Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

Why Putin Is Losing

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)
By Brian Whitmore

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.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 3
by: pol from: Poland
August 10, 2015 17:42
I m from Poland and i dont like Russia but this propaganda is very poor. Putin and Xi they will be run the world.
US and UN debt,migrants,muslims this problems kill west world.
In Response

by: jaroslaw from: washington
August 10, 2015 19:58
Pol, you're poor English and bad punctuation are a dead giveaway that you're a Russian troll. It's so unlikely that an intelligent Pole would write something like this. Why don't you identify yourself? You'd sound more credible if you simply said 'I'm not from Poland and I like Russia.'
In Response

by: The Unnamed One
August 11, 2015 08:10
That moment when someone criticizes someone else's grammar while using "you're" while the correct form would have been "your".
In Response

by: Alica
August 11, 2015 14:13
So the grammar of the person above is bad, but you don't comment on the grammar in the actual article? "But one has to wonder how much long that that can last."
In Response

by: Moderator from: Prague
August 11, 2015 16:39
Thanks. The typo has been fixed. Apologies.
In Response

by: Ben
August 11, 2015 18:37
Wait, did you just write that all Poles are intelligent and Russians are't?
In Response

by: Sarmatian Review from: Houston, Texas
August 10, 2015 21:31
We did not know that Putin placed some of his trolls in Poland and the Netherlands as well.
In Response

by: NM Remote from: NM USA
August 11, 2015 00:51
You are a Russian troll - there is nothing Polish about you, Polish people are not biased and hateful in their humanity - a trait you Russians lack.
In Response

by: Kenn
August 11, 2015 01:32
pol, you are the type of troll the article refered too
In Response

by: Seedub from: Perth W.A.
August 11, 2015 05:50
If I understand you properly you are saying Russia and China will run the world, after the muslims weaken the western powers.Here is a news flash if the muslims ever get close to achieving your first premise then they will then go on to decimate Russia and China. What are the odds of your first premise happening. Zilch,zero, or no way whichever you want so Russia and China will have more to worry about than mosat western powers and their allies.
In Response

by: Potato Head from: UK
August 11, 2015 15:24
Pol the Polish potato head is actually right. Putin is banking on the destabilisation of our societies from debt,third world migrants,muslims, cultural marxism and the erosion of our own cultures and values that hold us together as a nation/nations. He is looking 50 years ahead, not five. The change in demographics of the western nations is increasing faster every year and quite frankly should be alarming. Putin may have been born in an old soviet system, but he is now a national socialist while the west especially the EU is focused on global socialism. He is betting on the demise of the EU and hopes Russia can manipulate that vacuum. The Western politicians seem oblivious to this.

I'm not a troll for the Kremlin, I just see them for what they are and what they are trying to achieve with the means they are using. He has invested so heavily in the military that the Ruskis now have the best tank. Russian jets jammed the USS Donald Cook, who was using Americas latest developed radar system, and gave them such a fright the ship ran out of the Crimea with its tail between it legs(reported by Janes defence). He disappeared for 10 days (Western media thinks he has fallen victim to a coup) and then resurfaced and immediately ordered a 40,000 strong war exercise in the Arctic. The Canadians actually thought they were being attacked and there was a total news blackout. Military radio enthusiasts picked up on an explosion of "Skyking" broadcasts. Then you have his development of a supersonic nuclear bomber. The Russians are often seen a wack jobs pissed on vodka, but the way they have been thinking out of the box in their military developments has to be admired.

I understand where the author is coming from and this is a good article but it doesn't address the fact that Putins motivations and aims for Russia are centred around its very survival in a world with a decaying Western influence. Russia is making its move. If we are honest with ourselves, our economies are all consumer based debt mountains. Deep down we know the problems with the economies in the west were not dealt with properly in 07. Putins gamble is on our societies being already too fundamentally fractured to be able to deal with anything close to what Russia is dealing with now. And in that sense he is right.
In Response

by: John
August 11, 2015 16:54
The incident involving the Donakd Cook has been thoroughly debunked. It's propaganda.

If Russia really could jam US Navy ships, why would they do something so stupid as to jam a U.S. Navy ship? By doing so, you alert the Americans to a vilnerability and allow them time to develop a counter. By doing so, Russia flushed away a huge advantage should a war ever start.

