by the West. A lifetime presidency, Putin apparently has concluded, can only be a wartime presidency. “Putin has forged a nation of war that has battened the hatches and looks at the world through a lookout slit of a tank,” as opposition columnist Sergei Medvedev describes it. “The degree of military-patriotic hysteria [in] Russia today brings to mind the USSR of the 1930s, the era of athletes’ parades, tank mock-ups and dirigibles, and shaved napes.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In addition to the long-term deterioration of the national medical system, the Kremlin’s schizophrenic policies — on the one hand, allegedly curing COVID ahead of the West and on the other, ordering periodic lockdowns — have yielded predictable results. In Bloomberg’s latest “Covid Resilience Ranking,” Russia’s scores 44th out of the 53 biggest economies. It’s behind India, Brazil, Pakistan and Mexico. According to Russia’s independent Levada Center, in October more than four in 10 Russians did not want Putin back after his term expires in 2024 — his highest negative since 2013. 

So the Kremlin has been upping the ante, first rhetorically and now with the deployment of troops against the alleged NATO aggression. 

The show so far has been more effective than Putin could have hoped. To millions of Russians, the White House has legitimized Putin’s fantasy of a “creeping threat” from NATO by promising to discuss Russia’s concerns and the possibility of “accommodations” by NATO.

Putin is also reveling in newly acquired respect. A post-Crimea pariah state, sanctioned and boycotted, with its GDP one-fourteenth of America’s, Russia has emerged as its global rival’s equal: an important popularity and legitimacy component for all Soviet and Russian leaders. While the U.S. and its allies are at pains to guess what he will do next, Putin is enjoying the spectacle of a worried White House confused by Russia’s deliberate ambiguity and obfuscation, the brazen rhetoric, and show of force. He relishes yo-yoing President Biden from a summit to a phone or video call and more. Last week’s video conference was the fifth direct chat with Putin in Biden’s 10 months in the White House — almost certainly a frequency record in the U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russia relations.

In this context, invading Ukraine now does not square with Putin’s strategy. It is true that Putin’s Russia cannot coexist with a Western-oriented, democratic and prosperous Ukraine. But only the first of these conditions is obtained today. Russia’s neighbor is pretty much where Putin wants it: deeply corrupt, mired in fighting oligarchs, economically and politically unstable. Should Ukraine reform and overcome these challenges, a 10-second phone call to expand hostilities in Donbass would do the trick. An open invasion of Ukraine today would be a waste.

But from now until at least March 2024, expect Putin to draw newer and ever more scarlet “red lines” and to deploy troops to confront NATO’s imaginary encroachments on the motherland. Get used to Russia’s military lunges to, and pullbacks from, its borders. Get used also to the West’s hand-wringing and vague threats of sanctions instantly devalued by an ardent desire to seek “diplomatic solutions” to deal with Putin’s wartime presidency.

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Joe Biden Politics of Russia Russian troops Ukraine US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin

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