What a difference a year makes. In the fall of 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to be riding high. Upheaval in the West – including Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit drama, and European feuds over issues ranging from migration to energy – had enabled him to nurture a reputation as a steady, assertive hand in global politics. Now, that steadiness has begun to look more like sclerosis, with implications that extend far beyond Russia’s borders.
The COVID-19 crisis is often presented as an aberration – an unprecedented crisis demanding an unprecedented response. But, while that may be true, many of the challenges it has fueled in both Russia and the West were incipient long before SARS-CoV-2 existed.
In the United States, the pandemic has deepened economic inequality, heightened racial tensions, and exacerbated political polarization. In Europe, it has clarified just how unreliable the transatlantic relationship has become. And in Russia, it has exposed the Putin regime’s inertia, fueling what is essentially a “crisis of stability.”
This is the flipside of Putin’s supposed steadiness, which he and his minions have long presented as the antidote to the West’s meddling. The Kremlin had to intervene in Ukraine and Syria, in order to stabilize regions that were being disrupted by Western influence or adventurism. And Russia had to rewrite its constitution, in order to extend Putin’s rule – possibly for life – because only he could protect Russia from the turmoil that had engulfed the rest of the world.
But as the Yeltsin-era prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once memorably put it, “We wanted for the better, but it turned out to be like always.” Immediately after the referendum, Putin’s “stable leadership” became not only erratic, but also somehow dispirited.
Though Russia’s handling of COVID-19 has not been as disastrous as America’s, India’s, or even Spain’s, this is no thanks to Putin, who remained safely ensconced in the Kremlin, while governors and state institutions competed for recognition of their “superior” management of the crisis. Not surprisingly, this produced highly uneven results. In Moscow, the ubiquitous workaholic mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has orchestrated an orderly response, despite some organizational glitches. In other areas, such as Magadan and Kalmykia, measures have been spottier.
Overall, the state offered only minimal support to small businesses and workers, despite their crucial role in driving the economy. Even Putin loyalist Alexey Kudrin, who heads the State Accounts Chamber, recently acknowledged the folly in this approach, which contrasts sharply with the Kremlin’s longtime use of “bread and circuses” – public fairs, free concerts, and national holidays – to keep the people sufficiently satisfied and distracted enough not to protest.
There is a whiff of late Stalinism in this shift. In his final days, Stalin focused on hunting enemies of the people and ensuring the functioning of the security apparatus – all else be damned. After his death, piles of unopened, unsigned documents were found on his desk.
Putin, increasingly Stalinesque, seems to have become similarly bored with most of the demands of leadership. To be sure, for the better part of the last decade, he has been far less interested in solving domestic problems than in establishing Russia as an important, even fearsome, player on the world stage. But today, though there may be residual enthusiasm left for meddling in the US presidential election, sparring with the European Union over issues large and small seems less exciting.
For example, Putin had little to say about the poisoning of his main opposition rival Alexei Navalny. Whether or not Putin was directly behind the botched job, it amounted to a humiliation for him, and the Kremlin’s half-hearted denials betrayed his regime’s disarray.
Likewise, after protests over a rigged presidential election began in Belarus, Putin waited weeks to express his support for strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko. And when he did, there was little of the old Putin fierceness. He seemed like he was just going through the motions.
True, at the latest Valdai Discussion Club session, Putin – speaking online – affirmed Russia’s status as the primary successor to the Soviet Union (while also citing the Belarusian example to claim, once again, that Russia doesn’t interfere in other countries’ affairs). But his declaration came across as detached and halfhearted.
Putin’s response to the escalating conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the separatist Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, betrays a similar lethargy. When Armenia and Azerbaijan last clashed four years ago, Russia was able to quell the conflict in four days. This time around, the fighting has endured for a month and counting. Perhaps sensing that Putin is coasting, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been flexing his muscles in support of Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, widespread protests forced the government to annul the results of the October 4 parliamentary election and compelled the cabinet to resign. The Kremlin has said that an existing security treaty obliges Russia to prevent the situation from breaking down. But the country remains mired in chaos.
The Kyrgyz government’s collapse may be offering Putin a preview of his own fate. To be sure, he rebounded from a similar slump once before, when he returned to the presidency in 2012. At the time, negative poll results served as a wake-up call, and a reinvigorated Putin played a few geopolitical cards – granting asylum to the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, annexing Crimea, and intervening in Syria – that revived his reputation as a force to be reckoned with.
But Putin’s approval ratings are also declining today – and it has not seemed to make much difference. The inertia and stagnation of his regime is palpable, and so is the encroaching shadow of irrelevance.
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