Will the Kerch Blockade Make Putin Great Again?

The narrative that Russia is under attack has long dominated Kremlin propaganda, with Putin positioning himself as the commander of a fortress besieged – militarily, economically, and even in the domain of international sports – by a hostile West. This propaganda, already building in volume in 2012, after Putin won his third presidential term, reached a crescendo in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

So far, there has been no diminuendo, and there is unlikely to be one so long as Putin’s siege narrative strategy continues to yield political dividends. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, his approval rating had dropped to record lows; afterwards, it surged to more than 80%.

But, since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.

Addressing Russians’ economic grievances will not be easy. Russia’s economy is under severe strain as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West over Crimea. More important, Russia’s state-capitalist model has led to weak competition and declining incentives for private investment and entrepreneurship.

With few options for rallying public opinion, Putin may well have decided that it is time to “remind” Russians that they are under attack. (Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, may also benefit politically from escalating tensions as he seeks to lift his dismal approval ratings ahead of his reelection bid in March.)

.. To be clear, Ukraine is not attacking Russia. The Ukrainian naval vessels were in full compliance with a 2003 bilateral treaty governing access to the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. But, by asserting that the vessels entered Russian waters illegally, not to mention escalating tensions with the West, Putin may be hoping to breathe new life into the siege narrative, thereby inspiring the kind of primitive patriotism on which he has long relied.
.. But Putin is likely also to draw more public attention to Russia’s military-industrial complex and weapons development, while celebrating past glory, especially the mythologized version of World War II that he has established as a component of his own legitimacy.
.. For example, the veneration of Stalin, with whom Putin shares more than a few traits, has no doubt contributed to many Russians’ greater willingness to accept repression. The grand military parade commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, planned for January 29 in St. Petersburg, may inspire patriotism, but it will in no way reflect the real drama of the city’s starving inhabitants.
.. In the “Great Waltz” of July 1944 – which the Novgorod event will reenact – 57,000 German prisoners of war were marched through the streets of Moscow, Stalin’s goal being to humiliate the Germans and remind Muscovites of their hatred for their enemies. But, in the event, many Russians pitied the prisoners, and some even threw bread to them.
.. When sociologists from the Levada Center recently asked 20-year-old Russians to identify the country they view as a model for others, they chose
  1. Germany, followed by
  2. China and Putin’s favorite villain, the
  3. United States.

While these young people support Russian greatness, they define greatness not only in military terms, but also on the basis of economic prosperity and social progress.

.. It does not help that Putin’s foreign-policy gambits have become increasingly dubious. It is hard for many Russians to see why their leaders have channeled so many resources to Syria when there are such pressing challenges at home. Watching a Russian boat ram a Ukrainian boat is no substitute for economic opportunities.

For a long time, the slogan “we can repeat” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory – was popular in Russia. But the truth is that we cannot. We lack not only the resources, but also the will to let our young people die fighting another country’s young people. Indeed, the last thing Russians want is to repeat a war that left 27 million of their countrymen dead.

 

What Can We Expect of Vladimir Putin When He Is Scared?

After nineteen years of Putinism, during which power has been concentrated in the federal executive branch, none of these elections can have measurable policy consequences, but they serve as a barometer of the popular mood. In four regions, members of the ruling United Russia party failed to get fifty per cent of the vote and will face runoff elections. This is not exactly a trouncing—in the end, Kremlin-approved candidates are virtually guaranteed all of the ostensibly contested seats—but it is a significant sign of dissatisfaction.

.. During his first two terms as President, he enjoyed extreme economic luck: thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Russia was more prosperous than ever in its history. This kept the population satisfied and distracted, and when a crisis did arise, as it did the last time the government attempted pension reform, in 2005, the Kremlin was able to pour money on the fire. Now this is no longer an option: the Russian governmenthas used up its currency reserves, which is part of the impetus for the current attempt at pension reform.

.. Putin’s other tool of distraction has been war. Less than a year after taking office for the third time, in 2012, he launched a war with Ukraine, occupying Crimea. This fostered a sense of triumph and national unity that kept his popularity safely in the stratosphere for four years.

.. Russians are more worried than they used to be about almost everything, from rising inequality to environmental pollution and decaying morals. There is no war to take their minds off their concerns

.. When Putin is scared, which he undoubtedly is now, he reacts by attacking. This is a personality trait that he has owned in his autobiographical storytelling, and one that he exhibited in 2012, when, faced with mass protests, he launched a crackdown that created a population of political prisoners in Russia. There is nothing to stop him from doubling down now:

.. The suppression of dissent in Russia will probably intensify in the wake of last weekend’s protests, but that will not satisfy him fully. It may secure his power, but it will not repair his numbers. Only war can do that. All he needs is a worthy enemy, and a fitting propaganda campaign, to take people’s minds off their worries and make them feel a part of something great. Expect Russia’s neighbors, once again, to pay for the Kremlin’s instability.