Vladimir Putin won 2016 but limits of Russian power may cut his victory lap short
Putin’s goal is limited to reducing US influence while ensuring Russia’s interests, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy
In a new year’s address that sounded like a victory lap, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked his country in the wake of a wildly successful 2016 that saw the Kremlin leader shore up Russia’s standing abroad and acquire a host of powerful new friends.
Putin heads into 2017 on a strong note, having brokered a ceasefire in Syria that sidelined the US and winning the praise of president-elect Donald Trump by declining to retaliate in response to President Barack Obama’s administration’s decision to punish Moscow after claims of interference in the US election.
“We are working, and working successfully, and we are achieving much,” Putin said in the nationally broadcast address. “I would like to thank you for the victories and achievements, for your understanding and trust, and for your true, sincere care for Russia.”
Putin is as popular as ever at home, and his stature abroad has been bolstered by Russia’s leading role in the Syrian peace process and the rise in Western politicians who favour better ties with Moscow.
It might be tempting to look at the list of victories in Putin’s ledger over the past 12 months and assume that nothing can stop the Kremlin. But Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the cold war, and Moscow is not looking for world domination.
Putin’s goal is limited to reducing US influence while ensuring Russia’s interests, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy and a global reach that at the moment, pales compared with that of the US.
For the moment, Trump is coming off as a closer friend to the erstwhile Russian adversary than the political establishment he is about to leaf in Washington, as evidenced by the tweet of approval he sent over the way Putin handled Obama’s new sanctions.
“Putin is trying to articulate new rules for the world with a little help from Western troublemakers,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “But economically, Russia is still very weak.”
According to figures published in the Moscow Times, Russia’s gross domestic product reached a peak of US$2.2 trillion in 2013 and has since declined to US$1.3 trillion, lower than Italy, Brazil, and Canada, while the per capita gross domestic product is below US$9,000, according to the International Monetary Fund.
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The percentage of Russians who had any savings fell from 72 per cent in 2013 to 27 per cent in 2016, according to a year-end analysis published on gazeta.ru. For the first time in seven years, Russians are spending more than half their money on groceries.
“Putin has one Russia; many Russians have another. The two don’t really intersect much,” observed Alexei Gusarov, who hosts a talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Putin’s decision-making has kept his popularity rating in the 80s for months on end. But just 53 per cent of Russians think the country is heading in the right direction. Putin looks poised to win re-election in 2018, should he decide to run, but it’s unclear whether increased economic pain will erode that certainty.