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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The bonfire of rationality

Yesterday I was going to post a long and detailed entry about Vladimir Putin’s priority list. About the way priorities were exposed during times of crisis and scarcity. I was going to draw a comparison with my college days in Dublin, where, due to my meagre funds, I had to decide which parts of a full Irish breakfast I wanted to keep, as I could not afford them all. I was going to tell how I decided the lack of which ingredient would not disrupt my morning. I was going to point out how Putin seems to have decided which elements of the Russian political system were essential and worth keeping and how others were being cut off. At the end, I was going to point out how this ended up producing a very different system from what it was before – just like a student’s breakfast was not nearly the same as a proper one would have been. But I was late. The murder of Boris Nemtsov told more about the state of Russia and Putinism that I could have. Regardless of how important or unimportant a personality Nemtsov was in contemporary Russia, and regardless of a series of similar murder cases in the past years, the context makes this case different. It shed light on the weakness and the vicious circle hiding behind the robustness of Russia’s geopolitical posturing.

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A tale of two choices

Oil prices tumble, the Russian economy is in recession, the Russian elite is nervous, but Vladimir Putin is smart enough to avoid the traps that the Soviet Union fell into – in a nutshell, this is the argument of Richard Sakwa’s opinion piece, published in The Guardian three weeks ago. There’s no way out of this crisis and Putin will soon have to handpick a successor, argues Alexander Morozov on openDemocracy. Between these two, somewhat extreme opinions that supposedly contain some wishful thinking, we have seen a myriad of scenarios emerging in the past month about the end game of the crisis in Ukraine. All of them sound somewhat plausible, yet it is difficult to argue that one of them has significantly higher chances of happening than the rest. This ambiguity paints a perfect picture of Russia at the beginning of 2015.

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Europe’s game – Part 2

In the previous entry, I argued that Europe had to push forward with sanctions on Russia, despite the imminent threat of a Russian economic crisis. However, Europe’s game does not end here. It has to carefully observe the movements within the Russian political elite. Russia’s looming economic breakdown and Western sanctions have indeed affected power relations within the elite – but not everyone suffered equally.

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Europe’s Game – Part 1

Pro-Russian rebels held illegal elections in the Donbass on 2 November, which Russia first recognised then only “respected”. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities and NATO reported a serious Russian military build-up in Eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was told off at the G20 summit, where even his face-to-face encounter with Angela Merkel went haywire. The British embassy in Kiev offered the Russian government a guide to identify its own armoured vehicles. You might have thought that if anytime Europe was ready to introduce new sanctions against Russia, it was now. If you did, you were wrong. EU member states failed to agree on new sanctions against Russia on Monday; instead, they chose to pretend something was happening and called to sanction rebel leaders. With the Russian economy on the verge of a serious crisis, the newest phase of the Ukraine crisis may just look like this: a chicken game, in which, before eventually losing, Putin might first score some political points.

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When the wells run dry

Those critical of Western sanctions against Russia usually point at the fact that these measures have so far failed to do their job. They failed to bring meaningful changes in Russia’s foreign and domestic policies and failed to stop the war in the Donbas. Critics are partly right. Certainly, it took the West too long to force Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table. On the other hand, if the purpose of the West was to weaken Russia and to simultaneously split the political elite, thereby paving the way for changes in the longer term, they are on the right track. 

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