Staunton, December 21 – MGIMO professor and foreign policy commentator Valery Solovey says that the best explanation for many of the aspects of Vladimir Putin’s behavior in recent months is that after 16 years in power, the Kremlin leader is simply exhausted and is looking for a way out of at least some of his duties.
In the course of a wide-ranging interview with the editors of Kazan’s “Business-Gazeta,” Solovey offers not only this assessment of Putin but also a tour d’horizon of the challenges and opportunities he and the Russian leadership now have both within Russia itself and around the world (business-gazeta.ru/article/332489).
As many have noted, during his speech to the Federal Assembly, Putin displayed “no drive but rather created the impression that [he] either is bored or doesn’t feel especially good.” Those in the audience, the MGIMO scholar continues, had to struggle to keep from shutting their eyes and falling asleep.
Unlike in earlier addresses, Putin did not make any significant proposals. The only development worthy of note is that he “finally said that the main problems [Russia faces] are not from outside but from within the country.” But even then, he didn’t specify exactly what those problems are and what should be done to address them.
Putin has been talking more about retirement than ever before, Solovey continues. But one thing is sure: he isn’t going to replace his current prime minister. Dmitry Medvedev is “one of the few people whom Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin trusts.” As a result, Medvedev has “good chances to become the successor,” more likely after Putin than between as was the case before.
Several other Russian politicians have a chance to succeed as well, including Aleksey Navalny, Solovey says. There are three reasons for that, he says. First, Russian attitudes are changing as the economic situation worsens; second, television is no longer the only way to reach the people; and third, residents of the big cities won’t vote for a Putin candidate.
The Kremlin considered the possibility of holding earlier presidential elections, but two developments led Putin to decide against: the social economic situation isn’t good, and the victory of Donald Trump, something the Kremlin didn’t expect but now assume that Russia can benefit from.
Among the other topics Solovey addresses:
· Sanctions. According to the MGIMO professor, sanctions will be lifted because Moscow will at least appear to fulfill the Minsk accords, while Kyiv drags its feet because it really doesn’t need the Donbass. Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be accepted de facto but not de jure. But Magnitsky List sanctions won’t be lifted, and that is a real problem for Putin’s entourage and the elites.
· Trump. Trump isn’t going to destroy the international groupings the US is part of, Solovey says; he is only going to make them conform more to what Washington wants – and the US has the economic, military and cultural power to do that.
· NATO. NATO was dying until Russia by its actions in Ukraine revived it. Moscow’s propaganda machine will never admit this, however.
· Syria. Russians don’t understand why Russia has gotten involved, and they suspect that Moscow’s involvement will lead terrorists to turn on Russia. As a result, “we again have again transformed ourselves into a target for them.” And that represents a fundamental shift. After 2003, “all the anger of the Islamic world was directed against the US, and now we for some reason want them to change. We are doing this successfully. Why?” Russia needs to find a way out that doesn’t look like a defeat.
· China. According to Solovey, “for us, China is not a threat but a problem.” It currently sees value in working with Russia but that can easily change if Russia achieves a rapprochement with Japan or if China sees greater opportunities elsewhere.
· Propaganda. Propaganda is only effective for a long time if it is reinforced by “a certain positive reality.” Without that, the MGIMO professor says, “it loses its effectiveness.” Moscow’s propaganda was most effective in 2014-2015, but by the end of 2015, it had “begun to lose” its impact.