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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The psychology of loose wheels 

How annoyed would you feel if you had to make an utter fool of yourself, day after day, for benefits that are gradually decreasing? Probably about as annoyed as Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs did when he recently mumbled expletives into his microphone in the middle of a press conference. Little does it matter if the text that caused Lavrov’s outrage came from an assistant, a family member or Vladimir Putin himself. The head of a country’s diplomatic corps is not supposed to lose it like this. Or take Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin confidant and former head of Russian Railways who unexpectedly resigned last week to become the representative of Kaliningrad in the Russian parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, a position that comes with a lot less influence and money. Was he the victim of a struggle inside the elite? Was he replaced, as Leonid Bershidsky suggested, because desperate times call for efficient managers rather than kleptocrats? Has he taken a different career direction? Again, this is not what really matters. What matters is that visibly, the power engine of the Putin era – material benefits in exchange for unwavering political loyalty – is failing. And not only inside Russia.

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The curious art of questions

In political science, there are some questions not worth asking. These typically begin with “what if”, or take the form of “what does [insert name] really think about [insert issue]”. When Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s former Prime Minister and Boris Yeltsin’s first anointed successor passed away this week, many asked the question what would have happened if he, rather than Vladimir Putin had ended up succeeding Yeltsin. Leonid Bershidsky even claimed to have known the answer: under Primakov, Russia would have taken an anti-Western course earlier than with Putin. Do you see my point? And there are so many other such questions coming to mind, it is difficult to ask the right one. 

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The A. B. C. lies

Despite their sky-high ratings and recent attempts to consolidate the political status quo, the Russian president and the government do not behave like the firm and confident authority whose image they try to project to the world. On the contrary: they show the signs of increasing anxiety. Vladimir Putin’s recent decree on the classification of military losses in peacetime hints at how, under worsening circumstances, the Kremlin expects to maintain or raise its public support.

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A rebalancing act

Vladimir Putin’s annual televised Q&A session last week revealed more about the present state of affairs in Russia and Putinism in general than it was obvious at first sight. The Russian president has made several moves suggesting that he wants to return to “business as usual”, which, however, will require further tightening of screws and several replacements. The European Union has one month to decide what it wants to do with the new normal in Russia. Here is why.

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An obituary

Yes, I read the news today. Vladimir Putin is alive and seemingly well. His handshake is firm, judging from the expression on the face of the president of Kyrgyzstan, and he may even have driven the car between two places in St. Petersburg. Despite an avalanche of hashtags, conspiracy theories, Austrian physicians and illegal children, when the main question – that is, whether Putin was dead, or even worse, dethroned – was solved today, the world seems to have lost interest in what caused the eleven-day hiatus in his public appearances. Putin is certainly alive in the physiological sense of the word. But there is a smell of decay lingering around the system that he built.  

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