March 2018 saw Vladimir Putin re-elected as Russian President. As he begins
his new six year mandate he is, however, facing a series of inter-connected problems which are largely the product of the policies he has put in place, and which it seems he will find increasingly hard to manage using the political and military methodologies which have served him well in the past.
Within Russia, Putin faces an opposition challenge that stubbornly refuses to go away, in spite of his attempts to suppress it. Internationally, the military adventurism initiated by Putin in Ukraine has failed to achieve its objectives, in Syria Russia is embroiled in an increasingly complex regional conflict, whilst the state’s overt and covert attempts to compete with the West have left it isolated on the world-stage.
Putin’s view of the world and the nature of the state power structures, which he helped to create, and over which he continues to preside, mean that it is unlikely that Russia will follow a more positive path even when one is available. Instead Putin appears set to continue to follow the confrontational course he has already charted for himself and Russia.
A Well Managed Election: Vladimir Putin served as President from 2000-2008, and Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, before returning as President in 2012. He is now entering his fourth term as Russia’s President after securing overwhelming election victory with 76.69% of the vote.
But the 2018 result was not achieved under normal electioneering conditions: during the campaign Putin appeared at only a small number of large election rallies, engaged in very little active campaigning, and did not debate with his opponents or publish an election programme. Instead the machinery of the state managed the election and ensured success for Putin.
In the run-up to the election campaign, and during the campaign itself, the state controlled media and pro-regime private media maintained a steady barrage of pro-Putin political messages. The authorities used a combination of inducement and coercion to persuade the public to attend pro-Putin campaign events and, ultimately, vote for him – workers and students report coming under pressure from employers and university authorities.
On polling day Golos, an independent election observation organisation, reported over 3,000 violations of election regulations. In a number of cases their observers were harassed and attacked while they tried to monitor the election process.
There is also video evidence of ballot stuffing openly taking place in some polling stations. Analysis has suggested that Vladimir Putin may have received over 10 million extra votes through the falsification of turn-out figures. It is clear that the authorities had not been ready, or able, to rely on Putin’s apparent popularity in order to deliver the victory they sought.
Putin’s closest opposition rival for 2018 was Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party candidate, who gained 11.82% of the vote. Grudinin, a wealthy strawberry farmer, benefited from the Communist Party’s established structures, and residual support base at local level. In third place was veteran ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 5.68% of the vote. Zhirinovsky had gained notoriety in the early 1990s for his provocative nationalist statements, but throughout the course of his long political career he has remained essentially loyal to the established regime.
Ksenia Sobchak came fourth with 1.66% of the vote. Sobchak is a thirty six year old former socialite and reality TV show host turned opposition politician. She was formerly close to the centre of political power in Russia; Putin had been a family friend and began his political career in the 1990s working for her father, Anatoly Sobchak, then Mayor of St Petersburg. In December 2011 to the surprise of many, Ksenia Sobchak joined the anti-government protests taking place in Moscow. She subsequently became a prominent and articulate voice within the opposition.Sobcak fought an energetic election campaign that she appears to see as a spring-board for future political activity.
Sobchak was nominated as presidential candidate by the Civic Initiative party. During the campaign, however, she announced plans for the formation with Dmitry Gudkov, a former Just Russia MP, of a new Party of Changes, which would become active in the post-election period
The other candidates were Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist and leader of the liberal Yabloko party, with 1.05 %; Boris Titov, a candidate with a pro-business profile, with 0.76% of the vote; Maxim Suraykin, representing a break-away Communist grouping, with 0.68%; and Sergey Baburin, a fringe nationalist candidate, with 0.65% of the vote.
None of the candidates who were allowed to take part in the election constituted, as these voting figures demonstrate, a serious threat to Putin’s hold on power.
The Absent Challenger: Alexei Navalny, the most prominent figure in the Russian opposition, was barred from taking part in the 2018 presidential elections by the Election Commission who cited a previous conviction for financial fraud. This dates back to 2009 when Navalny was serving as adviser to Nikita Belykh, the reformist governor of the Kirov region, when it was alleged that he had used his position to embezzle funds from the region’s publically owned timber company. The charges were widely regarded as a politically motivated attempt to discredit him but, in July 2013, Navalny was found guilty and given a five year suspended sentence.
