Zack Blumberg: Putin's international success and domestic struggle

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 4:28pm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” began Charles Dickens in his 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities.Today, more than 150 years after Dickens’ death, those words remain relevant: At present, they describe the predicament facing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Internationally, Putin’s reign has been a time of great success for Russia. Since first coming to power in 2000, he has emerged as the face of the modern Russian state, increased his nation’s power on the global stage and made significant strides towards Russia’s long-term goal of destabilizing Western, liberal democracies. However, while Putin continues to project strength abroad, he faces a spate of domestic concerns, with economic struggles and recent protests over electoral freedom causing his approval rating to drop as Russians begin to worry about their future. 

It is undeniable that through the lens of global geopolitics, Putin’s tenure as Russian president has been a time of great accomplishment for his nation. Today, Putin’s name and image are synonymous with the Russian state, a sign of his global political presence. He is consistently ranked alongside American and Chinese leaders as one of the world’s most powerful heads of state, despite governing a substantially smaller and less economically powerful nation than his Chinese and American counterparts. The sentiment that Putin is a strong leader is reflected in his global perception: As of 2018, 52 percent of Americans believed Russia played a bigger role in the world than it had 10 years prior, while only 15 percent thought it played a smaller role. 

However, Putin’s projections of strength are just the tip of the iceberg: On the world stage, he’s made tangible strides towards achieving Russia’s political goals. Russia’s primary goal is bigger than Putin: to destabilize Western nations it believes to be part of the liberal order. This aim extends back to the founding of the modern Russian state. After the Soviet Union fell, many former Soviet Republics and Soviet Union protectorates, which the Russians saw as culturally Russian, joined Western organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, manifestations of the U.S.-backed liberal order. As the Russian president, weakening the liberal West is naturally a goal Putin has worked to further. His most-publicized triumph came in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russia’s government-backed online trolling group, the Internet Research Agency, helped sow political discord and promote President Donald Trump’s candidacy, which ultimately aided his victory. However, Putin’s accomplishments extend far beyond causing chaos in the 2016 presidential election: there are ties between Russia and the United Kingdom’s “Vote Leave” campaign from the 2016 Brexit referendum, and many of Europe’s newly-empowered far-right parties, which share Putin’s disdain for liberalism, have ties to Russia

While Russia’s government-sponsored electoral meddling has been highly effective, perhaps its most significant contribution is the blueprint it left behind. Across the globe, online political trolling has become a common electoral tactic. Though the aforementioned European far-right does maintain ties to Russia, many parties can now rely on a steady stream of inflammatory misinformation from far-right websites in their respective countries, a move inspired by the IRA’s tactics. Meanwhile, in other countries such as the Philippines, spreading misinformation has blossomed into a major component of political campaigning, with independent companies offering their online trolling services to candidates.

In addition to promoting democratic destabilization in the West, Putin has also worked to effectively expand Russia’s influence in Africa. Documents leaked earlier this year showed the Russian government’s plans to build ties with various African nations, including the Central African Republic, Libya and Madagascar, with the aim of introducing Russia-friendly leaders, promoting Russian political values, accessing natural resource deposits and securing lucrative military contracts. By competing with foreign nations (namely China and the United States) for influence in Africa, Putin aims to strengthen Russia’s influence abroad to a degree which has not been seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. With regard to Russian values, the documents revealed the Russian government’s interest in creating a sense of Pan-African nationalism among the countries it worked with in Africa, something which bears many similarities to the idea of the “Russky Mir” (Russian World), the ideology Russia uses to justify encroaching on the rights of former Soviet states like Belarus and Ukraine. Although Russia cannot match the massive financial investments the United States and China have made in Africa, they still demonstrate Putin’s vision of Russia as a global power capable of molding the world in its vision. 

However, despite Putin’s success in expanding Russian influence abroad, he faces several problems in his home country that may be of serious concern. Putin’s biggest obstacle is Russia’s struggling economy and its impact on everyday citizens — over the past five years, the average real income in Russia has dropped by over 10 percent, and Russians are understandably frustrated. Russia’s economic struggles, including the decreasing real income, can be traced back to two primary causes, both of which Putin bears some responsibility for. Most directly, at least some of Russia’s contemporary problems are tied to sanctions placed on Russia for annexation of Crimea, a move Putin had direct control over (ironically, the original invasion boosted Putin’s popularity). More importantly, Russia’s key economic problem in the past decade has been falling oil revenues. Though Putin cannot singlehandedly control the global prices of oil, many of Russia’s oil problems are linked to the government’s inability to diversify the Russian economy beyond natural resource production, something which stems from Putin’s disinterest in tackling economic corruption (though that is unsurprising, considering Putin is a personal beneficiary of the current system). 

While Putin’s most pressing domestic concern is the economy, Russian citizens have also grown frustrated with some of Putin’s repressive political tactics and are coming out in protest. Earlier this year, investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was held in jail on fabricated drug charges after he investigated corruption in the Russian funeral industry. However, after protests across the nation, the government ultimately admitted defeat and released Golunov. In recent weeks, a spate of protests have been held in Moscow after Putin’s government disqualified several rival candidates running for city council positions. This was an unusually heavy-handed move for Putin, who is usually adept in manipulating political power, and has led to a sharp drop in his approval ratings: They have fallen nearly 30 percent from their 2015 high point.

Even accounting for his domestic struggles, Putin is likely to maintain a firm hold on Russian power. His international accomplishments are still a source of pride at home, and most significantly, it is unclear who exactly would emerge as a political challenger. In truth, domestic discontent is less of a threat than it is a reminder for Putin. Though he has accomplished many of Russia’s international objectives, he must focus on improving the lives of his constituents if he wishes to maintain such a firm grip on power.

Zack Blumberg can be reached zblumber@umich.edu.