It's comparable to Hitler rushing the few Tiger and Panther tanks to the front, or how the Allies piecemeal introduced the tank in WW 1. By showing off your new weapons and capabilities before they are ready/available in sufficient quantities, you waste the most crucial element in war, surprise. And that's why that incident is a fake, unless the Russian military is being run by incompetent morons (Russisn Generals are not stupid) they'd never advertise such an advantage.
In Response

by: Declan from: London
August 11, 2015 21:41
The problems you refer to about the deterioration of demographics and rising Islamisation are a bigger problem for Russia than they are for Western Europe. Putin would be well advised to stop worrying about the future of Western Europe and instead focus on the deterioration of Russia whose stock in the world is collapsing in front of our eyes.
In Response

by: Estaban from: Usa
August 11, 2015 22:23
You really think humans will survive 50 years at the rate we're spewing CO2?
In Response

by: Crush Russia from: DC
August 11, 2015 16:30
UN debt is the problem of the World and Putin will run it? Seems like Olgino troll center is hiring in mental hospitals now
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
August 12, 2015 05:53
Dear "Alica," there is a slight difference between one inadvertent syntax error in a 1,200-word article and a three-sentence troll comment that has grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling errors throughout. But hey, I know you trolls get off on whataboutism and false equivalencies -- so have at it.

by: Anonymous
August 10, 2015 17:50
Concise, powerful, well researched.

by: Asehpe from: The Netherlands
August 10, 2015 17:52
Putin's popularity is linked to the demonization of the West in Russia: Putin is Aleksandr Nevsky defending Russia against the gay knights of America and the EU. People love bad news: fascism in Ukraine, evil Western plots to cause Siberian secession, etc., that keeps people energized and strengthens their belief in Putin as the one who is keeping them safe from these threats. It's a bubble, and it may burst someday. But for the time being it is quite solid.

by: Robert Scott from: Salt Lake City
August 10, 2015 19:57
This is a brilliant and succinct analysis of where now Russia stands in the world, and what appears to be just around the future's corner. Congratulations. One cannot help but wonder how much longer the Russia people - who are not dumb by any means, although the are dreadfully fearful of the government and societal instability - will be willing to tolerate Putin's failing regime. Only time will tell, but my bet: Not Much Longer...
In Response

by: John
August 11, 2015 17:00
A lot of educated and skilled Russians are emigrating, Russia has one of the worlds fastest declining populations.
That's one reason they wanted France to build the Mistrals, it's not that Russia can't make high tech military gear, it's that it doesn't have the numbers ok skilled workers needed to produce these items in the quantities they want. Russia shipbuilding base was particulairy hard hit, although Russian yards do a good amount of work building vessels for foreign navies.

But Russian plans for new nuclear battle cruisers, air defense destroyers, new SSN and SSBN, and SSGN submarines, and now a nuclear powered aircraft carrier are grandiose, but I doubt we will see the numbers that Kremlin wants. They just don't have the capacity, and all the will power in the world won't change that.
In Response

by: Jon0815 from: USA
August 12, 2015 01:22
"Russia has one of the worlds fastest declining populations."

Actually, Russia's population has grown slightly over the past three years. And since 2000, Russian fertility has risen from 1.2 to 1.7 children per woman, which is higher than the EU and Canada (1.5), and only slightly below the USA (1.9).

by: Markhayo
August 10, 2015 20:09
The circles are decreasing ever more rapidly for Putin. If his plan over the last 15 years was to ruin Russia, then he is a master strategist.
He will get his comeuppance and it may happen sooner than I expected.

by: whothefox
August 10, 2015 22:03
China is not and never has been Russia's friend. All they will do is agree deals vastly in their favour and bide their time until they can reclaim the Siberian lands they traditionally consider their own. And they will do it as soon as they see Russia is on its knees.

by: Mamuka
August 10, 2015 22:34
We must ask ourselves, Who is Putin's audience? The liberal west? Hardly. Recall the poll published on RFE/RL about approval of the Russian government which included opinions from the post-Soviet space and the former Warsaw Pact. Surprisingly, Vova's approval was not abysmal (it was not phrased as personally Putin, but these days Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin). Most astonishing was that approval of Russia even in Georgia was above zero; in fact, approval in Georgia was comparable to Estonia and Latvia with their sizable Russian minorities. Add perhaps double that number who may not approve of Russia but would be horrified at the thought of conflict with Russia. Things are getting tougher for Putin but he still has a few more moves before he is cornered. But unlike some 'trolls' who might write words like this with glee, I write them with some anxiety.

by: Henry Holody from: Berlin
August 11, 2015 00:57
Down with war pigs.

by: LisaAgnes
August 11, 2015 01:14
The best Putin propaganda I've heard is this: how he came back from east Germany with wife and kids, towing and old washing machine, to a country that no longer existed...to live in a tiny room in his parent's house with his wife and kids. Then, in the midst of all this chaos he found a job, supported his family like a man, and helped his family and the people around him start to recover.

by: Sergio from: Texas
August 11, 2015 01:20
Could not find anything better tan this report. Logical and well said.
Comments page of 3

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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