On 23 February 2016 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the trial had been unfair and prejudicial and that Navalny he had been found ‘guilty of acts indistinguishable from regular commercial activity.’ In November 2016 the Russian Supreme Court overturned the verdict and referred it back to the Kirov court for re-trial, and on 3 May 2017, the Kirov court upheld its original verdict and sentence. It was this new judgement that opened the way for the decision by the Electoral Commission, subsequently confirmed by the Supreme Court, to exclude him from the presidential contest.
Navalny argued that the decision to exclude him from the election was a politically motivated. His enforced absence from the presidential election shows that Putin, in spite of his apparent popularity, remains nervous and insecure in the face of the prospect of a potential, genuine, opposition threat.
Navalny, a forty one year old lawyer, began his political career as a member of the liberal Yabloko party before leaving, disillusioned with its ineffectiveness.
After 2006 he developed a strong on-line presence focussing on anti-corruption campaigning. His concentration during this period on collecting and publishing details of specific cases of fraud and maladministration enabled him to attract a steadily growing on-line following.
The protests of winter 2011/spring 2012 saw Navalny transform himself into a leader of the opposition on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg. In September 2013 he entered electoral politics for the first time, running for Mayor of Moscow. Navalny’s main opponent in the election was Sergey Sobyanin, the incumbent Mayor, who had been appointed in 2010 and had previously been Vladimir Putin’s chief-of-staff. During the campaign Navalny compensated for his lack of access to the media and limited resources by mobilising a network of grass-roots volunteers, using on-line communications, and raising money through crowd funding. On polling day he gained 27.24% of the vote to Sergey Sobyanin’s 51.37%. Navalny had lost the election, but this result represented an unprecedented opposition election challenge to a regime supported candidate under Putin. Navalny maintained that the result had been rigged in order to allow Sobyanin to clear the 50% threshold and avoid a second round run-off.
The period after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 saw an upsurge in nationalism and support for Putin’s government. This was accompanied by a crack down on opposition activities by the authorities. Some opposition figures chose to leave Russia and seek refuge abroad. Vladimir Ashurkov, the Director of Navalny’s anti-corruption fund, left Russia in May 2014 after having been accused of embezzling money raised for the Moscow Mayoral election campaign. Ashurkov subsequently applied for, and was granted, political asylum in the United Kingdom. Then, on 27 February 2015 Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was shot dead in central Moscow. At the time of his assassination Nemtsov had been gathering information for a report on Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine.
While the opposition had been marginalised the issues that motivated demonstrators in 2011/2012 did not go away, and Navalny continued to investigate corruption and publish the results on-line.
Navalny called for a new wave of anti-corruption demonstrations to take place across Russia on 26 March 2017. Earlier that month he had published an on-line documentary detailing the accumulated wealth of Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev. In the weeks leading up to the planned demonstrations the documentary was viewed 12 million times.
Between 16,000 and 25,000 people took part in Navalny’s demonstration in Moscow. According to local monitoring groups around 800, including Navalny, were arrested – he was sentenced to 15 days in prison and fined $350.
It was one of the defining characteristics of these new demonstrations that they also took opposition activity out of Moscow/St Petersburg and into the Russian provinces. In fact, demonstrations took place in 82 locations across Russia from the Kaliningrad enclave in the west to Vladivostok in the far east.
The demonstrations were also notable for the number of young people taking part. A new generation of activists appeared to be ready to engage in opposition activity. Alexei Navalny had returned to the political scene, and was apparently stronger than ever. It seems likely that the authorities took the view that this made it imperative to prevent him taking part in the forthcoming presidential elections.
Having been excluded from the election, Navalny called on opposition voters to boycott the poll. He argued that if the opposition were not allowed to field a candidate capable of presenting a serious challenge to Putin then a boycott of the election would at least drive down turn-out and deny the election credibility. Navalny’s boycott strategy was not, however, without its critics amongst the opposition. They pointed out that a boycott of the election would not allow them to distinguish between those voters who making a positive rejection of the Putin regime, and those who were simply apathetic. Prominent amongst these dissenters with regard to Navalny’s strategy was Sobcak. Navalny and Soback had previously co-operated closely, but her decision to enter the race opened up a rift between the two opposition figures: Navalny regarded Sobcack’s participation in the election as a deliberate attempt to disrupt his boycott, and provide legitimacy to the election. On election night Navalny and Sobcack argued publically, after she turned up at his HQ in an attempt to persuade him to co-operate with her as part of her proposed new party.
