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Putin's foreign policy has hurt his home base

Officials and intellectuals supporting the current government are still confident, and defend President Vladimir Putin's 'strongman' politics.

By Amir Taheri

Published: Sun 8 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 8 Sep 2019, 10:28 PM

In Russia, August is often regarded as the uncertain season closing the short summer and opening the path to the long duet of autumn and winter. It was, therefore, no surprise in a recent visit to Moscow to see that sense of uncertainty reflected in the political mood of the Russian elites.
Officials and intellectuals supporting the current government are still confident, and defend President Vladimir Putin's 'strongman' politics. Nevertheless, conversations regarding the political situation in Russia reveal three sources of uncertainty.
The first is the concern over who will lead the country after Putin's current presidential term concludes in four years. The second concern is around the legacy of some of Putin's trademark "successes" especially in the field of foreign policy. Putin seems to have gotten away with annexing not only the Crimean Peninsula but also South Ossetia and Abkhazia, chunks of Georgian territory captured in 2008. He has also managed to prevent Kosovo, the latest Muslim-majority nation to gain independence, from becoming a member of the United Nations. Putin has also succeeded in establishing Russia as the key player in war-torn Syria by marginalising not only Iran but also Turkey and the United States. The question now is how durable, and profitable, such successes are?
The initial glow of victory is fading fast. Counting infrastructure costs, including a new bridge, Crimea is costing Russia around $18 billion a year. Russia has been attempting to save Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's shaky regime but the return on investment for this venture may appear meager.
Putin is also admired for his success in persuading the clerics of Tehran to sign a convention that turns the Caspian Sea into a backyard under Russian hegemony. But even this "Caspian victory" may not prove durable.
The third cause of anxiety in Moscow is related to the lethargic performance of the Russian economy. After declining between 2012 and 2016, the number of households in poverty has risen to around 18 per cent, a three-point increase since 2010. Worse still, according to the latest World Bank report, Russian economy has almost ceased creating new jobs. Sanctions imposed by Western powers are also beginning to bite, reducing Russian access to global capital markets at a time massive investment is needed to keep the vital energy industry, the nation's main source of foreign income going.
The impression one gets in Moscow these days is that reality may have started to bite at the edges of the hubris nurtured by Putin's opportunistic tactics and the weakness of Western, especially European response. In Moscow's political circles, talk of a review of foreign policy is no longer taboo.
And, that provides an opportunity for Western powers to revisit their Russia policies in the hope of bringing Putin's rogue state back into the fold. However, visiting Moscow these days one gets the feeling that Russia may be getting ready to switch from one old proverb "better do and regret!' to another old proverb "do nothing you might regret!"
-Asharq Al-Awsat
Amir Taheri has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

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