August has not been the best of months for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His country largely excluded from the Rio Olympics — and completely barred from the Paralympics — because of a doping scandal, Putin is facing complicated challenges at home and abroad.
Continued U.S. and European economic sanctions over Russia’s military intervention in the Ukraine, plus a recovering but still relatively low oil price, have diminished Putin’s ability to generate prosperity.
According to experts, while a major crisis is unlikely, the Russian economy will at best limp along unless Putin pulls back his forces from eastern Ukraine and is able to borrow again in Western markets.
Instead of abiding by a 2015 agreement to reduce tensions with Kiev, Putin has been saber rattling and accusing the Ukrainian government of staging terrorist attacks in Crimea.
More than two years ago, Russia boldly grabbed Crimea from Ukraine after a Russian-backed Ukrainian president fled in the face of popular protests. Such accusations by Putin could provide a pretext for more Russian aggression in advance of parliamentary elections next month.
Russian involvement in the Syria war is also problematic. For nearly a year, Russia has been propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad by flying bombing runs against Assad’s opponents, mostly rebels separate from the Islamic State (ISIS). But the war grinds on, and Assad has yet to retake what was once the most populous city in Syria — Aleppo — despite a mounting loss of civilian lives. Russian commanders could potentially be charged with war crimes for abetting Assad’s murderous tactics.
Meanwhile, Russian bragging about using an air base in western Iran as the point of origin for recent strikes in Syria has angered the Iranian government and exposed a potential rift over future strategy. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan accused the Russians of showboating and trying to portray themselves as “a determinative actor… able to negotiate with the Americans and secure their portion on the political future of Syria.”
Iran responded to the Russian indiscretion by announcing that Russia had stopped using the base at Hamadan. The Iranian constitution, forged after the fall of the US-backed Shah, forbids foreign countries from having military bases in Iran.
While American allies in the Persian Gulf have been alarmed at Russia’s widening footprint in the region, Russia and Iran are not natural partners. Iranians, with long memories of Czarist and Soviet Russian imperialism, including the occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan after World War II, distrust Moscow’s intentions.
Iran, which has spent billions of dollars and lost scores of lives protecting its interests in Syria, is ever vigilant about Russian betrayal. Some Iranian strategists believe that Putin will cut a deal with the United States over Syria that fails to protect Iranian supply lines to Iran’s chief regional partner, the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah.
Putin, now in the fourth year of a third presidential term, presides over an opaque regime and it is difficult to discern who his chief advisors are. Senior government posts go to members of the security establishment and presidential bodyguards who are unlikely to challenge his views. Recently, he reshuffled his cabinet, dismissed his long-time chief of staff and replaced him with the man who managed Putin’s schedule and carried his umbrella.
Dissident journalists, independent businessmen and other Putin opponents have a tendency to wind up dead, sometimes the victims of exotic poisons or alleged muggings. Among those whose recent deaths look suspicious is that of Nikita Kamaev, the former executive director of the agency charged with monitoring illegal drug use among Russian athletes. Kamaev, who died of a supposed heart attack in February, was the second top official from that agency to die suddenly this year.
Putin and his cronies, meanwhile, siphon off hard currency and stash it in offshore tax shelters.
Given this gloomy picture, it is hard to see Russia reclaiming its former status as a superpower or even a regional heavyweight. US allies in the Persian Gulf such as Saudi Arabia have flirted with Moscow but continue to rely on American weapons and naval protection.
Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister and deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, noted drily in a recent article for The National Interest that the dismantling of property rights and rule of law that accelerated after Putin’s ascension to power 16 years ago is the major reason for “a decline in investment activity” in Russia. “Private businessmen are concerned about property rights facing massive racketeering by security-service employees,” Alekashenko wrote, and “85–90 percent of them lose their businesses.”
A declining birth rate and poor health habits especially among Russian men also point to a lackluster economic future. A rare growth industry in Russia these days appears to be cybercrime, such as the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and recent attempts to hack The New York Times.
Russian control of the media allows Putin to paint a rosier picture of his country than is warranted and foreign criticism stokes Russian nationalism. Putin’s poll numbers remain impressively high, but have dropped a bit since a year ago.
The Barack Obama administration has kept ties with Russia to facilitate nuclear negotiations with Iran and try to reduce the carnage in Syria. Given Russia’s role as Assad’s auxiliary air force, the United States may have little choice. That doesn’t mean that President Obama or his successor should feel under any obligation to condone Putin’s thuggish ways.
A quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet communism, it is a tragedy that Russians still face authoritarian rule with little apparent ability to change their situation.
By the time Putin leaves office — which could be as late as 2024 — it will be difficult to repair the damage he has done to a once great nation.