It is unlikely that Sobcack’s decision to take part in the election had any overall impact on the success of the boycott. Official turn-out for the election was 67.54%, slightly lower than Vladimir Putin’s reported turn-out target of 70%.
However, while Putin has secured his election victory, and marginalised the opposition, the structural weaknesses of the regime will persist. The anti-corruption critique of the government developed by Navalny will also continue to resonate with the Russian public. In the week after the presidential elections there were anti-corruption/maladministration demonstrations in the town of Kemerovo in Siberia, where a fire in a shopping centre had killed 64 people, including 41 children, and Yadrovo outside Moscow, where there were protests over the danger posed to the public by a toxic landfill site.
Going forward, the opposition will need to ensure that differences over election strategy do not undermine their efforts in the post-election period.
The Economics of Stagnation: Alexei Kudrin is part of a group who rose to political prominence in St Petersburg in the 1990s and later transferred to Moscow to take up positions in Putin’s administration. He served as Finance Minister and is widely credited with having maintained economic stability in Russia during the first decade of Putin’s rule.
In September 2011, Kudrin resigned as Finance Minister and left the government. His departure was prompted by the announcement that Dmitry Medvedev, the current President, was set to take-over as Prime Minister following the 2012 presidential elections. Kudrin’s relationship with Medvedev had been characterised by personal and political tensions. He had taken particular exception to Medvedev’s support for a $65 billion increase in defence spending between 2011 and 2014 Inside the Kremlin Kudrin had been widely regarded as the leading representative of an economically focussed liberal grouping, in opposition to the siloviki group with its connections to the security forces and the military.
Kudrin’s resignation marked a further step towards the militarisation of Russian domestic and foreign policy.
Out of office Kudrin briefly appeared to align with the opposition, even addressing a protest rally on 24 December 2011. He later moved into academia from where spoke out as a friendly critic of the Putin government. In the years which followed, Russian government spending on the military and internal security continued to grow placing an increasing burden on state finances.
In 2016 the defence and security sector comprised 34.2% of Russia’s budget.
This overspending combined with external shocks, the collapse of the price of oil, and the imposition of economic sanctions following the annexation of Crimea led to Russia entering a recession between 2014 and 2016.
By 2017/18 Russia’s economy was, due at least in part to a renewed rise in oil prices, showing some signs of recovery. Despite this, the Russian economy continued to be characterised by stagnation, sluggish growth and low levels of investment.
In early 2017, at Putin’s request, Kudrin set out a series of steps that Russia should take in order to compete within the global economy. These measures included restructuring of the administrative system, reform of the judiciary, the creation of a flexible labour market, and reduction of the role of the state in the economy.
It is extremely unlikely that these measures will be implemented, during Putin’s new term in office, as opening up the Russian economy would undercut Putin’s domestic power structures, and would also be in opposition to the policy of confrontation with the West, which Russia has been pursuing in Ukraine, Syria, and the wider international community.
Ukrainian Stalemate: On 21 February 2014 Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, fled following months of popular anti-government protests, and took refuge in Russia.
In early March the Russian government, taking advantage of the weakness of the new post-revolutionary Ukrainian administration, launched a take-over of Crimea. The take-over was carried out by Russian elite Special Forces, minus their insignia, local pro-Russian militia, and criminal gangs imported from Russia. The Crimean parliament was occupied and a new, unelected, Prime Minister was installed. The Russian government initially, vehemently, denied involvement in these events but subsequently reversed this position once control of the region had been consolidated.
On 16 March a referendum was held in Crimea, under military occupation and in a climate of intimidation, in which 95% of ballots counted indicated that Crimea should join the Russian Federation.
