Decline in public support for the president spurs Russian government into dangerous adventures

Vladimir Putin must experience a life triumph now: on 24 March, the State Duma passed at third reading the constitutional amendments to nullify the presidential term. This provides a legal basis for the incumbent head of state to run for the presidency again, which actually opens the way to a lifelong rule under Russian conditions.

But the third decade of Putin’s leadership, when seemingly extraordinary “confidence in the future” has been achieved, is marked by a sharp rise in social uncertainty. The level of political reprisals has soared since last year, with any suspicion of unauthorised civic activity leading to a violent overreaction by police and the Federal Security Service (FSB). An attempt to poison the country’s main oppositionist with a chemical warfare agent shocked the whole world. Random staff purges among loyal bureaucrats have also become more frequent. The apotheosis of recent times has been the arrest of a former governor of the Penza region and the accusation of falsifying the victory of a governor, who ran from the United Russia political party, made against an election commission chairman.

The notorious “Putin majority” is a thing of the past. According to the Levada Centre opinion poll results, 29% of Russians trusted Vladimir Putin in late January and early February 2021, showing a 10% decline compared to September 2019 and a 30% decline compared to November 2017. The Russian leader no longer arouses the admiration of the population, only boredom. And there would be nothing special about this information, if not for one important fact: no one knows what the Russian president, whom Joe Biden recently recognised as a killer, can do in an attempt to regain his lost popularity.

Recently, Minister of Defence of Estonia Kalle Laanet, explaining the need to strengthen the country’s defence potential to lawmakers, noted: “Seven years have passed since the illegal annexation of Crimea, and Putin’s regime needs a new success story.” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Russia a dangerous neighbour, when delivering a speech at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Paradoxically, people outside Russia seem to be more concerned over the fact that Putin is disliked in his own country as it poses a threat to the international community. After all, the type of post-imperial legitimisation through the demonstration of dominance over the surrounding space is relevant for the Russian Federation. Everyone remembers post-Crimean exaltation as well as a surge in ranking after the war with Georgia in 2008. This involuntarily makes Russia’s neighbours take personally a threatening Russian propaganda slogan “We can repeat!” [a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory].

But the main thing that has changed since the attack on Georgia and the start of the aggression against Ukraine is that Russia’s habits and inclinations are already well known, and no one has any illusions about the Kremlin’s peaceful intentions. Speaking in Brussels on 24 March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored a threat posed by Russia: “These include Moscow’s aggression in eastern Ukraine; its build-up of forces, large-scale exercises, and acts of intimidation in the Baltic and Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the High North; its modernization of nuclear capabilities; and its use of chemical weapons against critics on NATO soil.”

During Donald Trump’s presidency, Russia did not always suffer a rebuff, and if it did, it was not big enough to discourage the Kremlin’s new attempts to disturb the North Atlantic Alliance and its main player, the United States. Joe Biden emphasises and Secretary of State Blinken specifies the new administration’s desire to restore and strengthen the Western collective security system.

Estonia and NATO in general have things to worry about. However, Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia for many years, is the sorest spot the Kremlin can touch to again show its leader’s greatness to Russians. After the apparent failure of his intentions to take advantage of the change in power in Kyiv for imposing his version of peace in Donbas, Putin is ready to once again demonstrate ruthlessness towards Ukrainians. Elections to the State Duma of the Russian Federation are to take place in September, and the authorities may try to present the Russians with a gift on this occasion. It may be a “new success story,” as Kalle Laanet said, which will force voters to regain lost allegiance to the United Russia ruling party.

It is possible that no one is planning anything like this, but Russia has taught all its neighbours that vigilance never goes amiss. A factor of Putin, who fell into his people’s disfavour, turns Ukraine’s steps to strengthen the military-political partnership with NATO from a strategy aimed at the future into an urgent necessity.

Leonid Shvets

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