MOSCOW — In a New Year’s address that came off like a victory lap, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked his country Sunday in the wake of a wildly successful 2016 that saw the Kremlin leader shore up Russia’s standing abroad and acquire a host of powerful geopolitical friends.
Putin heads into 2017 on a strong note, having brokered a cease-fire in Syria that sidelined the United States and having won the praise of President-elect Donald Trump by declining to retaliate in response to the Obama administration’s decision to punish Moscow over its alleged interference in the U.S. election.
“We are working, and working successfully, and we are achieving much,” Putin said in the nationally broadcast address. “I would like to thank you for the victories and achievements, for your understanding and trust, and for your true, sincere care for Russia.”
Putin is as popular as ever at home, and his stature abroad has been bolstered by Russia’s leading role in the Syrian peace process, the rise in countries in the Western alliance of nationalists who favor better ties with Moscow, and the impression that the Kremlin can tip elections with its hackers, trolls and political spin machines.
Even at the height of the Soviet Union’s power, the notion that Moscow could intervene in a U.S. presidential election to try to influence the outcome was something reserved for Cold War fantasy; now, the CIA says it just happened. It might be tempting to look at the list of victories in Putin’s ledger over the past 12 months and assume that nothing can stop the Kremlin.
But Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the Cold War, and Moscow is not looking for world domination. Putin’s goal is limited to reducing U.S. influence while ensuring Russia’s vital interest, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy and a global reach that pales in comparison to that of the United States.
He can’t act anywhere he wants, he can’t do it alone, and a lot still depends on whether and how far President-elect Donald Trump decides to go along with him.
For the moment, Trump is coming off as a closer friend to the erstwhile Russian adversary than the political establishment he is about to head up in Washington, as evidenced by the tweet of approval the president-elect sent over the way Putin handled the Obama administration’s sanctions.
“Putin is trying to articulate new rules for the world with a little help from Western troublemakers,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But economically Russia is still very weak, and politically, it is fragile.”
Indeed, Russia is a poorer country than it was three years ago, when Putin took on the West in the conflict in Ukraine. According to figures published in the Moscow Times, Russia’s gross domestic product reached a peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 and has since declined to $1.3 trillion, lower than Italy, Brazil, and Canada, while the per capita gross domestic product is below $9,000, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country remains dependent on the export of natural resources; structural reform of the economy and privatization of state industry has stalled.
The percentage of Russians who had any savings fell from 72 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016, according to a year-end analysis published on gazeta.ru. For the first time in seven years, Russians are spending more than half their money on groceries.
“Putin has one Russia, many Russians have another. The two don’t really intersect much,” observed Alexei Gusarov, who hosts a talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Why does this matter?
Because all of Russia’s power moves, at the moment, depend entirely on Putin, because the Russian president has so effectively consolidated power.
“In Russia, only one individual decides what is in Russia’s national interest and what is not. There is no institutional or public input to take into account,” commented Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based political analyst.
Putin’s decision-making kept his popularity rating in the 80s for months on end, according to the Levada Center. But just over 50 percent of Russians think the country is headed in the right direction. Putin looks poised to win reelection in 2018, should he decide to run, but it remains to be seen whether increased economic pain will erode that certainty.
Meanwhile, Putin’s ship of state sails on, and much like that undersize, smoke-belching aircraft carrier that changed the balance of power in Syria, its success depends on other countries letting it be successful.
Putin has succeeded because he only picks fights with the United States when Russian vital interests are stake and Russia has a reasonable chance of prevailing, said Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Saradzhyan argues that the primary consideration here is whether the United States is willing to commit its full might: In Ukraine, U.S. vital interests were not at stake, and ultimately, he said, the Obama administration decided they were not in Syria, either.
“Soviet leaders sought to counter the United States everywhere and anywhere,” Saradzhyan said. “Putin has a much more limited outlook shaped by capacities of his country’s economy, demographics and other components of national might.”
Putin said as much at his nationally broadcast annual news conference, when he responded to Trump’s call to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal by saying that Russia’s upgrades were intended to overcome any aggressor but not to enter into an arms race “that we cannot afford.”
Not long ago, Russian defense officials floated the idea of restoring Soviet-era bases in Cuba and Vietnam to go along with the newly acquired foothold in Syria. That went nowhere fast.
Even as Putin steams into 2017 at the height of his power, the question is what happens to Russia’s standing the moment Trump takes control of the world’s most powerful nation. While Moscow is likely to continue to push to expand its influence where it can at the expense of the United States, co-opting the new administration — for example, in the fight against terrorism — wherever it is feasible, Putin is unlikely to act in a way that openly challenges the new U.S. president.
“I think Moscow’s expectation of Trump is that he would hit back hard enough to hurt Russia and thus it is better not to goad him unnecessarily,” Frolov said.