On 18 March the Russian parliament formally voted to annexe Crimea. In a speech to Parliament following the vote Putin stated that: ‘In our hearts and minds Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia…I have heard residents of Crimea say that back in 1991 they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. The country was going through such hard times that it was realistically incapable of protecting its interests. The people, however, could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historic injustice. All these years citizens and many public figures came back to this issue saying that Crimea is Russian land and Sevastopol is a Russian city.’ In this triumphant speech Putin presented himself as the redeemer of Russian people and territory in defiance of the hostile West. His speech, however, characteristically distorted the truth when it stated that Crimea had been ‘handed over’ to Ukraine. Crimea, along with every other region of Ukraine, had voted for independence in the referendum of December 1991.
Significantly, Putin chose to hold the 2018 parliamentary elections on 18 March, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. He also held his last campaign rally in Sevastopol.
The events in Ukraine which followed the annexation of Crimea were, however, less obviously successful in terms of the realisation of Russian aims, and less worthy of commemoration by Vladimir Putin. During March and April 2014, the formula that had been so successful in Crimea was applied across eastern Ukraine; Russian Special Forces, armed pro-Russian locals, and nationalist extremists who had crossed the border from Russia seized control of local government structures. It was a form of deniable, hybrid war against Ukraine. Putin took to referring to the areas where insurrection was taking place as NovoRossiya, a Tsarist term coined in the eighteenth century to describe territories taken by Russia during the course of its imperial expansion. The armed actions of the NovoRossiya project were part of an attempt at the de facto partition of Ukraine.
But, the project soon ran into problems. The pro-Russian rebels succeeded in mobilising support and gaining control in parts, but not all, of the territory around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, in other east Ukrainian cities, such as Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odessa, and Zaporizhia, attempts at insurrection attracted little popular support and were thwarted by the authorities. The Ukrainian armed forces had at first been unsure as to how to respond to the challenge posed by the insurrection, but by May-July they were, with the aid of volunteer detachments, staging a determined fight back against the rebels based in Donetsk and Luhansk. During the course of this fighting a Russian supplied Buk anti-aircraft missile fired from a rebel position shot down Malaysian civilian airliner, Flight MH17, killing the 298 passengers and crew. In the aftermath of the aircraft’s destruction the Russian authorities produced various false narratives in order to claim that they had no connection with the act including a claim that the Ukrainians had fired the Buk, or that it had been destroyed by a Ukrainian fighter aircraft.
The Ukrainian advances in July/August brought the separatist insurrection Donetsk and Luhansk to the verge of collapse, but also prompted a large scale incursion by regular Russian forces. On 24 August Ukrainian forces at Ilovaysk outside of Donetsk suffered major losses when they were surrounded by advancing Russian regular troops. The Russian intervention succeeded in saving their separatist proxies, but also meant that they crossed the line from deniable proxy war to conventional military action. Russia used the subsequent ceasefire to consolidate its military, financial, administrative control over the Donetsk and Luhansk territories.
Fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces flared again in early 2015, and on 22 January Donetsk airport fell to Russian/separatist forces bringing to an end a determined 242 day defence by units of the Ukrainian army. By February, Russian/separatist forces had advanced to take the territory around Debaltseve and Novoazovsk but a further upsurge in fighting in November and December 2016, saw separatist attempts to advance beyond Debaltseve towards Svitlovarsk repulsed by the Ukrainian military.
In the months and years since, low-level clashes between Ukrainian forces and the Russian backed separatists have persisted. Observers continue to record a strong Russian military presence within the Donetsk and Luhansk territories.
There have also been a series of terrorist attacks on high profile targets connected to the Ukrainian war-effort. On 27 June 2017 Colonel Maksim Shapoval, a Ukrainian military intelligence officer, was killed in a car bomb explosion in Kyiv. At the time of his death he was reported to have been involved in monitoring the Russian military presence in the separatist territories. And, on 31 October 2017 Adam Osmayev, the commander of a Chechen volunteer detachment within the Ukrainian army, was wounded. His wife, Amina Okuyeva, a fighter in the unit, was killed.
The on-going war has imposed human, material, and financial costs on Ukraine and undermined its, already problematic, reform process. The war has, however, also proved costly for Russia. Its territorial gains have been limited, and it now has on-going financial and military commitments to maintaining the Donetsk and Luhansk territories.
