Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Russia: The End of the Illusion?

Amy Knight, New York Review of Books
Feb. 23, 2016

On Monday evening, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television to announce that, following a telephone conversation with President Barack Obama, Russia and the US had reached an agreement on a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, to begin at midnight on February 27. Putin went out of his way to present Russia as a team player, in step with the West on Syria, though the accord allows bombing to continue against the Islamic State (ISIS), the al-Qaeda-backed Nusra Front, and “other terrorist groups”—a loose category that for Russia might include anti-Assad forces that the US and Western allies have been backing. Indeed, the agreement was the latest indication of how far the Russian government has been able to pursue its interests in the conflict—while gaining new diplomatic stature. As Nicholas Burns, former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, told The Washington Post after a similar peace effort in mid-February, “We are being completely outfoxed in Syria by Putin.”

But Putin’s newly-claimed role as a world leader may also be aimed at distracting Russians from more pressing concerns at home. With plunging oil prices and double-digit inflation, the Russian economy is cascading downward, causing some of the largest protests the Kremlin has faced in several years. The price of oil, a mainstay of the Russian economy, fell from $110 per barrel in June 2014 to $27 in January this year. The ruble has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar since 2013, and real wages of Russians have shrunk by almost 10 percent in the past year. A recent poll by the respected Levada Center in Moscow found that more than half of all Russians—53 percent—think the greatest threat now facing their country is economic impoverishment.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been confronted with some of the most devastating revelations of high-level government corruption yet to surface during the Putin era. They have even touched two of Putin’s closest allies, Vladimir Yakunin, the former president of Russian Railways, and Yuri Chaika, Russia’s powerful prosecutor general. This combination of economic turmoil and faltering government credibility could threaten the stability of the Putin regime, especially if ordinary Russians lose enthusiasm for its military ventures abroad.

(More here.)

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