MOSCOW — Finally, an engagement that Vladimir Putin could enjoy. Wearing dark aviator glasses against the bright sun, the Russian president attended the Russian “Navy Day” parade last Sunday at the Norwegian sea port of Severomorsk. A warship recently put into service fired some salvoes, and sailors responded to Putin’s greeting with three cries of Hurrah!
Reactions like that have become thin on the ground for Putin recently. In his phone calls with Western government leaders the mood has turned steely, the tone sharp. When — even after the death of the 298 passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — no decisive sign came from the Kremlin that it intended to distance itself from the fighters suspected of having shot the plane down over eastern Ukraine, Brussels too begun discussing tough sanctions against Russia.
Before his appearance at the recent “Navy Day” parade, Putin seemed edgy and tense. After a series of late-night phone calls last week, he offered an apparently improvised video message, struggling for words as he called for an independent investigation of the crash. The video was shown at 1:40 a.m. Moscow time on the Kremlin website and was apparently directed at a Western public and Americans who at that hour had not yet gone to bed rather than to Russians and the pro-Russian fighters in Ukraine.
Two days later, at a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Putin came across to other participants as awkward and stiff.
Some observers took these behaviors as a sign that Putin is also being pressured at home in Russia. Bloomberg had reported the previous week that Russian entrepreneurs were “increasingly frantic” in view of new threats of sanctions and increasing isolation. The 19 richest Russians have already lost $14.5 billion in the crisis, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
But does any of that really have to concern Putin? His popularity ratings are higher than they’ve been in a long time. According to the latest survey by the independent Levada Institute, 86% of Russians support their president's course. That’s a result that would make any politician think twice before changing direction. There is no indication that the results could change if the European Union were to announce that it is halting all trade in arms, and limiting Russia's access to European capital markets and technologies relevant to oil and gas production.
In confidential exchanges, high-ranking members of the president’s administration admit that the fear of sanctions is considerable. “Whoever claims that sanctions don’t matter to us is a complete idiot,” said one member of the inner circle with daily access to Putin. Sanctions would be “very painful” for Russia and would probably plunge the country into lasting recession, “but they would not be deadly.” What Russia needs to do is re-orient itself towards other markets, the insider said.
Putin himself appears to be unimpressed by the threat of new sanctions. He even said on Monday that Russia was the one considering limits on arms imports from the European Union: Russia’s arms industry was “entirely” in a position to produce everything it needed on its own, and needed to “insure itself against the risks of our European partners breaking contracts.”
Mikhail Fradkov, who was Russian Prime Minister during Putin’s first term as president, is all together more skeptical: “If sanctions were to affect the whole financial sector the economy would break down within six months,” he says.
The Kremlin insider also confirms that the president is under major pressure. Radical powers supported by patriotically revolutionized citizens are trying to get Putin to send troops to march across the border into Ukraine. In fact, state-run television networks are keeping such sentiment alive with reports on both verified and invented victims of Kiev’s anti-terror offensive, as well as alleged broken promises by European politicians, and the United States’ attempts at creating splits between Russia and Europe.
Moscow observers don’t currently see any powerful counter-voices within the Kremlin. Since the beginning of his third term in May 2012, Putin has surrounded himself with yes-men, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist specialized in the Russian elite, who until two years ago was herself a member of Putin’s United Russia party.
She says she has no reason to assume that there has been any split in the inner leadership circle. “In our society, open discussion among the power elite is not something that’s done,” she says, adding that it is not in line with the country’s authoritarian traditions. “You either play along, or you leave.”
Yes, there is some disquiet in society and in the Kremlin as well: both regular folks and oligarchs worry about their prosperity. “But there are moments when people understand that a higher goal is at stake – the renaissance of a great power,” Kryshtanovskaya says.
So, even people in Putin’s closest circle — whose names are on the U.S. sanctions list — are prepared to endure the downsides to policy choices.
Liberals, however, don’t get much of a hearing at the Kremlin these days. When former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin warned in an interview with the state news agency Tass last week that sanctions and other showdowns with the West could cost Russians one-fifth of their income, his remarks were kept off state-controlled TV, from which more than 90% of Russian citizens get their news.
It is only when remarks such as Kudrin’s also make it into TV news coverage that a possible change in direction could be underway, says Kryshtanovskaya. There has always been a right-wing, reactionary opposition in Russia even if it has received less attention in the West than the liberal, West-oriented opposition, she points out.
Indeed, what some in the West fail to calculate is that conservatives have been putting pressure on Putin since he came to power 15 years ago — only now there are hardly any liberals left to form a counterweight.
Ultimately, any clean break in Putin’s circle of power is unlikely, says political adviser Yevgeny Minchenko who has close ties to the Kremlin. There have always been various camps, between which Putin functions as a sort of moderator.
“I do not believe that an opposition is now forming against the president,” Minchenko said. “That is a naïve hope of the West.”