The increasingly chaotic situation within the separatist territories was demonstrated by a strange drama played out in Luhansk. In November 2017, when Igor Plotnitsky (Prime Minister of the Luhansk territory) was overthrown by Interior Minister Igor Komet, with the help of armed separatists from Donetsk, and forced to flee to Russia.
The Ukrainian army, demoralised and poorly equipped in 2014, is also much reformed and improved, and its capacity is set to be further enhanced by the United States decision to supply it with anti-tank weapons. The announcement of this move in December 2017 prompted strong protests from Russia.
The on-going, unresolved conflict in Ukraine also means that Russia remains enmeshed in economic sanctions, imposed by the US and EU, from which it seems unable to extricate itself.
The Syrian Quagmire: In September 2015 the Russian government intensified its support for the Assad regime in Syria. The intervention was prompted by a belief that Bashar al Assad’s government was on the brink of military and political collapse. The Russian intervention has primarily involved the large-scale use of airpower, but has also seen the presence of Russian Special Forces and advisors on the ground. There has additionally been indirect Russian involvement through mercenary organisations such as the Wagner Company.
The intervention has, in co-operation with Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military forces, achieved considerable battlefield success. It has enabled the Assad government to consolidate its position and regain territory from rebel forces. In December 2016 Aleppo, a key centre of rebel activity, fell to Russian supported regime forces. And, in November 2017, Syrian government forces succeeded in taking the province of Deir-Ez-Zor which had previously been held by Islamic state fighters. In February/March 2018 the regime, backed by Russian airpower, launched a new attempt to reduce the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus. The intervention in Syria has not, however, been without cost. On 24 September 2017 Russian General Valery Asapov was killed by Islamic State mortar fire during fighting Deir-Ez-Zor province. Valery Asapov had reportedly, previously commanded separatist military forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Then, on 3 February 2018 a Russian ground attack aircraft was shot down by rebel fighters over Idlib province and the pilot killed following an exchange of fire with insurgents. On 7 February clashes took place in the Deir-ez-Zor province between United States led coalition forces and pro-Assad forces which included the Russian Wagner group. Estimates of the Russian casualties sustained during this fighting have varied from 20 to as many as 300 killed and injured. The on-going trickle of casualties looks set to continue as Russia finds it hard to draw a line under its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Peace talks sponsored by Russia and attended by 1500 delegates took place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on 30/31 January. The conference ended with an agreement on the formation of a commission to draw up plans for a post-war Syrian constitution. The credibility of the conference was undermined, however, by the fact that it was boycotted by all the major opposition factions represented by the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and by Kurdish groups. When Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, read out a statement from Putin, he was met by heckles even from a largely pro-regime audience. Without a viable solution to the Syrian conflict Putin’s Russia will find itself caught in a trap of its own making as it props up Assad’s weak and financially bankrupt government whilst competing with the assertive regional powers, Iran and Turkey.
Russia and the West – Political Warfare by Proxy: In response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine the European Union introduced, between March and September 2014, economic sanctions targeting a range of Russian individuals and institutions. These sanctions have remained in place. The construction and maintenance of this common position on sanctions amongst the 28 EU countries, Norway and Iceland, with their differing economic interests and political/cultural links with Russia has been a considerable political and diplomatic achievement.
In parallel with EU measures the United States introduced its own programme of sanctions, demonstrating a strong Western consensus in response to Russian actions in Ukraine.
The official Russian position is to consistently seek to dismiss sanctions as being largely ineffectual or counter-productive. In reality the sanctions regime has had a significant impact on the Russian economy. Russia strategic policy has sought both to normalise its annexation of Crimea and to end the sanctions regime. It has acted on the assumption that this can be achieved by exploiting and actively manipulating events which will disrupt the Western consensus. This can be seen as form of political warfare by proxy. The political energies expended by Russia in this field have, however, yielded mixed results.
