Why do Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies look so nervous?

September 8, 2015
Russian President Putin listens to Crimean Prime Minister Aksyonov and presidential aide Levitin while inspecting transport infrastructure facilities in southern Russia onboard helicopter in Novorossiysk

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) listens to Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (L) and presidential aide Igor Levitin onboard a helicopter in Novorossiysk, Russia, August 20, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russia’s three-year electoral cycle has gotten started with a bang.

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest KGB cronies from his St. Petersburg days and a co-founder of the exclusive Ozero dacha housing cooperative was recently dumped from his cushy post as head of the state railway monopoly. This raised yet more speculation that Putin feels he needs to reshuffle his inner circle. The next day, Putin staged another of his trademark photo ops — piloting a mini-sub off the coast of Crimea. The Kremlin propaganda machine continues in overdrive, celebrating the destruction of banned (and allegedly toxic) foodstuffs smuggled in from the West.

Putin’s resort to theatrics clearly indicates he is gearing up to run for re-election in 2018. The annexation of Crimea and surge in Russian patriotism have pushed his approval rating to levels no Western leader can hope to replicate. The only place they can really go is down. Yet despite having no serious domestic political opponents, Putin’s path to re-election may prove complicated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen inside a research bathyscaphe while submerging into the waters of the Black Sea near Sevastopol

Russian President Vladimir Putin (front) inside a research bathyscaphe while submerging into the waters of the Black Sea near Sevastopol, Crimea, August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

At the top of his agenda is how to manage Russia’s elites. The Kremlin has sent a clear message that it needs the elites to help manage the fallout from the current economic crisis — though the threat of public discontent with the regime or significant street protests looks manageable. That helps explain, however, the endless barrage of aggressive anti-Western rhetoric and initiatives, which resonates with a patriotically inclined electorate.

The large Moscow street protests of 2011 and 2012 illustrated the connection between economic growth and demands for greater political participation by the chief beneficiaries of Russia’s then-prosperity. Now, as the collapse in oil prices and Western sanctions undermine the economy, the mood inside Russia could hardly be more different. The creative class in big cities like Moscow is depressed and increasingly disengaged from political life. Some have given up and are just leaving the country. The combination of economic crisis, heavy propaganda, patriotic mobilization and hybrid war inside Ukraine have produced conformism, passivity and insensitivity.

Average Russians, who represent Putin’s political base, likely believe that they are again living in a besieged medieval fortress. Why should they protest against Putin who, according to the official narrative, is defending them against the West’s evil plots to destroy Russia?

Russian President Putin chairs meeting with members of government at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

It doesn’t hurt that Putin is also responsible for the distribution of social benefits. Far better to wait for handouts, money and food from your leaders — and to keep your eyes peeled for foreign agents and fifth columnists inside Russia.

The average Russian has now absorbed most of the impact of Western sanctions. It’s a far tougher situation, however, for Russian businesses abruptly cut off from the international financial system. Yet Russian companies can also turn to the Kremlin for handouts and subsidies from the state budget. Unluckily for most of them, the size of those handouts depends largely on their connections to the Putin entourage and the price of one commodity — oil.

The political reality is different. Soaring inflation and painful budget cuts contradict what average Russians see on their television sets. For the moment, though, the luridly jingoistic TV programming is an effective substitute for high quality, moderately priced food.

The Kremlin’s political team believes, for the time being at least, that this new social contract — let’s call it, “Crimea and patriotism in exchange for freedom” — works. They believe it will continue to pay off through the end of Putin’s presidential term in 2018.

Then why do Putin and the ruling elite seem so worried and insecure? They probably sense that they are in a vision trap. During the 2000s and 2010s, the ruling elites became complacent — thanks to high oil prices, steady economic growth and an all-too-easy-to-manipulate domestic political system. While the elites initially cheered Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, they know that the war is costing Russia dearly and that all of the Kremlin’s options to resolve the crisis are unpalatable to Putin and his war cabinet.

Russian President Putin speaks during meeting with representatives of Crimean national minorities in Yalta

Russian President Vladimir Putin (front) in a meeting with representatives of Crimean national minorities in Yalta, Crimea, August 17, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

So today, the elite is basically at a loss when it comes to strategic thinking.

