Putin vs. The Unknown

April 4, 2017 | Will Edwards
Photo: iStock.com/mikolajn

An explosion in the St. Petersburg metro on Monday tore open a subway car, killing at least 14 people and leaving dozens injured. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has called it a terrorist act, and the perpetrator has been identified as Kyrgyzstan native Akbarzhon Dzhalilov. His motive remains unknown. Despite Russia’s pervasive state security apparatus, the attack was not foreseen and headed off.

Even President Vladimir Putin’s omnipotence is not immune from the unexpected.

Terrorism is only one of many unpredictable factors with which Putin struggles as Russia’s autocrat. Although Putin has spent years cracking down on his political opposition and press, liberal grassroots organizations are becoming an increasingly loud voice of dissent. Meanwhile, the pressure of economic sanctions and low oil prices continue to diminish the resources available to Putin to achieve his aspirations for the Russian state.

The nationwide protests on March 26, the largest anti-government demonstrations since Putin won his third term as president in 2012, underscore that many Russians do not trust their government. Last month’s protests were a reaction to government corruption rather than the uproar over election fraud in 2012. More than 30,000 people gathered in Moscow alone; the organizers claimed that 150,000 people attended the protests nationwide, with more than 1,500 arrested for their involvement.

 A second, smaller wave of protests occurred on April 2, with a few thousand people in the streets nationwide. Perhaps the most significant factor that sets these recent protests apart is the significant degree of youth participation. The young protesters grew up in a post-Soviet Russia. They experienced Russia’s economic growth of the early 2000s and its slide since 2014.

Alexei Navalny, the leading dissident, has become a symbol for grassroots opposition in Russia. His political influence emerged with a successful anti-government blog that gave voice to much of the discontent behind the 2012 election protests. In 2014 he created a liberal opposition called the Progress Party.  He has announced his intention to run for president in Russia’s 2018 election, even though his previous arrests for political activities exclude him from running officially.

The Progress Party’s savvy use of the internet allowed it to tap into Russia’s youth nationwide and create grassroots support for the March 26 protests. This young, diffuse, and tech-savvy base poses a new element to worry Putin. Michael Sulick, former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, told The Cipher Brief that the youth of the protestors is “a disturbing sign for Putin that he may be confronting a more energized and enduring threat.”

Navalny’s influence on the 2012 presidential election was a factor in reducing Putin’s win to his smallest majority. Navalny won 27 percent of the vote when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 against Sergei Sobyanin, Putin’s chosen candidate.  Though Navalny cannot officially run in the next election, his unexpected surge in popularity could serve as a model for other dissenting candidates to follow. Fervor for reform is something Putin cannot control easily.

Russia’s flagging economy has given Russians extra incentive to protest the government. Economic sanctions and low oil prices continue to exert downward pressure on state revenues. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. and European Union leveled sanctions against certain Russian individuals, banks, and corporations. While not crippling, these sanctions have impeded Russia’s access to foreign investment and have diminished the value of its currency. With a relatively small manufacturing sector and small volume of exports, Russia has limited avenues for making up the difference in lost revenue.

Oil and natural gas exports comprise approximately one half of Russia’s state revenues. With oil at $53 per barrel—half of its peak price in 2014 —Putin’s ability to pay for the military and security services has diminished. Even if these entities are given funding priority, the pinch will be felt elsewhere. With the same spending priorities and less revenue, Moscow must either roll back government services or take on loans to avoid the possibility of more public backlash.

Putin understands that his popularity is still linked to the results he delivers. The annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine shored up national pride for a while, but at a price.  Rob Dannenberg, former head of global security at Goldman Sachs, told The Cipher Brief that “the luster of the nationalism aroused by Putin's geopolitical adventures in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere may have begun to fade as the conflict in those regions continue and their economic cost rises.”

In the future, Putin may be weighing the knowns and unknowns that could affect his power. He knows Russia faces a perennial threat from terrorism. He knows the liberal opposition is gaining ground, yet he does not know who will be its next leader. He knows he needs to boost state revenue in the face of low oil prices, sanctions, and a weak currency. He knows how to build his popularity through nationalism, though he is always in search of new sources. What will Putin’s fears of these unknowns drive him to do next?

Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.

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