The UK played an active role in the EU in pushing for economic sanctions against Russia following its intervention in Ukraine. From February 2015, they also took a leading role in providing training and support to the Ukrainian army. On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, the Russian government saw this result as strategically positive for a number of reasons. It could, it was reasoned, optimally lead to a realignment of the UK away from the EU and towards Russia as the UK looked for new allies in the post-Brexit world. Even if such a shift in UK policy did not manifest itself, the Russian government calculated that the Brexit process would leave the UK isolated and the EU weakened. While in the immediate aftermath of the referendum there were some calls, by politicians and commentators, for a reassessment of UK post-Brexit alliances most mainstream political opinion stressed the need for maintaining a strong position in terms of relations with Russia. This was illustrated in the speech given by Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, on 13 November 2017 where she condemned Russia’s role in Crimea and east Ukraine and went on to accuse it of ‘meddling in elections’ and seeking to ‘weaponise Information.’ She went on to state that ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing and you will not succeed, because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies’. Following the July 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw troops were deployed as part of a Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the Baltic States in order to deter potential Russian aggression and the UK became lead nation, supported by France and Denmark, in the on-going battalion strength deployment in Estonia. In spite of this continued commitment to European security the Russian government remained convinced that process of Brexit had left the UK politically isolated, and that this would provide opportunities which could potentially be exploited.
In the run-up to the November 2016 United States Presidential elections the Russian government launched a major internet hacking operation which was intended to influence the election result. The operation sought to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate, support the Republican candidacy of Donald Trump, whose pro-Russian stance was well known, and generally increase political, social and ethnic tensions in the US. The hacking operation was carried out by the Saint Petersburg based Internet Research Agency owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an influential Kremlin connected businessman. Prigozhin is also the financier of the Wagner private military company which has been actively engaged in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
The election of Donald Trump should, in theory, have been a victory for overt and covert Russian policy towards the United States. In practice the Trump Presidency’s policy on Russia has been marked by a high degree of continuity with the previous administration. The group of pro-Russian advisors, including Steve Bannon, who initially surrounded Trump has largely resigned or been removed from the White House. The increasing pressure on Trump from the investigation by Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, into pre-election collusion with Russia has meant that it has been hard for him to follow pro-Russian policy even if he was inclined to do so.
Kurt Volker, the United States Special Representative for Ukraine, who was appointed in July 2017, has been particularly notable for his strong line in support of Ukraine and in opposition to Russian policy. On 3 April 2018, during a visit to the United States by the Presidents of three Baltic states, Kersti Kaljulaid (Estonia), Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania) and Raimonds Vejonis (Latvia), the US President stated that: ‘No one has been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.’ H R McMaster, the outgoing US National Security Advisor, speaking on the same day, called for stronger action against Russia saying that for too long the West had ‘failed to impose sufficient costs’ in the face of threats and provocations from Russia.
The Russian state has also intervened both overtly and covertly in European elections in an attempt to boost the political fortunes of pro-Russian candidates and parties. The results of this policy have, however, been mixed.
In March 2017, prior to the French Presidential elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, travelled to Moscow for a meeting with Putin. Le Pen is a long-standing critic of sanctions and a supporter of Russian policy in Ukraine. Russian hackers also reportedly targeted Emanuel Macron, Le Pen’s main opponent, on a number of occasions during the campaign. However, the end result was a decisive second round victory for Macron, the candidate who took the strongest line against Russia.
In Germany, Russia provided political and media support to Alternative for Germany (AfD) who have reciprocated by consistently following the Russian government line on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues. Following the September 2017 elections Angela Merkel was ultimately able to construct a coalition between her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and the Social Democrats. The pro-Russian AfD, however, constitute the main opposition in the new parliament.
In Austria, the October 2017 parliamentary elections resulted in the centre-right People’s Party led by Sebastian Kurz, gaining the largest number of seats in the elections and forming a coalition with the third place, populist Freedom Party led by Christian Strache. In February 2016 the Freedom Party had signed a co-operation agreement with Putin’s United Russia. Freedom Party ministers in the new government included Karin Kneissel as Foreign Minister, Mario Kunasek as Defence Minister, and Herbert Kickl as Interior Minister.
Negotiations are currently still underway for the formation of a new government following the 4 March parliamentary elections in Italy. However, significant gains were made in the elections by the Five Star Movement and the League, both of who have previously taken pro-Russian policy positions.
