In recent weeks, Russia has endured a series of setbacks.
In Syria, a Russian led ceasefire was violated within minutes of its implementation. Populists like Austria’s Norbert Hofer, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and France’s Marine Le Pen, lost their presidential bids. The price of oil, a primary Russian energy export, remained at a dismal $50 a barrel. The Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, military alliance) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, trade pact) remain non-influential and ineffective in their ability to combat the rising tide of extremism in central Asia and spur economic growth.
Domestically, Russia has been rocked by a series of protests. Concerns included corruption charges against Prime Minister Medvedev, economic stagnation, the gentrification of historic neighborhoods around Moscow, and rising taxes on the trucking industry. A clear sign of Moscow’s weakening grip on its domestic affairs was evident by the fact that 11/32 cities disobeyed a direct order from the Kremlin to explicitly prohibit these protests. Additionally, in a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center, it was determined that fewer and fewer Russians planned to vote for President Putin in 2018.
President Putin’s declining support was on full-display during his recent Victory Day parade. A decade ago the parade, which honors and pays tribute to the estimated 20 million Russians that died during World War 2, was filled with foreign leaders and dignitaries from around the world. However, during this year’s celebration on the Red Square, only the Moldovan President Igor Dodon was seen watching on from the parade box.
Nevertheless, all is not lost for Russia. The Kremlin still maintains numerous advantages in terms of its strategy abroad and the geopolitical makeup of the world order in which it operates.
President Putin still maintains a disproportionate level of influence over Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he is reportedly in talks with Afghani Taliban, Putin continues to sell weapons abroad to new markets like Egypt, he conducts port calls with US’ allies in southeast Asia, he supports rising leaders like Khalifa Haftar in his bid to lead Libya, and Putin has plans to conduct the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War which will consist of over 100k troops during the ‘Zapad’ exercise.
Above all else, President Putin’s greatest asset is the structural shift of the international community itself. Specifically, the rising tide of populism is Russia’s greatest advantage over the status quo powers in the West. Since 1960, populist politicians have tripled their seats in European legislatures; meaning, populism is structural and it is here to stay.
The growing populist sentiment across Europe and North America is arguably Russia’s best chance at disrupting and undermining western democracies. At its core, populism contends that a class of corrupt elites are exploiting the average citizen. Populism convinces voters that an ever increasingly interconnected world is detrimental to their values, culture, and financial well-being. In order to prevent the inevitable ‘decline’ of western culture and values, populist leaders want to remove their countries from international trading agreements and international military alliances to focus on core national interests. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interests to empower and hasten the populism movement because the Kremlin benefits from a more divided, and self-interested world unable to respond to its aggressive and illegal actions throughout its ‘near-aboard.’
Over the past few weeks, Russia has suffered a series of mistakes and failures. However, the structural slide into a more populist and reactionary international community is extremely beneficial to Russia as it seeks to harness this movement as a vehicle for pursing its own motives and interests around the world.