Putin's Parade Has Been Rained Out
Every year, the Russian military puts on a display of military might on May 9 dedicated to the Soviet Union's World War II victory. This year, it is being hyped in a banner headline on the Drudge Report, a leading right-leaning news site in the U.S., as an impressive show of force of Russian President Vladimir Putin's power:
Yet it took place under skies so overcast that the aerial part of the spectacle had to be canceled, despite an outlay of several million dollars to dispel clouds. The symbolism is tacky but uncanny: With European elections and Washington politics going the way they are, Putin has little to celebrate.
After a 2016 that promised so much -- with advances in Syria, a Ukraine backsliding into a morass of hopeless corruption, the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the U.S. and the impressive poll standings of pro-Russian populists in Europe -- 2017 has been disappointing for the Russian leader. U.S. President Donald Trump has realized that any contact between his administration and Russia, except the most perfunctory official kind, can undermine his already shaky support within the Republican party and spark torrents of negative coverage in the mainstream media. In the Netherlands, nationalist Geert Wilders lost to Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose anti-Putin stand echoes that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself confidently pursuing re-election. Ukraine has received a $1 billion loan tranche from the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union approved long-delayed visa-free travel for Ukrainians -- sparking the jealousy of Russians, who need to get visas.
In Syria, a more active U.S. has made it difficult for Putin ally President Bashar Assad to pursue further military expansion, and talks between the regime and the opposition sponsored by Russia and Turkey have bogged down. Putin is now pushing a plan to effectively freeze the conflict by establishing safe zones in opposition-held areas, a plan that appears also to be favored by Trump but with strings attached -- the U.S. and the anti-Assad forces don't want Iran to help enforce the safe zones. Putin and Assad, who got a lot of help from Iran last year, are finding it hard to accept that.
In recent months, Putin's attempt to drive up oil prices by conducting a joint propaganda blitz with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to tout oil production cuts (from unsustainable, record high levels) has floundered. The price of Brent oil is back below $50 per barrel, leaving Russians to struggle with the same budgetary woes as last year.
Finally, on Sunday, the French presidential election ended with the victory of the most anti-Putin candidate in the field -- Emmanuel Macron, who has accused Russia of mounting disinformation and hacking campaigns against him, echoing Clinton in a way that must have made Putin wince.
Putin sent Macron a somewhat desperate-sounding congratulatory telegram:
The citizens of France trusted you to lead the country in a period that's difficult for Europe and for the entire global community. The growing threats of terrorism and militant extremism is accompanied by the escalation of local conflicts and the destabilization of entire regions. Under these conditions, it's especially important to overcome mutual distrust and combine efforts to ensure international stability and security.
That's probably not what Macron wanted to hear in the flush of electoral triumph, but the telegram echoes the analysis of Putin's policy wonks who argue that the populist defeats in Europe are only temporary. The Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, the Kremlin-affiliated think tank, argued in an analysis of European events this week that in the Netherlands "a populist defeated a populist," and elsewhere in Europe, including France, political systems are in flux and traditional parties are shattering.
"The political season is not over in France," said Mikhail Fradkov, Russia's former foreign intelligence chief whom Putin this year appointed head of RISS. "Populism will dominate as it changes France's customary political landscape."
There are clearly forces in Putin's entourage that seek to convince him that the West is still weakening and that establishment forces are on the run. That's so 2016, though: The tide has turned and the pro-globalization, pro-EU forces are on the counterattack, led by a confident Merkel and a lucky, enthusiastic Macron. Whatever the divisions within Western democracies, they don't benefit Putin. Even the populist forces that have triumphed in the U.S., U.K. and eastern European countries such as Poland are emphatically not his friends.
I still am not certain Putin was behind the internet-based campaigns against Clinton and Macron. But if indeed Russia has meddled in Western elections to prove the shakiness of established democracies, the short-term effect hasn't been worth it. Western powers, led by leaders he considered weak such as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande, may have looked like easy targets. By smirking knowingly during their election turmoil, Putin maximized credit as a global force to be reckoned with, though the gleeful participation of Kremlin propaganda outlets has also made it impossible for him to take nuanced positions. Arguably, he is now more isolated than before the tumultuous European and U.S. elections.
As he made a speech at the Victory Day parade, Putin sounded like a lonely man shouting in a desert:
Today, life itself required us to increase our defense potential. But in order effectively to fight terrorism, extremism, neo-Nazism and other threats, the consolidation of the entire international community is necessary. We are open to such cooperation. Russian will always be on the side of the forces of peace, those who choose the path of equal partnership and rejects wars as inimical to the meaning of life and human nature.
To foreign leaders like Trump, Merkel and Macron, it must be hard to make sense of Putin's call for cooperation. Not too long ago, he was threatening -- explicitly and implicitly -- them with war if they crossed him. What's changed besides Putin's string of losses? The weather isn't good for further geopolitical games; there are no more easy victories to distract Russians from the grim stagnation at home.
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