The Salisbury Attack: On 4 March Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were found collapsed on a park bench in the town of Salisbury in southern England. It was subsequently determined that they had been the targets of an attempted assassination attempt using the military-grade nerve agent, Novichok. Sergei Skripal is a 66 year old former Russian military intelligence officer, who was recruited as a double-agent by the British Intelligence service, MI6. He was arrested by the Russian authorities in December 2004 and sentenced in September 2006 to thirteen years in prison. He was freed in a spy swap in July 2010, and settled in the UK. The attack on the Skripal’s bore a striking resemblance to the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006. In both cases the target was a Russian defector and the attack the undertaken using a state-produced, signature, weapon. The time of the attack suggests the following probable motives on the part of the Russian state:
- To test the capacity of the UK to respond to the assassination attempt in the context of Brexit
- To test the readiness of the US under Donald Trump to respond to Russian action against the UK
- To test the readiness of EU countries to show solidarity with the UK in the context of British withdrawal from the EU
It may have also been calculated that the attack would yield, secondary, benefits in terms of:
- Demonstrating to defectors and dissidents that they remained vulnerable in the West
- Manufacturing a confrontation with the UK, and the West, in the last days of the Russian election campaign.
On 12 March, a week after the attack on the Skripals had taken place, Theresa May addressed the House of Commons and stated that the nature of the attack meant that it was either ‘ a direct attack by the Russian state on our country’ or that Russia had ‘lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and let it get into the hands of others.’
The Russian government were given two days in which to clarify which of these options was correct. On 14 March, with no response forthcoming from the Russian government, May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. She stated that ‘through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come.’ The Russians appear to have been prepared for a British response along these lines but subsequent the co-ordinated response in support of the UK from the US, EU, and other countries appears to have taken Russia by surprise.
There was initially some ambiguity in the US response to the attack. Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, said, shortly before he was coincidentally sacked by Trump, that ‘We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack. Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.’ Despite this there appeared to be some reluctance on the part of the White House to attribute blame directly to Russia however, on 13 March Trump stated that he would accept that Russia was responsible for the attack if that was the determination of the British government.
On 14 March Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, made a strong condemnation of Russia during the meeting of the UN Security Council stating that: ‘The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom…If we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this then Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used. Twelve days later the United States announced that, in response to the Skripal attack, it would be expelling 60 Russian diplomats, and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle. Then, on 6 April the US government brought in additional sanctions against 24 senior Russian figures involved in finance and politics who were suspected of having been engaged in ‘malign activity around the globe.’ These included Alexei Miller, CEO of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium tycoon, and Kiril Shamarov, Putin’s son-in-law.
On 19 March a meeting of 28 EU Foreign Ministers issued a statement which expressed ‘unqualified solidarity’ with the United Kingdom in response to the Salisbury attack. Subsequently on 26 March, the following EU countries, in co-ordination with the US, expelled a number of Russian diplomats: Belgium (1), Croatia (1), Czech Republic (3), Denmark (2), Estonia (1), Finland (1), France (4), Germany (4), Hungary (1), Ireland (1), Italy (2), Latvia (1 diplomat and 1 private citizens), Lithuania (3 diplomats, 21 individuals sanctioned, 23 banned from the country), Netherlands (2), Poland (4), Romania (1), Spain (2), Sweden (1).
Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, and Slovakia did not expel any diplomats, but did recall their ambassadors from Moscow.
Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia, and Slovakia took no national action against Russia. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s Prime Minister, stated that his government had not taken any action because Austria is a ‘neutral country’ and a ‘bridge-builder between east and west.’ Austria’s refusal to take part in the co-ordinated EU action should, however, be seen as the direct result of the influence now exerted by the pro-Russian Freedom Party within the administration.
Non-EU countries also expelled Russian diplomats: Albania (2), Australia (2), Canada (4), Macedonia (1), Moldova (1), Montenegro (1), Norway (1), and Ukraine (13). Seven diplomats were expelled from NATO’s Brussels Headquarters.
