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Why Putin Is Losing

  • Brian Whitmore

The face of a losing war -- on several fronts (Art: Vladimir Putin made of bullet cartridges by Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko)

The face of a losing war -- on several fronts (Art: Vladimir Putin made of bullet cartridges by Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko)

Are little green men about to appear on the North Pole?

Russia's claim last week, using an extremely creative interpretation of international law, to exclusive economic rights to nearly half a million square miles of the Arctic Sea was certainly a head-scratcher.

Sure, the territory is valuable due to its untapped reserves of fossil fuels and for the shipping lanes that will open as Arctic ice melts. But the claim is likely to ultimately be rejected by the United Nations.

But sparking a manufactured international crisis over the Arctic, one that pits Russia against the United States and Canada, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Why? Because Vladimir Putin needs to make a new action movie to distract his people.

The Kremlin leader is boxed in on so many fronts right now that he badly needs to change the subject.

The Donbas Quagmire

For starters, Putin has no good options in eastern Ukraine.

The old fantasies about seizing so-called Novorossia, the strip of land from Kharkiv to Odesa, and establishing a land bridge to Crimea are dead. And the more modest goal of expanding the territory Russia and its proxies currently hold, perhaps with a push to Mariupol, is probably out of the question too.

Either campaign would be costly in terms of blood and treasure, it would certainly spark a fresh round of sanctions, and it would involve occupying hostile territory. The recent uptick in fighting this week reeks more of desperation than of a serious move to acquire more territory.

Russia could, of course, just annex the territories controlled by Moscow's proxies; or it could freeze the conflict and establish a Russian protectorate there.

But in this case, Moscow would be shouldered with the burden of financing an economically unproductive enclave whose infrastructure has been destroyed. And do so while Russia's economy is sinking into an ever deeper recession.

Moreover, Russia would lose any leverage over the remainder of Ukraine, which would quickly move West. Sanctions would be continued, and possibly escalated.

The Kremlin's preferred option, given these limitations, is to force the territories back into Ukraine on Moscow's terms -- with broad autonomy and the ability to veto decisions by the Kyiv government. But Ukraine and the West appear unwilling to let this happen.

Putin has boxed himself into a corner in Ukraine, and it is difficult to see how he is going to get out of the quagmire he has created.

Trapped At Home

It's also difficult to imagine how Putin is going to extract himself from the quagmire he has created at home.

The Kremlin leader is caught in a trap of his own making, between economic and political imperatives.

With the economy sinking deeper into recession, inflation spiking, oil prices dipping below $50 a barrel, and the ruble approaching the lows it reached earlier in the year, Putin badly needs sanctions eased to give the economy breathing space.

But for that to happen, he would need to climb down in Ukraine, a move that would undermine the whole rationale for his rule and infuriate the nationalist supporters who make up his base.

"Putin's return to the presidential seat heralded a rather sudden pivot towards a deep-seated domestic nationalism," Moscow-based journalist Anna Arutunyan wrote recently.

"Yet nationalism as a state policy and identity, initially implemented to shore up Kremlin power, now has the Kremlin itself trapped and threatened by forces that it initially nurtured, but can no longer fully control."

A recent report in Novaya Gazeta, for example, claimed that the war in eastern Ukraine risks "metastasizing" as volunteer fighters have been returning to Russia with large quantities of heavy weapons.

During his first two terms in the Kremlin, Putin's team -- and most notably his chief political operator, Vladislav Surkov -- very skilfully co-opted and manipulated both liberal and nationalist groups.

That strategy caught up with him in 2011-12, when liberal disappointment resulted in the largest anti-Kremlin street protests Russia has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union -- leaving him no place else to turn but toward the nationalists.

"Given the higher prevalence of nationalist views -- especially among members of the security services -- a sense of betrayal could have much bigger consequences for the Kremlin than simply mass protests," Arutunyan wrote.

Losing The Energy Card

And on top of it all, Putin has an energy problem. It's not just that oil prices are low, and will remain so for some time -- although that certainly is a problem.

But the real essence of Putin's energy woes are structural, not cyclical. The global energy game is changing -- and it is not changing in Moscow's favor.

Shale, liquified natural gas (LNG), and renewables -- three areas where Russia is extremely weak -- are ascendant and are dramatically altering the market.

The potential for ending sanctions on Iran puts a powerful new player and competitor -- the world's third largest natural-gas producer -- in the game.

And the Ukraine conflict and Moscow's aggressive posture toward the West have led Europe -- Russia's most important market -- to change its energy policies and seek alternative suppliers.

Moreover, rather than looking the other way as Gazprom repeatedly flouted the European Union's antitrust laws, Brussels is now cracking down.

If one looks at Gazprom as a barometer of Russia's fortunes, one statistic says it all: in 2008, the company had a market value of $360 billion; today it is worth just $55 billion.

Energy has always been Putin's trump card. He has been able to use it to bully former neighbors into submission and bribe and blackmail the Europeans.

Now it's become a trump card he is losing fast.

Propaganda Can't Buy You Love

But at least Putin is still winning the battle for hearts and minds, right?

For more than a year, we've been hearing about how Russia's slick propaganda machine is crushing the West in the information war.

Moscow has no doubt been very effective mounting guerrilla marketing campaigns aim at sowing doubt and confusion in the West. And they have been skilfull in manipulating and surreptitiously influencing media narratives on issues like the Ukraine war and the downing of Flight MH17.

But guess what? After spending nearly half a billion dollars to get its message out to the world, after unleashing armies of trolls to disrupt Western news sites, after launching the most widespread disinformation campaign since the end of the Cold War, after all this, Russia's global image is in the toilet.

According to the Pew Research Center's new report, only three countries in the world have a net positive opinion of Russia: China, Vietnam, and Ghana. Worldwide, a median of just 30 percent view Russia favorably.

Writing in Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky quipped that "the money might be spent just as wisely buying more $600,000 watches for Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov."

And the numbers are dismal across the board. In Europe, just 26 percent view Russia favorably, in the Middle East, only 25 percent do. In Latin America, it's only 29 percent. In the regions most favorably inclined toward Russia -- Asia and Africa -- it's just 37 percent.

And if Russia's global image is bad, Putin's is dismal. Worldwide, just 24 percent trust him. In Europe, just 15 percent do.

To be sure, Russia's propaganda machine is working wonders at home, where Putin's popularity is stratospheric despite a flailing economy. But one has to wonder how much longer that can last.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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