There are those who see Russia as a remnant of the old Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin is not one of them. He sees the Russian Federation as a new modern nation – at least that is what he wants to see. In that regard, for him the nation is vital and strong.
The trouble is that the national GDP of Russia is not equal to the level of its political importance. Their economy is improving, but it is still not up to the size of Italy’s GDP. The reality is that there are those in his regime who believe Putin is not tough enough in his dealings with the West generally and the U.S. in particular. Many of Putin’s military and intelligence ranking officers unfortunately share this opinion. The problem for these hardliners is that there is no one to replace him!
What are the issues that make his Russian detractors believe Putin has lost his once vaunted toughness? Oddly, the answer begins with one that also vexes many Americans – Putin’s reported “close friendship” with Donald Trump. The perception is that this relationship is contrary to Russian strategic interests. As confusing as this may seem, a “too close” relationship between Putin and his American counterpart is believed to be “dangerous.” This viewpoint is not limited to the higher political ranks. Finding left wing American views consistent with right wing Russian views is interesting, to say the least.
In Russian circles, the lack of any military response to the American air (and missile?) attack on Russian “contract” soldiers at Deir al-Zour, the oil-producing eastern region of Syria, was very problematic. The approximately 200 “contract” workers killed and an unknown number injured were former Russian military personnel, recruited under civilian contracts. What hasn’t been exposed is how this “defeat” seriously impacted the Russian Defense Ministry and its ranking officers. Apparently, Putin intervened so as not to admit there were any Russian combat troops of any character serving in Syria other than technical advisors and some security personnel.
It had been a well-known “secret” that both Iranian and Russian military assets were in Syria, however this did not mitigate the issue of non-response to the American attack that resulted in such a severe loss of Russian life. Many in Moscow felt it was all because of Putin’s desire to “play games” with the new U.S. president. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was unusually silent about the loss of Russian lives.
To make matters worse, there has been strong, behind-the-scenes reaction to Putin due to the botched GRU (GU) mission to poison Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK. Given all of this, the once revered Russian leader has been under great pressure to “man up” in his dealings with the United States. Putin has responded by taking direct charge of approvals for major intel plans as well as military plans and action. Additionally, he took a principal role in public announcing the recent, successful test flight of a new hypersonic offensive missile system.
Added to this is the massive threatening movement of hundreds of Russian tanks and thousands of combat troops to the border with Ukraine. Additionally, Russian has been blocking Ukrainian vessels attempting to pass through the Kerch Straits leading to the Azov Sea,which borders both countries. Putin pulled out all the stops to be seen as forceful and in-control. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, purportedly about U.S. citizen Paul Whelan’s arrest by Russian counterintelligence. In point of fact, the meeting was, primarily, to clarify the exact meaning of Russia’s (and Putin’s) new “get tough” policy.
The situation in Venezuela is ready-made for Putin to pretend to his right-wing opposition that he still is a “tough guy.” In joining with China in standing up for their long-time “socialist” ally, in spite ofMaduro’s obvious personal venality and dictatorial absurdities, Putin believes he has shown he can defy America and its hemispheric strategy. It may seem illogical to pro-democracy Western observers, but it seems to work well in the Kremlin.
The problem now exists regarding the next steps Vladimir Putin will take as part of his program gaining recognition as the first and last word in Russian leadership. Putin is in a difficult position in relation to U.S. talks with North Korea. On the one hand, Moscow would benefit from a lessening of tension on the Korean peninsula and the diminishment or removal of the threat of a nuclear conflict – always a consideration when dealing with volatile and unpredictable Pyongyang. On the other hand, Putin must deal with the possibility of the U.S. improving relations to the point of actually creating a friendship with Kim Jong-un’s government. Despite the seeming improbability of such a circumstance, it must be considered by Moscow.
From the standpoint of Russia’s “conservative” politicians (i.e. the military/industrial complex and Communist Party stalwarts) there is no obvious challenger to Vladimir Putin. They know it and he knows it. Right now there appears to be no one who is considered serious and acceptable for the post of President of the Russian Federation. While he doesn’t want to think about it, Vladimir Putin cannot avoid considering the reality of setting the scene for someone to follow in his footsteps – always important for the type of dynamic leader he has been.
It’s a long way for the son of a Leningrad metal worker to have come. While Vladimir Putin clearly has no thought of retiring, he is too smart a person to ignore the desire to see his eventual legacy well carried on.