The lonely hegemon

Last week, Nikolay Petrov, an astute Russia-watcher published an interesting article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In  this, he identified five dynamics that shaped Russian politics these days and declared that Putin’s regime had a year at most to live. The article generated a lively debate, including in RFE/RL’s Power Vertical podcast where participants discussed whether the “military mobilisation” that Putin has used to create legitimacy had really wore off. It has. And there is an important legitimacy crisis, too. But the two are not the same. Putin’s most important source of legitimacy lies elsewhere, and it is there where it is in serious trouble. 

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A performance to forget

Every series gets tired after a certain number of seasons. Viewers get tired of the running jokes, the catchphrases, the predictable storylines, the hammy actors, especially if no new characters are introduced. Authors gradually stop caring: plot turns become boring, dialogues get less witty and sometimes embarrassing glitches appear on the show. Some series reach this point after only a couple of seasons, others last longer. At fourteen seasons, Russia’s favourite television show, “Direct line with Vladimir Putin” has done respectably well so far. But the disease of all TV series has finally got to it. It has become predictable, self-repeating, somewhat obsolete, faulty and, most of all, intensely boring. This tells a lot about the weaknesses of the Russian political system too.

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Comrades in arms

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like. This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us”. The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies: “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orban, adding: “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said: “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis. And yes: in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together – that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orban’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU. This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both – was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.


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That awkward moment

Many families have an awkward, inconvenient relative: an uncle, an aunt, a wayward son – the kind of person who is increasingly out of touch with the world around them, listens to no one, knows no manners and comes up with crass ideas that the family has to play along with. You cannot tell them to get lost, because you want to be in their will, you trust them to keep family members from fighting each other or sometimes, because they’ve been around for too long to just get rid of them. Vladimir Putin, somewhat surprisingly, somewhat expectedly, seems to be turning into this relative.


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Dependence and addiction

Everything seemed to be going Vladimir Putin’s way. The attacks on Paris tilted European politics in his favour and as he was basking in this newfound indispensability in Turkey, he also started mending fences with Turkey. The Turkish Stream was back on track and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preparing to visit Moscow. Yet, it took only 17 seconds to take this downhill again. The downing of the Russian Su-24 over Turkey showed the limits of Putin’s brave new foreign policy.


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Battles and breaks

While the world was looking at the Russian military campaign in Syria, Russia may have scored a victory in Europe: the government of Valeriu Strelet in Moldova was toppled by a vote of no confidence initiated by pro-Russian parties in the Chisinau parliament. Meanwhile, opposition protesters clashed with police in Montenegro’s capital and the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic visited Moscow. It seemed as if Russia had been on a winning streak. But in reality, Vladimir Putin has too many battles to fight and his own strategy – if there is one – put him under pressure. In fact, Russia is winning only where it does not have to have a strategy.  

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A Cold War summit

Vladimir Putin’s speech in front of the UN General Assembly, topped off with a meeting with Barack Obama became a media sensation even before it happened. And when it did, it was pretty much what everyone expected. What Putin most succeeded in was creating a Cold War-like atmosphere, in which Russia was a force to reckon with, to listen to and to cooperate with in order to keep an even bigger evil at bay. Putin’s stunt was especially spectacular considering that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, presiding over a much stronger and – despite its internal problems – healthier global power, was also visiting the US at the same time, and Putin managed to steal much of the attention. Will Putin’s speech in the UN be as memorable as Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, only for the right reasons this time, or was it a miscalculated attempt to steer away from a fatal collision?

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