The World

Putin’s Week: Victory Abroad, Setback at Home

Russias President Vladimir Putin waits at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. 

Photo by ALEXEY KUDENKO/AFP/Getty Images

You didn’t think Vladimir Putin would make it that easy, did you?

With the U.S. seemingly backing down from its Kremlin-opposed plan to launch airstrikes against Syria and John Kerry heading to Geneva for talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, Putin evidently felt comfortable enough to spike the football with an op-ed in the New York Times today. Most of the piece is a retread of Russia’s arguments against military intervention and skepticism of U.S. chemical weapons claims, but the kicker comes near the end when the president takes a shot at the concept of American exceptionalism:

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

The op-ed may have upset the digestive tracts of some U.S. politicians, but the White House dismissed it as “irrelevant” and praised Putin’s chemical weapons proposal as the “best possible reaction.”

At the very least, Putin’s op-ed was the statement of a leader feeling pretty confident about his role in the crisis. In an article accompanying the op-ed, the Times’s Steven Lee Myers writes that “Mr. Putin has eclipsed Mr. Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis” and quotes analyst Ian Bremmer saying, “Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday.”

From an international perspective, it’s hard to disagree. But back home, things aren’t looking quite so great for him. In fact, it hasn’t gotten much attention thanks to Syria, but Putin is actually coming off a major political setback this week.

On Monday, the anti-corruption blogger turned opposition leader Aelexei Navalny put in a surprisingly strong showing in Moscow’s mayoral election, taking 27 percent of the vote and nearly forcing a run-off with the Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.  

That might not sound like a huge deal, but consider the fact that just two months ago, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on what were widely seen as trumped-up embezzlement charges then abruptly released from custody pending appeal after massive street protests against his imprisonment. Navalny’s showing in the elections, which exceeded pre-election polls and came despite Sobyanin’s heavy support from state-controlled media, would seem to make it far less likely that he’ll be thrown back in jail any time soon. Given his past flirtations with ethnic nationalism, Navalny might make some foreign observers a bit uneasy, but for once, the long-marginalized Russian opposition appears to have a real leader with political savvy and populist appeal. As RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore put it, “Navalny is playing for keeps. He has his eye on a prize bigger than the Moscow mayor’s office. And believe it or not, he’s winning.”

Putin’s United Russia party suffered another setback this week in Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg, where the opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman defeated United Russia’s candidate for mayor. Roizman, an ally of billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov who ran a controversial and probably illegal anti-drug campaign and has been accused of links to organized crime, will likely have little actual power as mayor, but the result still a rebuke to United Russia and makes him Russia’s highest-ranking opposition politician.

More worrying for the Kremlin than these gains by the opposition may the economic news. Russia’s economy grew by its slowest pace since 2009 in the second quarter and may be entering its second recession in five years. The country’s 2013 growth forecast was recently cut from 2.4 percent to 1.8 percent.   

This isn’t to say that the political system Putin has built is about to fall. He’s survived bigger crises than this and despite this week’s gains, the country isn’t anywhere close to its own “Arab Spring” or “Color Revolution.” He’ll be around for a while. But Putin’s impressive performance on the world stage this week shouldn’t obscure the fact that he looks less in control at home than he has in a long time.