• 06:34
  • 19.08.2019
What does Putin actually want? Russia's endgame with Trump, Europe and the Soviet Union 2.0
politics
19.08.2019

What does Putin actually want? Russia's endgame with Trump, Europe and the Soviet Union 2.0

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Vladimir Putin has maintained a vice-like hold on the top tiers of Russian power for almost 20 years.

For international observers, the Russian leader is an unfathomable and enigmatic figure. He is rumoured to have a personal wealth worth billions and is said to enjoy access to luxury palaces and mega-yachts.

He has officially been linked with ordering the murder of opponents, is claimed to be a ruthless “Tsar of corruption”, as well as perhaps being the man responsible for putting Donald Trump in the White House.
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Mr Putin has cultivated a public image as a “man of action” with his reported love of extreme sports, flying military jets and driving racing cars. He boasts black belts in judo and karate, broadcasts his love of both hunting and animal conservation, and seems rarely to miss the opportunity to make a shirtless public appearance.

In Russia he is not merely a divisive political figure but a man who inspires visceral displays of dissent among his opponents, many of whom risk arrest or worse.

Internationally, the country faces isolation and economic sanctions amid a recent history of military interventions and land-grabs in former Soviet states including Ukraine and Georgia.
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But despite Mr Putin’s facility for generating incredulity in the West, he retains a remarkable public approval rating of 83 per cent in Russia, officially at least.

Love him or loathe him, since Mr Putin rose through the ranks of Boris Yeltsin’s enfeebled government in the late 1990s, Russia has changed beyond all recognition.

One of his early apparent successes was Russia’s sudden economic growth after he took power.
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Following the economically disastrous collapse of the Soviet Union and the required market reforms under Yeltsin, the new president’s administration slashed business rates, renationalised parts of the oil industry and exported oil during a period of rising prices. The results were rapid.

Between 1999 and 2006, Russians’ real disposable income doubled. For many Russians, this period of unprecedented growth sealed Mr Putin’s reputation as a shrewd politician and he is still remembered for it today.

But what does the Russian leader want now, and how is he going to get it?
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Zapad

This week Russia and the former-Soviet state Belarus embark upon vast military exercises which European observers estimate could involve as many as 100,000 troops – significantly more than the 5,500 Russian personnel and 7,200 Belarussian troops the Russian defence ministry has said will be involved.

Countries in the West are deeply uneasy about the exercise, codenamed “Zapad”, or “West”. As President Trump and the North Korean authorities continue exchanging provocations, the Zapad exercise is expected to contain a dry-run for nuclear military engagement,
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In addition, previous iterations of the manoeuvres heralded Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014.

But the war games are unlikely to provide the “Trojan Horse” for a land grab, as some in the US fear, says Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“Zapad is a routine exercise, so there is no cause for alarm in the sense that Russia will stick to the scenario,” Mr Boulegue told The Independent. “Everything they want to rehearse is ready and it’s been planned for the past few years.
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“But there is a kind of game of hypocrisy with Russia on one side and the West on the other.

“We want to acknowledge Zapad as being potentially threatening, but we don’t want to give Russia the chance to brag about its military prowess.”

Distraction
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But is the huge military exercise simply a distraction from what Mr Putin is attempting?

US historian Amy Knight, author of forthcoming book Orders From Above: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, and described by The New York Times as “the West’s foremost scholar” of the KGB, said a recent wave of arrests, imprisonments and intimidation in Russia could be read as preparations for the 2018 Russian presidential election, in which Mr Putin is expected to stand and win.

The arrests include what she says is the “showtrial” of Alexey Ulyukaev – the highest ranking government official to be arrested for a crime since Lavrentiy Beria in 1953, under Nikita Khrushchev. “It’s a pretty big deal,” Ms Knight told The Independent.
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In addition, Kirill Serebrennikov, the film and theatre director was arrested, ostensibly on charges of embezzlement, and Yulia Latynina, one of the most prominent female journalists in Russia, was forced to leave the country saying she fears for her life.

In June, opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who has previously organised protests against Mr Putin, was arrested, charged with fraud and this week was pelted with sausages at an airport as he returned to Russia from Europe.
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“The authorities have really been attacking the critics of Mr Putin,” Ms Knight said.