What exactly will Putin’s 2018 re-election platform be? Will he drape himself in patriotism, the xenophobia of the Russian Orthodox Church and the mythology of the Stalin era? That may not do the trick.

Adding new territories in the Arctic, as the Kremlin apparently hopes to do with its recent claim to the United Nations, would be a pale imitation of the recent triumph in Crimea.

What else is there? An economic rebound seems improbable in the absence of high energy and commodities prices, new sources of growth or the return of the external factors that benefited Russia’s middle class during most of Putin’s time in office. Investment has declined, and this is Russia’s first post-Soviet crisis in which consumption is contracting even faster than investment.

So, even though his poll numbers remain astronomically high, Putin looks increasingly vulnerable. Western sanctions and the end of his on-again, off-again romance with the West have left him isolated internationally.

The Kremlin’s successful campaign to build a besieged fortress has imprisoned its chief architect.

27 comments

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Well the article stated that Putin and his cronies look nervous – the entire argument is based on that premise. But the article fails to explain how the author actually reached that conclusion? Please Andrei and Andrew, share with us how do you figure that Putin is nervous.

He managed to brainwash almost the entire country undoing years of battle for freedom of speech and press. He will have no problem getting reelected and will continue to defy west through his control of the former USSR region. Overtime he might even succeed in building a micro-economy.

Plus China along with other Asian countries and a bunch of middle eastern friends seem eager to continue their relationship with Russia. It’s not an easy path to pursue but one that may succeed overtime – I am sure China would love to export food to Russia if they don’t already and will ignore the Euro-US sanctions if they want to…

USSR managed to keep things tight for a very long time – if people were complacent enough to live under that rule who’s to say something different will happen now. Having immigrated from former USSR during my teenage years, I have now lost all respect for the Russian spirit and mentality. I feel like the country is split between scared intellectuals and drunk fools – how can a society that learned about all the lies after the fall of USSR can again take the blue pill and believe all the same lies all over again.

It just makes no sense…they are fools…

Posted by Nilus | Report as abusive

Wish Reuters brings some real journalism for a change as the current Russia/Putin bashing articles by these folks with US defense propaganda, is getting old.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

They look nervous… because Russia is failing. Its economy is now smaller than Italy’s. 12 time zones worth of room on this earth… and the good people of Russia are able to produce as much goods and services… as Italy. Well done, Putin.

GDP per capita in Russia is now lower than Greece or Czech Republic. And slipping. Very impressive empire. Putin the great, riding his horse in man-boobies and playing in the pathetic Ukrainian mud. Haha.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Once we realize our debt/gdb ratio of over 100% that is at about 6 times greater than that of Russia, we’ll start noticing more of ourselves in the mud.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

That was pretty bad.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Putin drapes himself in patriotism but as the great Dr. Samuel Johnson said:
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” – I cannot help thinking that there must be some genuine patriots in the Kremlin elite who are now seriously worrried that Putin is diddling away precious resources fighting imaginary windmills at the European end while the Chinese are rapidly taking over the former Soviet hegemony in Central Asia.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

China will bail out the Russian elites, for China has an overabundance of money.

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

Good facts, but conclusions are quite arbitrary.

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

One could also argue that the loss of Crimea to Russian history, settlement, economy and military would be similar to the USA having to return Alaska to Russia or Texas to Mexico.
And the connection to and support for Russian speakers and economy in Donbas is quite different to reestablishing the Russian Empire in Poland, and should be handled as such.
And sanctions have weighted economic interests toward dependency on the Russian State and corrupt connections rather than international relations and market enterprise.
So the current situation and future events may not all just be due to some “Great Man” theory and explanation of History.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

They actually look pretty relaxed.

Like guys who’ve got China taking their backs and the best defense technology on earth and a strong balance sheet and a great defense/foreign policy team and near-unanimous public support.

Yeah.

Relaxed is definitely the word for those guys.

We should be so lucky.

