- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2020

Plunging poll numbers, a shelved agenda and a coronavirus outbreak that ranks among the worst in the world have suddenly undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin’s carefully crafted image as a 21st century czar reclaiming a global role for his country.

With Russia’s oil-export-dependent economy being ravaged by historically low crude prices, geopolitical analysts say the Kremlin is facing challenges and difficult choices at home and abroad.

The U.S. and its allies, analysts say, have been given a rare strategic window to undercut Mr. Putin’s vexing meddling in places such as Ukraine Syria, Libya and Venezuela. On the domestic front, social and political challenges appear likely to grow as Mr. Putin cuts an uncharacteristically low profile during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus forced the Russian leader to postpone an April vote on constitutional changes he engineered to stay in power until 2036, and to delay the massive, patriotic May 9 Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of the country’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Mr. Putin’s critics say he badly misjudged the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in Russia, resulting in what has become an overwhelming public health crisis replete with lockdowns that are expected only to deepen dire economic woes tied to low global oil prices.

Millions are suddenly out of work around the world, including in the United States, but the unemployment surge is expected to slam Russia with particular force. Despite Mr. Putin’s attempt to dodge responsibility by delegating coronavirus response powers to lower-level political figures, there are signs his once-unshakable hold on popular opinion could be crumbling.

His approval rating has begun to drop, according to polling by Moscow’s independent Levada Center. Hovering around 60%, that is a two-decade low. Mr. Putin’s approval rating hit an astounding 84% in 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russia separatist forces in Ukraine.

Russia’s COVID-19 cases on Friday reached nearly 188,000. The rate of increase is second only to that of the United States.

Although the coronavirus emerged much later in Russia, the caseload has surpassed Germany’s and France’s to become the world’s fifth highest.

Russians are under a lengthy lockdown, and the country’s top consumer watchdog said they should not expect a return to the old ways.

“It’s unavoidable that we must change our rules of life,” Anna Popova told a parliamentary panel in Moscow last week.

Just when Russia’s economy appeared to be weathering the pain of U.S. and European sanctions imposed after the Crimea annexation, the virus and oil shocks have badly scrambled Mr. Putin’s plans.

“He’s got to be worried,” said Ambassador Steven Pifer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state now with the Brookings Institution and Stanford University. “The Kremlin pays attention to things like that poll.”

‘Toxic dynamic’

Anna Borshchevskaya, a Washington Institute fellow focused on Russia, said the big question is what today’s difficulties mean for the long-term prospects of the regime of Mr. Putin, 67, and the aura of indispensability he has long promoted.

“Putin may very well survive, but the current crisis will create a test for him in that it could undermine the public’s trust in the narrative he has cultivated around the image of himself as a strong leader who brings stability,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “Political opposition against Putin could rise as a result of economic crisis and strife, creating a potentially very toxic dynamic.”

Ms. Borshchevskaya noted, however, that relatively vast foreign currency reserves Moscow has built up over the past decade could help Mr. Putin ride out the storm.

Most estimates rank Russia’s more than $560 billion in reserves behind only those of China, Japan and Switzerland — fourth in the world. The U.S. has relatively low reserves but a more resilient free market economy.

As Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, marks two decades of near-unchallenged power, the Russian economy has remained as much as 80% state-owned in the post-Soviet era. With oil prices plummeting and global markets shuttered by the coronavirus, Mr. Putin may soon be forced to tap those reserves simply to pay salaries at major Russian companies to stave off massive unemployment.

“The Russians do have currency reserves, but the economic effect of trying to help the large state bureaucracy could devastate them,” said William Taylor, a longtime U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Ukraine who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“They’re going to burn through these reserves quickly because of all these Russians who are working, one way or another, for the government,” Mr. Taylor told The Washington Times in an interview.

The crisis has been compounded by low global oil prices, which were brought on by plummeting demand during pandemic shutdowns around the world but dramatically exacerbated by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that many analysts say Moscow did not win.

