Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 18 March 2024


Repression inside Russia runs hand in hand with belligerence abroad

Mar 18, 2024

Some 24 years after Vladimir Putin was elected to his first term as Russia’s president in an election that was still broadly free, this weekend’s electoral procession to anoint him to a fifth term is emblematic of how much damage the former KGB man has done inside his country, and beyond. He has squashed political competition at home and brought largescale war back to the European continent — with the dead or wounded well into six figures. All this is a tragedy, above all, for the peoples of Ukraine, and Russia. But a fifth term for Putin is a threat to Europe, and the world. Not for the first time in Russia’s history, repression at home is running hand in hand with a more belligerent policy abroad.

The latest election has been even more of a sham than its predecessors since most real rivals are exiled, imprisoned or dead. Putin’s most formidable opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic gulag — or was killed, in effect, by the system — a month ago. In the past, the Kremlin allowed selected opposition candidates to stand in presidential ballots in a semblance of competition. This time, Boris Nadezhdin — whose campaign some initially suspected was sanctioned from on high — was barred after his anti-war stance showed signs of drawing significant support.

In the economy, Putin’s Kremlin long ago squandered the chance to funnel gushing natural resource revenues into diversification and modernisation. Russia’s resilience in the face of international sanctions largely reflects its success in shifting the economy on to a war footing — by pouring state spending into arms production. Yet the longterm damage from losing western markets for Russian energy, triggering an exodus of foreign businesses and incurring sanctions that may persist long after the war, will be immense.

The launching of the conflict has brought a final, dangerous rupture with the countries of the Euro-Atlantic. It has left Moscow increasingly reliant on an alliance with China that is highly unequal and short on trust. The need for arms has forced the Kremlin to deepen its ties with dubious partners such as Iran and North Korea.

It is hard to judge how deep support runs for Putin, or how many Russians choose to go along with the status quo merely as they can see no alternative. Foreign media reporting has been curtailed by restrictive laws and intimidation; opinion polling is hampered by wariness to express views openly. There are signs the war has led some Russians to rally around the flag, even if they think it should never have started. Yet surprising numbers lined up to pay respects to Navalny, and queues were reported at polling stations yesterday after his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, called for a “Midday against Putin” protest.

The Putinist system may, like the late Soviet one, be more brittle than it appears; when the mutinous warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin briefly marched towards the Kremlin last June, some liberal critics saw it as the beginning of a collapse they had long forecast. Since Prigozhin’s not-so-mysterious death in a plane crash, Putin seems to have regained his grip, despite signs of official jumpiness around the election.

The west’s ability to influence developments inside Russia is limited. It must do more, though, to squeeze Moscow’s war machine by enforcing sanctions better, and to persuade developing countries of the need to implement them too. The biggest task is to rebuild western defences as a deterrent — and to give Ukraine all the support it needs. Ensuring Putin does not prevail there is the best way to deter him from going further. And the failure of his misbegotten war remains the one thing most likely to prevent his fifth term from extending into a sixth.

No comments:

Post a Comment