The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate in Russia: during the past week, the high mark in daily infections moved from 15,000 to 17,500, of which about a third were registered in Moscow. The Kremlin still asserts that the situation is under control, but its “evidence” rests on a broad manipulation of official statistics (RIA Novosti, October 23). Russian demographers point to the extraordinarily high excess mortality rates in 2020 and suggest that the government’s data on coronavirus-related deaths are at least three times too low (Forbes.ru, October 20). Against that background, President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at this year’s meeting (held virtually) of the Valdai Club, that the global pandemic has proven the pivotal importance of a strong state, sounded more than a little dissonant (Kommersant, October 23). Putin certainly wants everyone to believe his regime epitomizes such strength; but the reality of Putinist Russia’s degraded medical services and rising poverty levels tells a different story.
Military might has always been the main parameter of state strength for the Kremlin leader, and he habitually brags about Russia’s ultra-modern weapons systems, while hinting at the possibility of including them in new arms-control deals with the United States (see EDM, RIA Novosti, October 22). His tactics in such deal-making betray a deep worry about US indifference to Russia’s nuclear modernization, which has been both costly and prone to setbacks, particularly regarding nuclear-propelled missiles (Novye Izvestiya, October 22). The instant flop of Moscow’s initiative on prolonging the New START treaty, due to expire on February 5, 2021, for a year without any revisions forced the Kremlin to accept one US condition—freezing all nuclear arsenals—which it had heretofore described as entirely unacceptable (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, October 22). Russian negotiators now claim that will be the limit of their flexibility. But subscribing to this “freezing” without any hard data on Russia’s non-strategic arsenal and without any workable verification measures in place would amount to Washington simply trusting Putin’s word (Kommersant, October 22).
The Russian president’s word is no more reliable than his recycled propositions on an agreement about mutual restraints in the cybersecurity domain (RIA Novosti, October 24). Russia’s track record in launching cyberattacks grows longer with every passing week, as US investigations produce new evidence and adopt fresh sanctions in response—most recently against the Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (Newsru.com, October 24). In most cases, the teams of hackers operate under the control of Russian Military Intelligence (GRU); last week (October 22), the European Union enforced sanctions against its chief, Igor Kostyukov, for a cyberattack targeting the German parliament in May 2015 (Argumenty i Fakty, October 23). The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies any wrongdoing. But the crude character of these hacks, including a recent one against the Norwegian legislature, leaves behind so many electronic footprints that definitively establishing their origin is far from difficult (Novaya Gazeta, October 22).
The new Western sanctions are not designed to inflict heavy economic damage, but their psychological impact is a significant factor in the continued worsening of Russia’s economic climate (Kommersant, October 19). Government estimates promise a strong recovery after the modest contraction, but experts point to signs of deeper recession and expect it to progress to another period of stagnation (RBC, October 20). Even the laboriously wishful economic thinking about the stabilization of oil prices does not predict sufficiently large inflows of petro-revenues necessary to overcome the social consequences of the unfolding disaster (Kompaniya.ru, October 13). The decline of median household incomes results in a further growth of inequality, which is a reliable predictor of discontent and unrest (VTimes, October 20).
An arc of violent instability is already forming around Russia’s borders, and even mainstream commentators cannot explain it away by blaming hostile external forces. Instead, they are forced to admit the impact of domestic drivers—ones quite similar to those also emerging in Russia (Vzglyad, October 21). The revolution in Kyrgyzstan has heightened the feuds between local political clans (see EDM, October 20), and Moscow is helpless in quelling it (Carnegie.ru, October 22). Next month’s presidential elections in Moldova could trigger mass protests, and the Kremlin has few means of influencing the situation (Russiancouncil.ru, October 22). The war in the Caucasus rages on, and Russia can neither negotiate a lasting ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan (see EDM, October 13, 19) nor counter the aggressive interference from Turkey (The Insider, October 23). The most alarming crisis is evolving in Belarus, and Putin cannot fail to see that support for the embattled regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka damages Russia’s ties with this key ally (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 22).
The key question about the revolution-in-the-making in Belarus is how long the police will continue to follow orders to suppress the persistent mass street protests. The Kremlin believes it can tip the scales through generous remuneration (Novaya Gazeta, October 23). However, the money is running out, pushing the Russian Ministry of Finance to suggest cuts in the numerical strength of the Armed Forces and curtailing service members’ retirement privileges (Rosbalt, October 23). These modest proposals are unlikely to be approved, but the squabbles between and within various armed bureaucracies and special services escalate, as exemplified by the firing on corruption charges of several top generals in the National Guard (Rosgvardiya) led by Putin’s staunch loyalist Viktor Zolotov (Kommersant, October 24). Even the paramount Federal Security Service (FSB) was shaken by the corrupt intrigues around the retirement of its patronage-savvy first deputy director, Sergei Smirnov (Novaya Gazeta, October 24).
Neither strategic super-weapons nor offensive cyber-capabilities (which are in fact pretty limited) nor the omnipresent special forces and well-equipped riot police can make Putin’s state strong in any meaningful sense. The majority of Russians look at the state as the man provider of essential services, among which health care is presently most crucial; and their first-hand experiences with the deteriorating quality of these services cannot simply be supplanted by Kremlin propaganda. Putin’s pretenses perhaps impress some of the tamer Valdai experts; but for outside observers, his performances look increasingly odd and deformed by the Russian president’s protracted self-isolation (see EDM, October 5, 13). Like perhaps all autocrats, he imagines his control over a disciplined populace to be absolute and the loyalty of his enforcers to be unshakable. Any and all disturbing news to the contrary, about the erosion of his control and the corruption of loyalty, must therefore be screened out. Putin is irked by Western (and presumably Chinese) assessments of Russia’s decline. Yet this irritation only accentuates his role as the decliner-in-chief.
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