The New Putin: What To Expect From Russia In The Next Six Years?

The record level of support shown for Vladimir Putin in the presidential election indicates the country’s high level of confidence in the Russian leader and hints at the crisis the opposition is now grappling with. One element that contributed to this victory for the incumbent Russian president was the willingness of the country’s citizens to rally around their government, despite unprecedented external pressure. In the next six years Putin will have to meet a number of key challenges both at home as well as abroad. Let’s take a look at where Russia’s foreign and domestic policies might be headed.

Patriotic expectations and the campaign

The current Russian head of state, Vladimir Putin, won the presidential election on March 18, 2018. According to the Central Election Commission he received a record percentage of the votes cast — over 76%. Never before has the public demonstrated such strong support for any candidate in any presidential election in the Russian Federation’s history (in 1991, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, or 2012 ).

More than anything, Putin managed to take the country’s patriotic expectations that seemed unattainable even back in 2012 and translate them into action. This is particularly true in terms of the foreign policy of the last six years. The reunification of Crimea with Russia and the victories in Syria have contributed to the rise in the popularity of our nation’s leader, both domestically and in many respects abroad as well.

The president’s election campaign was also skillfully planned. He shrewdly refused to take part in the debates (which eventually deteriorated into a disgraceful spectacle between political dwarfs that discredited the very institution of elected democracy in the eyes of most Russians), and generally stayed under the radar in the race prior to his keynote address before the Federal Assembly on March 1. By that time it had become obvious to the voters — even those who are critical of the current administration — that the alternative candidates simply had nothing to say.

Vladimir Putin seized on that moment to use his speech to articulate crystal-clear priorities for the nation’s social and economic development, as well as for maintaining the needed level of security.

Another significant factor in Vladimir Putin’s success was the fact that he had won the battle for the loyalty of the country’s youth. A poll conducted by the Levada Center in December 2017 showed that 86% of the nation’s residents aged 18 to 24 approved of the job Putin is doing as president. His national approval ratings overall (spanning all age categories) stand at 81%.

Levada center poll results Putin approval rate
Retrospective for 2010-2018 of Levada center poll results in Putin’s approval rating

The opposition

It is important to note that past elections have demonstrated the de facto and unprecedented collapse of the left, which has traditionally played on the nostalgia for the Soviet Union that is still felt by a significant percentage of the electorate. The Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin won 11.79% of the vote (in 2012 Gennady Zyuganov brought in 17.18%), while the representative of the far left, Maxim Suraykin, picked up only 0.68% of the votes cast.

Given that the ideals of social justice and state protectionism have not lost any of their luster in the eyes of the Russian public, it is clear that a significant percentage of the left-leaning electorate is now voting for Putin and sees in him their own hopes that the country will continue along their desired path.

The candidates who campaigned on liberal platforms (who are actually leftists from a different camp) — Ksenia Sobchak, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Boris Titov — won only 3.47% of the 2018 ballots, whereas almost 8% of the electorate voted for the liberal agenda of Mikhail Prokhorov in 2012. The calls to boycott the election that were heard from the camp of the ad hoc opposition movement also led nowhere: the 2018 election saw a turnout of 67.47%, which is 2% higher than in 2012.

The liberals’ poor showing was largely tied to foreign-policy issues. This is a sector of society that wants to integrate into the Western world, but the Western world itself has shown beyond an doubt that it is not ready to integrate Russia and sees it as an enemy. And this has completely pulled the rug out from under the liberal parties.

Vladimir Putin meeting with delegates of the "Russia - the land of opportunities" forum, March 15, 2018
Vladimir Putin meeting with delegates of the “Russia – the land of opportunities” forum, March 15, 2018

The West is trapped

The Russian presidential election was preceded by rising tensions in Moscow’s relationship with the West. With literally less than a week to go before voters headed to the polls, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a warning about a possible US air strike against Syria and threatened to respond to any aggression by the US military. This was one of the most significant events to occur since the conflict in Syria began seven years ago. There was a very real threat of a direct military clash between Russia and the US in Eastern Ghouta. But the Americans backed down, because they understood how dangerous it is for them to challenge a force that is their equal militarily.

In turn, after bombarding Moscow for two weeks with baseless accusations about the Skripal incident, the British Foreign Office was forced to acknowledge the necessity of working together with Russian experts to investigate the matter.

The fact that all the efforts the West has put into four years of sanctions have still not produced the results Washington would have liked — regime change in the Kremlin or at least a strengthening of the opposition’s influence — demonstrates that the heavy-handed strategy of pressuring Russia was the wrong choice to make.

Western strategists have been caught in the trap of their own civilizational arrogance as they find fault with other nations despite the log in their own eye. And since they believe that material well-being is not merely the basis, but also the ultimate goal of human existence, they find themselves bewildered when confronted with other values. They did not count on ordinary Russian citizens being so willing to put the public good and the greatness and sovereignty of their country above any potential inconveniences caused by the sanctions.

Domestic priorities

Contrary to the widely held view in the West, the staying power of Putin’s tenure has little to do with foreign-policy victories and muscle-flexing in his relations with geopolitical opponents. The vast majority of his pre-election address that caused such a commotion was devoted not to his latest weapons systems, but to measures that are being taken to introduce a sustainable program of infrastructure investment and to improve the welfare of the public.

Putin’s biggest challenge in the next six years will be to provide his successor with a far more receptive political and social climate domestically in order to promote the country’s continued growth. Obviously the head of the Russian government will have to be replaced in the coming weeks, as that pact dating back to 2012 has now expired. The massive public demand for change that has taken root in Russian society has largely zeroed in on the figure of ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, whose inability to radically shift the paradigm of the country’s development is now a standing joke. Candidates with aspirations for the highest state office in 2024 will “get their feet wet” in the position of prime minister. And during that time Putin will actually have to meet a challenge similar to what Trump promised to do doing his campaign — to drain the swamp of the bureaucracy that was at one time the backbone of his administration, but which is now dragging him backward along with the rest of the country. During this time we will see a thorough rotation of staff within the upper echelons of power in Russia, to an unprecedented extent.

Foreign policy

Putin’s solid victory was a moment of relief for everyone who supports the idea of a multipolar world and for anyone who to any extent at all aspires to a greater degree of freedom in international affairs. Following is a very revealing list of the countries whose leaders promptly congratulated the Russian leader on his impressive victory: Serbia (its president, Aleksandar Vučić, was the very first caller), China, Japan, Syria, Iran, Belarus, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Emmanuel Macron also made a phone call, but only a telegram was received from Germany and only from the nominal figure of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, although he’s a man who shouldn’t give up on his political ambitions given the ongoing crisis of the ruling coalition in Germany.Multipolar world

Clearly the external pressure on Russia is here to stay. The Western elites will continue to try to assert themselves and hold on to the right they have appropriated to set the international rules of the game at Russia’s expense. Nevertheless, it is obvious that this strategy is doomed to fail. Russia has pledged to ensure its own security and the security of its allies and, without allowing itself to be drawn into a major military confrontation, it will staunchly defend the principles of international law and stay on the right side of history. It is clear that dialog with the US and the transnational elites at Washington’s back will be hard-nosed and accompanied by a few regular “shots fired into the air,” but that dialog is what will safeguard the tenacity and predictability of the process of — as the veteran Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, once put it — “the West’s soft landing into a new geopolitical reality.”

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