The Russians responded to the developing crisis with a tool-kit of methods which had been utilised previously in other such situations. These were:
Denial: Russia has consistently denied that it bears any responsibility for the attack in Salisbury. At the same time these vehement denials have been accompanied by a satirical sound track, via twitter, pro-Russia media, and even the United Nations, which suggests that their apparent outrage should not be taken too seriously. In the same way the Russian government denied any involvement events in Crimea up until the annexation had taken place and it was no longer deemed necessary to dissemble.
Retaliation: The Russian government has responded in kind to the expulsion of its diplomats. On 17 March it announced the expulsion of 23 UK diplomats, the closure of the UK Consulate in St Petersburg, and the shutting down of the British Council. Then, on 30 March the Russian Government took further action stating that UK diplomatic representation in Moscow would need to be reduced to the same number as that of the Russian diplomatic presence in London. On 29 March 60 US diplomats, 58 from the Moscow embassy and 2 from the Ekaterinburg consulate, were expelled from Russia. In addition the US St Petersburg consulate was closed. Diplomats were also expelled from all other countries who had taken part in the co-ordinated action against Russia. The Russian insistence that they had played no part in the Salisbury attack, however, meant that they could present themselves as the injured party simply responding to Western provocation.
Diversion: The Russian government not only sought to deny the veracity of the Salisbury attack, but to throw up multiple, diversionary, false narratives.
One of the most notable of these narratives was that the attack had been organised by the British security services in order to sown discord between Russia and the UK, and in that way divert attention from the UK Government’s problems with Brexit. The Russian government also made considerable efforts to drawing attention to apparent inconsistencies in the British version of events. They were most successful in this respect when highlighting the gap between Boris Johnson’s statement that the Porton Down laboratories could definitely trace the Novichok nerve agent back to Russia and Porton Down’s insistence that this was beyond their remit. The most bizarre example of the Russian authorities critiques of the British narrative was when Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, questioned why the British had provided no information on the fate of Sergei Skripal’s guinea pigs and cat during the course a Security Council debate. The use of false narratives in the Skripal vase bears a strong resemblance to the way that similar narratives were used following the destruction of MH17 in July 2014 in attempt to divert responsibility away from Russia.
The dimensions of the crisis that the Russian state has engendered may, ultimately, make it difficult for them to control it using these established methodologies. The more tactical effort that the Russian government puts into ‘winning’ this latest confrontation the further it will be from realising its strategic goal of some sort of normalisation of relations with the West, on terms which are beneficial to Russia.
Dangerous Days: Putin’s approach to domestic and international affairs has been characterised by the belief that with the right mechanisms and tools political situations can effectively be managed and controlled. In terms of the internal politics of Russia the 2018 presidential elections may be seen as a successful exercise in ‘managed democracy’ in that it yielded the result that Putin wanted. But, even within Russia Putin’s use of state power and the mechanisms of political technology have been too crude to deal effectively with the complex processes and growing discontents within the country. As a result the opposition, which Putin thought that he had marginalised, continues to push its way towards centre stage. Similarly Russia’s failure in Ukraine may, to a significant degree, be attributed to the failure of Putin, and the people around him, to appreciate the complexity and resilience of Ukrainian identity and the readiness of the population to resist hybrid warfare methods.
Russia’s intervention in Syria had the relatively simple objective of maintaining Bashar al Assad as a client ruler, but has engaged Russia in a regional conflict characterised by shifting alliances, competing political and military powers, and with no immediate way out.
Russia’s attempts to shape the Western political landscape, by overt and covert means, has enjoyed some success but has ultimately served to alienate Western Governments. The Skripal case in many ways exemplifies Russia’s capacity to take action against another country, but failure to understand what the consequences of that action will be.
It would of course be rational for Russia to follow a more positive course in relation to its own citizens and to other countries; they would have much to gain from co-operation as part of a rules based international system. Friendly critics of the regime, such as Alexei Kudrin, have, from time to time, pointed this out to Putin. However, Putin’s understanding of the world, and the nature of the power system he controls make it unlikely that there will be, at least in the short term, a change of course in Russian state policy. Putin will continue to pursue the dangerous policy of confrontation with the West even as that policy overstretches Russian resources, and produces diminishing political returns.