June 23, 2017 / 7:03 AM / 3 months ago

Commentary: The dangers of putting Putin under pressure

Russia's Progress Party leader Alexei Navalny arrives for a hearing at Moscow's Tverskoi court, March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

How will Vladimir Putin respond to the growing challenges against him? The Russian president, who turns 65 in October, might presently look unassailable - but maintaining that grip will get harder every year.

Compared to British Prime Minister Theresa May or U.S. President Donald Trump, the Russian president faces scant internal opposition. Recent anti-corruption protests, however, provided him a reminder that no leader can remain in power forever.

Putin will almost certainly win the March presidential elections. His poll ratings remain high, and Russians have little appetite for the chaos that his fall might bring.

But that doesn’t mean there are no rivals waiting for him to stumble.

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Most obvious for now is opposition Progress Party leader Alexei Navalny, whose success in getting thousands of demonstrators out on the streets concerns Putin and those around him. Russian officials have tried to slow Navalny down by bringing multiple legal challenges against his right to run for president; he was sentenced to a 30-day jail term after being arrested ahead of this month’s protests.

If history is any guide, Navalny’s path to any place on a presidential ballot could get even tougher. The anti-corruption activist lost much of his eyesight after unknown assailants threw a caustic liquid in his face earlier this year. He must be painfully aware that many Putin critics have died in suspicious circumstances in recent years. Others have ended up in jail or exile.

For now, the 41-year-old Navalny might prefer to wait. Putin has no natural heir and even if he clings to office in the manner of Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, the Russian leader’s power will wane with age.

Mugabe has survived in part because few have been willing to risk a confrontation when they felt they could let nature take its course. He has struck deals with senior supporters and opposition leaders, all of whom have been positioning themselves for years to move fast once he is gone.

It’s an example increasingly discussed amongst Russians and Russia-watchers. Such a long-term strategy could work for Navalny. That could also be the plan of 51-year-old Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who held the presidency while Putin sat it out under Russia’s term-limit laws to re-qualify for another presidential run.

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Once regarded purely as a powerless Putin protégé, Medvedev is now seen as having his own powerbase amongst modernizers and moderates. Many of those around Putin may owe their power and wealth to him, but few are simply slavish acolytes. They all have their agendas - and those who are younger will need to survive after the Russian leader has gone.

Riot police detain demonstrators during an anti-corruption protest in central Moscow, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Even without an immediate threat, Putin must be feeling the pressure. And history shows that a Putin under pressure is more likely to be ruthless about striking out at real and imagined enemies both at home and abroad.

That danger might be aggravated by the unpredictability of the Trump administration and the growing number of situations where U.S. and allied forces are in increasingly close proximity to those of Russia. Monday’s shooting down of a Syrian jet by the U.S. Navy, for example, has further ratcheted up tensions between Moscow and Washington. A close aerial confrontation between Russian and U.S. aircraft over the Baltic on Monday is widely suspected to have been a response to Washington’s actions over Syria.

For now, most Russia watchers believe Putin’s priority has been to reassert Russia as a geopolitical heavyweight that can pitch itself in the same league as countries like the U.S. and China. Ultimately, though, he is likely to put maintaining domestic power ahead of international stature.

Until the uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” which Moscow blamed heavily - although not exclusively - on the Obama administration, Putin and the wider Russian establishment appeared mostly happy to work within the Western-built, globalized and largely democratic world. Certainly, they took advantage of its trade and banking opportunities to enrich themselves and boost Russia’s state coffers with energy sales and business deals.

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Now Moscow has shifted focus to destabilizing and delegitimizing the institutions of the United States and Europe. U.S. and European sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea may have accelerated this trend - although most analysts believe Putin and those around him still want to maintain at least some access to Western financial systems.

Moscow’s alleged interference in elections in the U.S., France and elsewhere are clearly part of this destabilizing trend. So is the Russian intervention in Syria, designed not just to prop up Bashar al-Assad but show the rest of the world - including Russians - of the dangers when people rise against authority.

If Putin feels threatened at home, he might also be tempted to pick more fights outside of Russia’s borders.

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There is no shortage of places that could happen. Western countries worry about direct military or covert action against the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, formerly part of the Soviet Union but now members of NATO. Countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which lean West but lack NATO membership, may be even more vulnerable.

This year has already seen posturing by Russia and NATO in the Baltic, with more large military exercises planned by both for this year. Some Western officials suspect Moscow may choose to leave troops in its ally Belarus after its large “Zapad” drills in September. That would essentially leave the country under Russian military domination, the Baltic states more encircled and the rest of Europe deeply unsettled.

(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve, the UK Labour Party and a Future of War fellow at New America. @pete_apps)

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The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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