In the centre of Donetsk, the capital of the rebel-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine, the authorities have recently taken the unprecedented step of installing three massive portraits in the main square of the former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. The portraits are adorned with a quote from the former tyrant declaring, ‘Our cause is just. The enemy will be routed. We will claim victory.’
Yet it is not only the beleaguered residents of this throwback proto-state who could be forgiven for thinking that a new Cold War is already well under way. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s brash president, has rushed to the aid of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with over 500 sorties over rebel-held territory. He now plans to increase the Russian involvement to between 200-300 strikes a day.
This intervention marks a post-Soviet shift from a sole focus on regional issues to engagement further afield. It has brought Russian and American forces into closer proximity than at any time during the Cold War.
Russia seems more confident than ever, with Putin calling for an international alliance against terrorism during his speech at the UN General Assembly. He has sought to utilise the global ‘war on terror’ to cast himself as a legitimate global leader.
Nonetheless, the tentative winding down of the conflict in Ukraine and the simultaneous ramping up of conflict in Syria should be seen as presaging the final desperate chest-thumping of the Putinist ideology.
Despite the Stalinist decorations, eastern Ukraine has not become the Russian stooge that the nationalists in Moscow imagined. The much vaunted land bridge between the Donbas region and Crimea did not come to fruition. Only twelve months ago the Russian leader was insisting upon the duty of the Kremlin to support the separatists in the historical Novorossia region of Ukraine. Now that demand has been quietly forgotten. The war in Ukraine now appears to be settling down, with Russia seeming intent on ensuring that the latest ceasefire, known as Minsk-II, survives. The guns have fallen silent and it seems Putin achieved his broader goal of destroying the chances of Ukraine joining NATO or otherwise having any independent say over its foreign policy.
Domestically, all of this international arm-twisting has bolstered the Putin brand. In June Putin’s approval rating reached an all-time high of 89 per cent according to the Levada Centre, a Russian think tank. This popularity highlights the tactic of simultaneous sabre-rattling and presenting Putin as the only leader who can protect Russia’s interests and its place in the world. This is the mantra of Putinism and through this the Kremlin has been able to maintain the status quo in spite of the dismal state of the economy.
When looking at Putin’s approval ratings through the entirety of his tutelage, a clear pattern emerges. His first peak in popularity was following his military adventures in Chechnya, which took him from being completely unknown, to achieving approval ratings of 80 per cent in the first year of his presidency in the year 2000. This was only topped during the 2008 conflict with Georgia that saw Putin achieve the support of 88 per cent of the Russian people. These peaks belie significant waning support in times of peace. Before the Ukraine crisis hit, there was only a 15 per cent approval rating difference between Putin and the second most popular Russian politician, defence minister Sergei Shoigu. Following intervention in Ukraine, that gap rose to 34 per cent as Putin’s approval rating soared.
War and propaganda are the political solutions that Putin provides to the country’s economic problems. For most of his fifteen years in power, Putin has been able to garner support by creating the perception of Russia as locked in inextricable conflict with the West. Cultivating a siege-mentality has enabled the Kremlin to present sanctions and a declining economy as an international conspiracy against Russia.
However, that strategy is a lot easier to maintain during a period of economic growth. Under the first decade of his leadership, rising commodity prices allowed Putin to remunerate a burgeoning oligarchy whilst neglecting any form of structural investment in other industries. As oil prices rose, so did demand for Roubles and consequently export industries fell by the wayside.
Yet the costs of the current conflict in Ukraine have been high. The heavy sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies are set to cost the Russian economy 1.5 per cent of its GDP over the coming year according to the IMF. This is against a backdrop of falling oil prices, which together with the sanctions have devalued the Rouble and caused inflation to rise to 15 per cent. The sheer scale of money leaving the country is hard to overstate. In 2014, $151.5 billion of private capital left Russia. Without rising oil prices, Putin’s posturing is harder to maintain.
This leads to an explanation of Russian intervention in Syria. Putin’s aerial bombardment to aid the embattled Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, started at just the right time to distract from the de-escalation in the Donbas. With impressive speed, Russia’s state-sponsored Ukraine reporters have relocated en masse to Syria. Russians are also able to enjoy weather reports that include updates on flying conditions in Syria interlaced with images of targets being destroyed.
This aggressive intervention is not a sign of strength but rather a sign of the limits of Putinism. It is a lot easier to incite nationalist sentiment than to quell it. Egor Prosvirnin, a nationalist blogger, was recently brought in for questioning after he called for the annexation of all of east Ukraine. He was arrested on the grounds of propagating ‘extremist material’, in spite of the fact that his words were Kremlin dogma only a matter of months ago. This shows the tricky game that the Putin propaganda machine must play in order to raise national sentiment high enough without creating expectations that will patently not be met.
On top of this, the ideology of Putinism has become harder to sustain as it has moulded a foreign policy that has increasingly isolated Russia from the global economy. The mounting strain on the economy cannot be brushed under the carpet ad infinitum. The Ukraine crisis froze economic ties with Europe and America. Recent gas deals with China do not represent a new world order led by Russia and China, but rather Putin’s increasing dependence on his economic links with Beijing. Now the conflict with Syria is likely to further economically isolate Moscow. Turkey has threatened to cancel a deal it has with the Russians to commission a $20 billion nuclear plant. As well as this, Turkish president, Recid Tayyip Erdogan, has angrily remarked that he can source his gas from elsewhere if Russia continues to back Assad.
With the increasing size of the air campaign and the emerging evidence of supposed Russian ‘volunteers’ fighting alongside Assad, the evidence points to ‘mission creep’ emerging in the Syria conflict. It is highly unlikely that Putin will be able to salvage much political capital out of the unwinnable war in Syria. Russians seem to fear this already, with many surveyed by the Levada think tank responding with comments such as, ‘wasn’t Afghanistan enough?’.
Putin needs to gain the assent of his domestic audience for foreign ventures to provide a buffer from the grave economic and diplomatic costs that it will entail. Yet as those costs rise with increasing aggression, the logic of Putinism demands a more assertive foreign policy to bolster Russia’s siege-mentality. With a tumbling economy and a violent quagmire in Syria, Putinism may finally run out of money and options.