“What I see internally is that Putin is nervous about the presidential elections. One might say ‘why would he be nervous? He has an over 80 per cent approval rating, and even the municipal elections last Sunday showed that United Russia – the pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin party is dominating and so on.’

“But I think Putin views things a little differently. He hasn’t forgotten, nor have his colleagues, that around the last presidential elections there were mass demonstrations. In 2011, 2012, Navalny actually helped organise those. And it really shook the Kremlin.”
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Internal strife

Mr Putin may also be jumpy because Russians are still suffering economically, Ms Knight said.

“Real income is going down because their pensions haven’t been raised, their wages haven’t been raised. People have economic woes they’re griping about and Navalny plays into that.
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“I would say that the popular support for Putin is deceptive. The turnout last week was 14 per cent – you see a lot of voter apathy. And we might see these protestors out on the street again, so I think the Kremlin is nervous about the elections.

“Putin’s game plan right now, internally, domestically, is to send warning signals to his critics that they might be murdered or they might be arrested,” she said.

“In the case of [arrested former official] Ulyakaev, he was a team player, and people are asking why Putin would want him to be going through this trial.”
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But she says the punitive measures send a message to any other officials who might think of crossing Mr Putin.

“Putin is as concerned about what the masses think, and possible unrest, as he is concerned about what he might face internally, at the top, among his elite. 

“He is also trying to send a message to them: ‘any one of you could also be arrested and slapped with corruption charges’.”
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Abroad

According to Ms Knight, the Zapad exercise is a means of showcasing Russia’s international strength and diverts internal attention to what’s going on with the West.

“It plays on people’s sense of patriotism and makes Putin look like a strong leader,” she says.
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While flexing its military might, Russia is also making extensive progress with other forms of warfare, including disinformation campaigns, cyberwarfare and propaganda. And it is attempting to integrate them with its existing military forces.

This, Ms Knight says, is a crucial part of Russia’s emerging arsenal of weapons which could bring former Soviet satellite states back under a greater Russian sphere of influence.

“I don’t think they aspire to militarily control Ukraine, but it’s enough for them to try to destabilise the government there and make every effort to prevent Ukraine from joining Nato for example. I think taking over all of Ukraine would be biting off more than they can chew. But I might be wrong,” she says.
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The 20th century cold war narrative, instead of having disintegrated as the Soviet Union crumbled, remains very much at the forefront of Mr Putin’s concerns, albeit in a metamorphosed form, experts agree.

James Nixey, head of Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told The Independent: “I certainly do not think that Russia is trying to recreate the Soviet Union. But, and it’s a big but, there are elements of the Soviet Union in what he’s trying to do.

“The Russians feel protective [of former Soviet states], it’s kind of a schizophrenic attitude, because in some ways they see them as kindred, and in other ways they look down upon them and want to control them.
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“That is the crux of the tension between Russia and the west right now,” Mr Nixey says. “The attitude towards the post-Soviet states is the most salient aspect.”

Trump

This focus on the former Soviet states is largely to do with Mr Putin’s concerns over what he perceives as Nato’s encroachment.

“I don’t think Putin aspires, practically speaking, to have Nato dissolve,” Ms Knight says, but as we know, the Russians have supported Trump very actively, and President Trump, when he went over and met all the Nato leaders, he basically said he didn’t really care about Nato.

“So I think on Putin’s wishlist is to have Trump not be impeached, to stay in power and to continue with his luke-warm attitude towards Nato.”
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Authoritarianism and war

So what motivates the incredible staying-power and vast amount of work before the Russian leader?

Scholars contend the West is already at war with Russia, albeit one without traditional declarations, weapons or methods.
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According to Mr Nixey, “Russia has mobilised its society, its economy, its military-industrial complex, its political system in preparation for a war it believes it is at with the West.”

So why does he stay?

“It’s part of his persona as a Russian leader,” Ms Knight says. “He’s an authoritarian leader, I would say he’s a dictator, he’s running a dictatorship now, and all dictators and authoritarian leaders have both an internal and external agenda. They have to project strength, they have to project strength abroad.”
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