It’s winter in, which is not a season for the faint-hearted. The pandemic is still hitting the country hard, with the number of new COVID cases hovering around 20,000 a day, which has cumulatively put the country in the global top five in terms of infections.
Under these inauspicious conditions, if you are brave enough to face down the cold and COVID to protest openly against the government of President, your reward may well be a trip to jail. If you’re very good at your job of protesting, you might win the grand prize of an attempt on your life.
The US Will Need Turkey to Counter Russia
Media coverage of theprotests focus, not surprisingly, on . After recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt, the Russian opposition leader returned to on January 17. He was promptly arrested at the airport where his plane was rerouted. His close associates, who’d shown up at the original destination of his flight to welcome him home, were also detained. These arrests, and the government’s desire to lock away in prison for as long as possible, triggered the latest round of demonstrations throughout the country.
has ruled over for more than two decades. Because of the constitutional changes he rammed through last year, he has effectively made himself leader for life. Will these latest protests make a dent in his carapace of power?
Meanwhile, theand governments this week exhibited a modest form of engagement by extending the treaty on nuclear weapons for another five years. Despite this hopeful sign, no one expects anything close to a full reset of – relations during a administration.
But asfaces protests in the street and US President deals with recalcitrant Republicans in Congress, the and might at least avoid direct conflict with one another. More optimistically — and can you blame a boy for dreaming? — the two countries could perhaps find common cause against the global scourges of nuclear weapons, climate change and pandemics.
Putin vs. Navalny
Although they face each other across thechessboard, and share some basic attributes. They are both adept politicians who know the power of visuals, symbols and stories. They rely on the media to sustain their popularity, using state-controlled media and exploiting social media.
And they have both been willing to adjust their messages to grow their appeal among everyday began to make appeals to russky (ethnic) rather than rossisky (civic) . He has made the defense of ethnic in surrounding regions — Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics — a priority for his administration.by turning to nationalism. started out as a rather conventional Soviet bureaucrat, with a commitment to all of the ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. Even when he became the leader of in 1999, he thought of himself as the head of a multiethnic country. Particularly after 2014 and the conflict with Ukraine, however,
writes in Jacobin:, meanwhile, started out as a rather conventional liberal who joined the reformist party Yabloko. Liberalism, however, has never really appealed to a majority of , and parties like Yabloko attracted few voters. began to promote some rather ugly xenophobic and chauvinistic messages. As Alexey Sakhnin
“He participated in the far-rightMarches, waged war on “illegal immigration,” and even launched campaign “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” directed against government subsidies to poor, ethnic minority-populated autonomous regions in the south of the country. It was a time when right-wing sentiments were widespread, and urban youth sympathized with ultra-right groups almost en masse. It seemed to that this wind would fill his sails — and partly, it worked.”
With these critiques of the ruling elite’s corruption, around 50% — which suggests that has successfully portrayed himself as somehow above everyday politics.can bring tens of thousands of angry protesters, particularly young people, onto the streets. Unlike present-day Belarus or Ukraine 2014, the protesters don’t represent the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens. remains a relatively popular figure in . Although his approval ratings have dropped from the 80% range that was common five years ago, they still hover around 70%. US presidents would be thrilled with those numbers. Approval of the government is considerably less —
Putin Is Worried
Still, the said. “International institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying, and the global security is degrading.”leader is worried. In his latest speech at the World Economic Forum, spoke in apocalyptic terms of a deteriorating international situation. “The pandemic has exacerbated the problems and disbalances that have been accumulating,” he
His comments on the global situation reflect more parochial concerns. Because of COVID-19, the by 4% in 2020. Although the government implemented various measures to cushion the impact, many are suffering as a result of rising unemployment and falling production. The economy depends a great deal on sales of oil and natural gas. Any further reduction in global trade — either because of the pandemic or tariff wars — would complicate Russia’s economic recovery and consequently undermine Putin’s political position.economy contracted
The immediate challenge comes from the parliamentary elections later this year. Putin’s Unitedparty currently holds a comfortable majority in the Duma. The other two top parties are led by nationalists who are equally if not more fanatical — Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party. But a political force coalescing around a figure like could disrupt Putin’s balance of power.