Foreign policy ‘opportunity’

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Russia loses money on oil exports any time global crude dips below $40 a barrel. With current prices barely reaching $30 after falling much lower, Mr. Putin faces questions at home and abroad over how he will be able to afford his notoriously adventurous foreign policy.

Russia has reclaimed global clout under Mr. Putin largely through its military, in places such as Ukraine, Syria and now Libya, but there is open grumbling that the rubles devoted to foreign adventures could be better spent at home.

“He may have no choice but to rein in some of Russia’s malign activities around the world,” Mr. Taylor told The Times. “It is possible that all these storms combined — the economic, political, financial and health crises — mean he may need to pull back from the adventures in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Venezuela.”

Russia’s challenges and overextension present “a foreign policy opportunity” for Washington, Mr. Taylor said, particularly with Ukraine. Moscow may become willing to accept U.S. demands for a Russian withdrawal in exchange for the economic benefit of American and European sanctions relief.

It’s not clear whether the Trump administration is poised to take advantage of the situation.

“The Russian hand is weaker now than it was, say, four months ago,” Mr. Pifer told The Times. “If we were a bit more agile and adept, we might be able to turn that to our advantage.”

Russian aggression has been on particular display since the 2014 annexation of neighboring Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The opportunity now, Mr. Pifer said, may be to end the stalemated civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where Russian forces are supporting separatists against the U.S.-backed Ukrainian military in a bid to carve off the region and make it part of Russia.

“You’ve got to get the Russians out of Donbass,” Mr. Pifer said. “There are still people getting killed every week there.”

He suggested that Mr. Putin might be ready to deal on Ukraine if it means sanctions relief.

“Economists say the sanctions are worth as much as 1.5% of Russia’s annual GDP,” Mr. Pifer said. “That’s not insignificant.”

Leaning toward Beijing

The Putin government is guarded about its foreign policy plans during the pandemic, although Moscow appears — rhetorically at least — to be aligning more closely with China in the face of the growing global economic crisis.

In addition to coordinating with Chinese government attempts to spread disinformation that pins responsibility for the pandemic on the United States, Moscow has shown increasingly eagerness to heap praise on Beijing.

Contrary to any hope of getting Russia to “turn to the West to face the threat of China, we’re seeing the opposite dynamic unfolding at the moment,” said Ms. Borshchevskaya. “The pandemic has shown Russia and China moving closer together, not just in terms of countering the disease but in terms of strategic rhetoric against Washington.”

On the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she noted, longtime Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke glowingly of Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and noted Moscow’s desire to maintain a “strategic partnership across all areas” with China.

Mr. Taylor also noted Russia’s shift in tone but cautioned against reading too deeply into it.

“The Russians still smart from the reduction of influence they experienced at the fall of the Soviet Union, and my sense is they have the goal of reducing U.S. influence in the world,” he said. “So if they align themselves with the Chinese, whom they perceive to have similar antagonisms — toward the Americans in particular — then that helps them, they think.”

But Moscow and Beijing have “built-in uncertainties and tensions,” said Mr. Taylor, noting Moscow’s keen awareness of Beijing’s desire for access to raw materials, oil, gas and minerals in Russia’s Siberian region.

Mr. Pifer said Russia’s overtures to Beijing were normal but noted that Moscow remains as concerned about the potential threat posed by China’s rise on the global stage as an economic superpower.

“I don’t think it’s an alliance because the Russians would have to be the junior partner and the Russian’s wouldn’t accept that,” he said. “Lavrov [merely] sees a tactical advantage to pandering to China. … He knows the two can work together to frustrate U.S. aims in certain areas.”

Although the U.S.-Chinese trade relationship vastly outstrips that between Russia and China, Mr. Pifer said, the tactical alignment between Moscow and Beijing is likely to remain stronger in the long run.

“It’s just unrealistic,” he said, “for us to think that we could — as President Trump maybe thought early in his term — somehow pull Russia away from China.”

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