The Slatest

Vladimir Putin Is Not an All-Powerful Mastermind. Donald Trump Is Proof.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 19.

Protesters gathered in dozens of cities across Russia over the weekend—some in minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures in Yakutsk—to echo opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to boycott the presidential election in March. Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the march in Moscow. While the turnout in major cities was smaller than in other recent demonstrations, the marches were a sign that the anti-Putin opposition has national reach. What they were not is any sort of threat to Putin’s inevitable re-election in March.

The president is running against a comically weak field including the ultranationalist and perennial also-ran Vladimir Zhirinovsky; Pavel Grudinin, a wealthy agribusiness entrepreneur running on the Communist ticket (how times have changed for the vanguard of the proletarian); and the reality star and journalist Ksenia Sobchak. None of them has a hope of beating Putin or are even really trying to. Navalny, the genuine opposition leader with the highest profile, has been barred from running. Putin, as usual, has not deigned to debate any of his rivals. The jokes that a recent shirtless dip in an icy pool for a religious ritual constituted the full extent of his campaign weren’t much of an exaggeration.

This setup guarantees Putin’s victory but also raises expectations: Anything short of a landslide will be seen as a disappointment. Top officials have been talking about “70 at 70” as a goal for vote share and turnout, and it’s likely they’re going to fall short with many Russians feeling understandably apathetic about the election.

Does this matter? Well, not this year. But speculation is already starting about what will happen when the next Putin term ends in 2024, and he will be—theoretically, at least—barred from running again.

Putin is much more popular than the government he leads, and his popularity has a lot more to do with his own charisma and perceived competence than satisfaction with conditions in general. (Polls show that while Russians approve of the job he’s doing, they don’t believe he’s fully aware of the situation in the country.) Not coincidentally, Putin is running in this race as an independent, not as a member of the ruling United Russia party, which is also far less popular than he is. Sooner or later, Russia’s rulers will have to persuade the public to vote for someone other than Putin. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who occupied the office on Putin’s behalf for four years—the last time term limits were an issue—has an approval rating of just 44 percent. The officials around Putin are getting notably older, and United Russia’s leadership is badly in need of some fresh faces.

Changing the constitution to keep Putin in power longer wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be politically risky, even in Russia. And even Putin will get too old for office eventually.

While a recent uptick in global oil markets couldn’t have come at a better time for the Russian government, economic problems remain deep and structural, particularly in rural areas, and international sanctions aren’t helping. During Putin’s current term, voters have mostly given him a pass on the economy, thanks in large part to strong support for his actions on the world stage, including the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria. Western observers, including President Barack Obama, who confidently predicted that support for Putin would collapse under international isolation, were proved wrong. Russians wanted their country to be a major player on the world stage and were willing to take an economic hit to make it happen.

But that only works if the international victories continue, and they’ve been in short supply lately. The conflict in Ukraine has settled into a frustrating stalemate. Pro-European leaders have mostly held back the tide of pro-Russian populists in recent elections in Western Europe. The intervention in Syria is, predictably, turning into a headache: The Syrian opposition is boycotting peace talks hosted by Russia in Sochi this week. Two of the key players Russia wants to work with to forge a postwar settlement—the Syrian Kurds and Turkey—are in open warfare with each other. A recent mysterious drone swarm attack on a Russian base in Syria highlighted the risks of the continued military mission there.

But the main evidence that Putin is not an all-powerful mastermind having his way on the world stage may be the presidency of Donald Trump. While we’re still learning about the extent to which Russian meddling aided Trump’s election—the Kremlin denies it plays any role—his victory over Hillary Clinton was seen as beneficial to Russian interests. But while Trump has clearly wanted to have a good relationship with Putin, the politics surrounding the ongoing investigation into the election have made that more or less impossible. The hated sanctions have not been lifted, despite Trump’s reported desire to do so, and the diplomatic compounds seized in the waning days of the Obama administration have not been returned. Additional Russian officials, including Chechen strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, have been hit with new human rights sanctions. The Trump administration has accused Russia of helping Syria carry out chemical weapons attacks and helping North Korea evade sanctions. And it has taken a step the Obama administration was wary of: providing lethal aid to the government of Ukraine. It’s hard to believe a Clinton administration would have been much more anti-Russia than this.

Of course, it may still be to Putin’s benefit for the U.S. to be engulfed in political chaos and losing popularity worldwide at a precipitous rate. But Russia isn’t exactly racking up easy wins like it used to, and sooner or later the country’s leaders might have to answer for it.