That’s whyreturned to . And that’s why the court decided this week to lock away for more than two years — for violations of parole that required him to report to the authorities that tried to kill him. has taken an enormous risk, while is taking no chances. The leader has long deployed a preemptive strategy against any potential rival. Those who dare to oppose him have been killed (Boris Nemtsov), poisoned (Vladimir Kara-Murza), jailed (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) or forced into exile (Garry Kasparov).
Civil society is also under siege in “foreign agent law.” Yet the environmental movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT community and others continue to protest against the country’s authoritarian system. And these protests are not just taking place in relatively liberal enclaves in the western part of the country like and St. Petersburg. Large-scale demonstrations took place at the end of 2020 in Khabarovsk, in the Far East, over the arrest of the region’s independent-minded governor. While gets the press, civil society activists have quietly built up networks around the country that can turn people out onto the streets when necessary., with activists vulnerable to charges of being, basically, spies and saboteurs under a
Like all authoritarians, rating in 2019. According to polling conducted last year, three in four believe that the Soviet era was the best period of time for , and it certainly wasn’t the dissident movement of that period that made them nostalgic.uses “law and order” arguments to his advantage. have a horror of anarchy and civil strife. They have long favored an “iron fist” approach to domestic politics, which helps explain the persistent, posthumous fondness for Joseph Stalin, who had a 70% approval
The protesters thus have to tread carefully to avoid losing popular support among a population fond of an iron fist but also deeply disgusted by the corruption, economic mismanagement and social inequality of theera. The Russian opposition also has to grapple with the distinct possibility that getting rid of will usher in someone even worse.
US-Russia Relations: A New START?
The extension of, the last nuclear arms control treaty in effect between and the , is a spot of good news in an otherwise dismal outlook for relations between the two countries. has prided himself on his knowledge of and commitment to arms control. So, if the two countries can agree on terms of selective engagement, the next four years could be profitably taken up by a series of negotiations on military weaponry.
argues, a follow-on treaty could establish a ceiling on all nuclear warheads, for instance at 2,500, which would cover battlefield nuclear weapons and result in at least a 50% cut in the arsenals of the two sides. Another option for bilateral negotiations would be to focus on limitations to missile defense or, at the very least, cooperation to protect against third-party missile attacks. A third option would be to focus on conventional weaponry and constraints on weapons sales.merely establishes ceilings on nuclear warheads for both sides and addresses only strategic, not tactical, nukes. So, as Stephen Pifer
This arms control agenda is only part of a larger potential program of selective engagement. Theand could return to their coordination around the Iran nuclear deal. They could explore ways to cooperate on global challenges like climate change and pandemics. They could even start addressing together the harmful effects of economic globalization, a topic brought up in his recent Davos speech.
To do so, however, the two countries will have to manage the numerous points of friction in their relationship. For one thing, they’ve gone head-to-head in various proxy battles — in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. evidence of interference in the 2016 presidential election — not to mention involvement in a coup attempt in Montenegro that same year and its meddling in the presidential election in Madagascar two years later — and is pissed off at “democracy promotion” in the Color Revolutions and within itself. is eager to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring natural gas to Germany, while the is eager to sell its own gas to its European ally. Then there’s Russia’s penchant for assassinating in other countries and repressing protestors at home.is legitimately furious that NATO expanded to its very doorstep, and the is legitimately concerned about interventions in its “near abroad,” most recently in Ukraine. The has lots of
Any of these issues could scuttle cooperation betweenand Washington. One way of negotiating around this minefield is to delink the agendas of cooperation and conflict. Arms control advocates have a long history of doing just that by resisting calls to link other issues to arms control negotiations. Thus, the Iran nuclear deal focuses exclusively on the country’s nuclear program, not its missiles, not its relations with other countries in the region, not its human rights situation. The same lack of linkage has historically applied to all the arms control agreements between Washington and .
This strategy of delinking doesn’t mean that these other issues are completely off the table. They are simply addressed at different tables.
Those who desperately want a new cold war withwill not be happy with such a practical solution. They don’t want to talk with about anything. As repugnant as I find the leader, I have to acknowledge that he heads up an important global player and he has the support (for the time being at least) of much of his population. So, even as we challenge the leadership’s conduct at home and abroad, we must also work with in the interests of global peace, prosperity and sustainability.
Of course, there’s another word for all this: diplomacy.
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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