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Is Putin’s system finally starting to decay?

The question is whether Putin can squeeze enough benefit out of his international moves to offset the rot in his own back yard.

Can Russian President Vladimir Putin squeeze enough benefit out of international openings to offset the rot in his own back yard?
REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin

Vladimir Putin is on the make again. It isn’t as dramatic as his moves in Crimea, Ukraine or Syria, but it sure is intriguing.

Consider: In Syria, Russian air power backed a government offensive in recent days that made peace talks seem pointless — and compounded the refugee crisis by sending more thousands of people fleeing. Putin found time to woo one of Germany’s most important politicians. His allies in the Russian Orthodox Church announced an historic meeting with Pope Francis. The Russians are even sharing intelligence with the Taliban.

A lot of things are bubbling at home, too. But they’re not so positive for Putin. So the question is, which trend develops faster? Can he squeeze enough benefit out of international openings to offset the rot in his own back yard? 

Before unpacking the question, let’s stipulate that: 

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1. Putin’s interventions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria are less than an unqualified successes. Ukraine is a stalemate. Crimea is a drag on the economy. The Syrian government is nowhere near able to stand on its own.

2. Russia’s economy has been, and will continue to be, hurt by low oil prices.

3. But Putin remains very popular at home.

So what is Russia hoping to achieve?

Global successes

In Syria, Putin is reinforcing the idea that Russia remains a global power, which plays well at home. Plus, boosting President Bashar Assad adds pressure on the European Union, already in disarray over its immigration policy. That gives Putin a bargaining chip on issues such as sanctions relief and energy policy. And it provides one more opportunity to jam a stick in the eye of President Obama, who he blames for creating the mess in the first place.

The opening to the Taliban (heirs to Moscow’s old mujahedeen enemies) is aimed at blunting what Russia regards as an even bigger threat: fighters of the Islamic State. Russia will provide intelligence — and maybe even weapons — hoping the Taliban will prevent Islamic State fighters from filtering back into Central Asia and Russia. Whether that happens (or is all that happens) is questionable. 

The Russian Orthodox Church has been a particularly loyal piece of Putin’s power structure. So it’s unlikely there is no political component to the announcement that its leader, Patriarch Kirill, will meet Pope Francis  at the end of this week — the first such meeting since the eastern and western churches split more than 1,000 years ago. True, they are both concerned about the fate of Christians in the Middle East. But they’re not going to suddenly set aside a millennium of suspicion. This builds a relationship with a popular global figure, the pope, without giving anything away.

Then, who should appear shaking hands with Putin last Thursday but Horst Seehofer? That’s a message to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Seehofer, her powerful ally in Bavaria, also is one of her leading critics on immigration. As the EU’s most important leader, Merkel holds the keys to European sanctions against Russia, and relations with the Ukrainian government.

But as the Economist points out, there’s more to it than that. If Merkel falters, her other governing partners are the Social Democrats, authors decades ago of Germany’s opening to the east. Today they the biggest proponents of a pair of natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany, one already built and another in the planning stage.

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At best, Putin appears to be angling for some sanctions relief and secure markets for his main export. He could enhance Russia’s global status and help protect it from terror attacks. Nice work, if you can get it done.

But what’s that smell back home?

Problems at home

It’s not just that a British investigation recently implicated Putin in the poisoning of a political opponent — which Russia denies. 

It’s that the whole system Putin has created feels like it’s slowly decaying.

The economy may not melt down; unless oil prices recover, it’s more likely to be in for a long, slow slide. There is the occasional protest over pocketbook issues. But they’re not serious. Not yet, anyhow.

Writing Jan. 27 in Foreign Affairs, Alexander J. Motyl also suggests that elites might start looking for an alternative, the police and military might not be totally reliable, and that we should watch for regional unrest. While it’s probably going too far to suggest that Putin and his circle look “enervated, confused and desperate,” it’s worth asking: 

How do you rein in corruption if it has gotten to the point where a regional official is emboldened to dig up a 30-mile road and sell its 7,000 reinforced concrete slabs for personal profit? 

How can you keep a straight face while assigning the country’s chief prosecutor to oversee an investigation into charges that he and his family engaged in massive corruption — even if the accusation was lodged by one of your biggest political foes and publicized in a biting new video by (remember them?) Pussy Riot? 

And how can you permit one of your allies — the thuggish guy who keeps Chechnya under control — to depict your opponents in the crosshairs of a scope and label them enemies of the people, knowing full well what that phrase has meant in Russia?

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It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what might touch off political upheaval. A growing economy could forestall it. But a system built on corruption and intimidation will develop in that direction until it can’t anymore. When it’s time to apportion the blame, Russians are likely to recall one of their popular sayings: “A fish rots from the head.”