Posted by godfree | Report as abusive

Just like Russia’s and Putin’s former Soviet incarnations, their current incarnations are again fighting a “cold war” that is unsustainable; in which, again, they flaunt their military prowess while being consistently and continually hit with economic weapons and punitive “soft-power” of the international community. They may be currently absorbing and taking those blows, but they are nearly impotent in terms of returning them. In this “Cold War” they are hopelessly addicted to the economic narcotic of the global economy.

The Land of Chess Champions should’ve been better able to game-out the eventual outcome, but raw wounded-pride, chauvinism, and a historical affinity for brute force versus integrity in international relations apparently precludes that possibility.

Posted by Interactidiomas | Report as abusive

Putin looks less nervous than the West looks vengeful and jealous over Putin’s success.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Putin looks less nervous than the West looks vengeful and jealous over Putin’s success.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Half of Russia doesn’t even sewage treatment. It’s a third world country now. They live in their own poop.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Blatantly bashing Russia for no reason. This the kind of journalism we have to endure now? Least they are trying to stop the BS OUR leaders are doing.

Posted by Srift | Report as abusive

If Putin gets too nervous, he can always invade a NATO nation. Obama will be more than happy to make excuses for our non-action as a result.

Posted by SemperFido9915 | Report as abusive

Putin clearly, got under the skin of both – Mr. Obama and Mr. Ash Carter – both seem to have gotten what they wanted – a long-drawn, unwinnable proxy-war with Russia, in both – Syria and Ukraine. Unwise beyond proportion, at the best.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

If SemperFido9915 gets too nervous, he can always get out of his arm chair and go fight his own war somewhere. Leave us taxpayers out of your next republican boondooggle.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Great! A journalist who considers himself a psychologist of nations!

Posted by musicmouse | Report as abusive

Glory to Vladimir The Righteous !!! Unprofessional article by two single cell life forms.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

If Solidar is correct, and Russia impotently occupies 12 Time Zones generating the GDP of a couple of horse drawn ploughs in Tuscany; well the Russian economic model could be adopted by the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, to benchmark sustainable levels of CO2 production in a modern burgeoning economic powerhouse.

Posted by Fael | Report as abusive

President Putin and Russia are not using Military force or proxy mercenaries and terrorists to get their own way. They are using negotiations and friendly commerce to better their country and those they have dealings with. What a concept..
Russia, the biggest country in the world and full of natural resources don’t need one bit of the arrogant USA…

Posted by professorjesus | Report as abusive

“So, even though his poll numbers remain astronomically high, Putin looks increasingly vulnerable. Western sanctions and the end of his on-again, off-again romance with the West have left him isolated internationally.”

Isolated ?
“The worse Russia’s relations are with the West, the closer Russia will want to be to China. If China supports you, no one can say you’re isolated,” said Vasily Kashin, a China expert at the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) think thank.
INSIGHT-Putin looks to Asia as West threatens to isolate Russia

Posted by CelestialOne | Report as abusive

What did I just read? This passes for journalism today? They only insight I got from reading this article was – the author was instructed to publish a russia-hating flavor arcticle, but being clueless on the subject, he fumbled the task.

Posted by TheMilesGuy | Report as abusive

“Putin’s path to re-election may prove complicated.”

When was Putin’s re-election ever a problem? Since 1999 he has been systematically “re-elected”, unless you count that stint with Medvedev from 2008 to 2012 as Putin not being in power.

The fact that in 1999 he was “nominated” to the Russian presidency, not elected, and that he has ever since been in power (for now 16 years…) shows that elections in Russia are everything but free. He will certainly be re-elected for life.

Posted by FUD312 | Report as abusive

This article is not journalism or analysis but pure propaganda, laced with loaded language and full of unsupported assumptions.

The fact is that today Putin has unprecedented support of “average Russians” and Russia is more prosperous and free than any time in the past. Since Putin was elected, the GDP has tripled and the wages doubled. After a 300% increase in GDP, a 5% decline is a drop in the bucket, and support for Putin reflects that perception.

Reuters has a reputation for honest journalism. This article could have been written by the Ministry of Propaganda.

Posted by ruffsoft | Report as abusive

What a stupidly written article. Bring some unbiased journalism to us.I want to read the facts,not be subjected to your opinion!

Posted by sjdb | Report as abusive