Putin Plans For Reelection Without Crimea Euphoria And The Trump Bubble

HOUSTON, USA -- March 18 is a national Russian holiday marking President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 signing of Crimea’s annexation. The so-called Crimean mobilization pumped up Putin’s approval ratings, sagging from the 2011-12 political protests and lackluster economic performance.


People wave Russian national flag as they celebrate the third anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation in Sevastopol on March 18, 2017.

The Russian people welcomed Crimea into the fold, triumphantly proclaiming “Crimea is Ours” (Krym Nash).

They were told that Crimeans had overwhelmingly voted to join a Russia that stood ready to protect them from the neo-Nazi fanatics of Kiev.

It was only later that the Russian Human Rights Committee let it slip that the vote was far from overwhelming.

Fast forward to the third anniversary: The Krim Nash euphoria has passed.

In Moscow, a spring festival (Vesna) at Moscow University replaced the pomp and circumstances of a Kremlin celebration.

Open announcements promised participants 400 rubles “cash straight in their hands after the celebration.”

Officials from the Duma’s three (unpopular) parties spoke.

There was no sign of Putin.

In Crimea, sparse crowds of pensioners greeted patriotic speeches of local politicians with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.

Krym Nash banners have disappeared from Moscow subways.

Saturday’s lackluster celebrations confirm public opinion researchers’ finding that the propaganda gains from Krym Nash have run their course.

The Crimean Mobilization is already “a fragment of political history.”

In a famous Russian war film, the commander declared: “The cannons are in order, but we have shot everything down to the last scrap of metal.”

Putin has expended his Crimea ammunition, and Russia is left in a blind alley.

Public opinion polls, limited by threats of closure, still yield general support for the annexation.

Some 43 percent answer that they are “proud of the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation.”

But Crimea is not their primary concern: More than half are ashamed that Russia “lives in eternal poverty and disorder,” and the “loss of morality and widespread corruption” disturb another quarter.

These figures are scarcely an endorsement of President Putin, but direct criticism of him is simply not allowed.

Why has Crimea lost its appeal?

Both critics and realists, alike, note the $5 billion cost of Crimea per year, and these are only direct costs.

Crimean pensioners have swollen pension roles and are blamed for pensions lagging behind inflation.

Annexation-related sanctions have driven down the value of the ruble and discouraged badly-needed foreign investment and technology.

Although downplayed by Russian media, the International Criminal Court’s finding that East Ukraine is an “international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine” and that Russia is an “occupier of Crimea,” has damaged Russia’s already-flawed international image.

Hope for a quick end of sanctions has been dashed.

The European Union agreed to extend sanctions through July, and the EU foreign affairs chief called Crimea a “direct challenge to international security.”

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, went a step further, declaring the US will not lift sanctions until Russia withdraws from Crimea.

In December, almost seventy percent of Russians anticipated that relations would improve under a Trump presidency.

By January, the figure had fallen to 45 percent.

Today, the percentage must be much lower.

Indeed, Russia’s Trump bubble has burst.

Putin faces reelection in less than a year (March 10 or 18, 2018).

As of today’s date, his personal approval ratings remain sky high (at 85 percent), but they have remained basically unchanged since the Crimean mobilization.

Putin has not gotten a ratings bump from his Syrian intervention, despite spectacular 24/7 displays on television of Russian surgical air strikes that cost no Russian lives.

Syria is far away, and Russians do not care.

Ukraine is next door, and most Russians have friends and relatives in Ukraine.

They care about Ukraine.

Russian state institutions do not share Putin’s ratings: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (approve 52, disapprove 47), the government of Russia (49, 49), the governors (52,46), and the Duma (42,57) have roughly equal approval-disapproval figures.

By American standards a 50/50 rating is no disgrace, but in Russia it may represent a high level of disapproval.

We therefore have a triangulated Russian polity: The ultimate leader, Putin, has a high approval rating because the people trust him.

His government, on the other hand, is unpopular.

This triangulation goes back into Russia’s history of popular Czars and their unpopular governors or the Soviet people believing that “if only Stalin knew” the killing would stop.

With his reelection, less than a year off, Putin’s election strategy cannot be based on Crimea or Syria.

With the Minsk2 “ceasefire” bogged down in east Ukraine and Russian equipment and lives being lost, Putin cannot rely on the Kiev-Nazi tune again.

Instead, he will do the following: First, Putin will not take a chance on potential Trump-like rivals.

His courts have declared opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, ineligible on trumped up corruption charges.

Although Navalny’s approval ratings are in the cellar; so were Trump’s at this time in the election cycle.

Prime Minister Medvedev cannot offer a challenge because he is suddenly under attack for corruption.

Medvedev is of value to Putin as a scapegoat for failed policy if that becomes necessary.

Second, Putin’s statisticians will release non-stop news that the economy is growing again, that the worst is over, and that the sanctions are having no effect.

Indeed, Russia’s statistical agency has revised its calculations to show economic growth with a statistical sleight of hand.

I doubt that the Russian people will be impressed by this bit of “fake news.”

Their own lives paint a different picture.

Real wages and personal consumption continue to stagnate.

Construction shows no signs of turning around, and pensions are falling behind inflation.

Government spending on health and education continues to shrink as mortality rises and human capital is lost.

Their refrigerators give the Russian people a different message than government statisticians.

Nor will things get better.

At the consensus prognosis growth rate, the Russian economy will likely not recover to its pre-Crimea level of output before the then-71-year-old Putin completes his fourth term.

And that assumes Putin does not bog down Russia in more foreign adventures that harm the economy. 

Third, Putin will make a show of improving the workings of government.

He has appointed a new chief of staff (Sergei Kirienko); he is putting in new governors, and he is trying to raise the favorability ratings of his rubber stamp parliament.

Making a show of replacing officials reminds me of the Yeltsin years as he went through seven prime ministers in eight years.

Fourth, Putin can resume, now that the Trump bubble has burst, his nonstop propaganda against NATO and the United States as hostile powers intent on imposing their liberal world order on Eurasian Russia.

If Putin sees his approval ratings falling for some unanticipated reason, he could crank up the volume for a new foreign venture.

The contrast of Crimea and Syria show it would have to be in a location about which the Russian people care, such as Belarus, the Baltic States, or more generally Novorossiya.

Ukraine is in the process of building a formidable army.

The cost of a major incursion into Ukraine would be too high.

Even the small Baltic states could be problematic.

They intend to shoot to kill at the first sign of Russia’s Little Green Men; they would fight an intensive guerilla war, and a Russian Baltic incursion could trigger NATO’s Article 5.

Putin should win the 2018 presidential election without difficulty despite a bad economy, sanctions, an unpopular government, and involvement in two major armed conflicts.

He has exhausted the popularity gains from Crimea and has gotten no boost from Syria.

He has the admiration of vast segments of the Russian population, who can see no one other than he as their president.

Donald Trump must be on Putin’s mind.

Trump supposedly had no chance to win.

Putin should be a shoo-in.

Life and politics occasionally play tricks.

Source: Forbes

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