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Russia confronts uncertain path

Putin deflects economy’s woes, retains support

A portrait of  President Vladimir Putin was on prominent display Friday at a local cafe in Dombai, in southern Russia.
A portrait of President Vladimir Putin was on prominent display Friday at a local cafe in Dombai, in southern Russia. Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters

MOSCOW — A year ago, most Ukrainians didn’t want to join NATO. US tanks weren’t doing training exercises near the Russian border. And a dollar bought 33 rubles.

But after the most tumultuous stretch of President Vladimir Putin’s 15 years in power, Russia is facing a new reality.

Ukraine — the part not held by rebels — has turned firmly toward Europe. NATO troops are on alert in the Baltics, near the Russian frontier. And the ruble has lost nearly half its value against the dollar, wiping away years of gains for Russia’s middle class.

Putin has also won major victories, foremost among them the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, an achievement he said would be inscribed in the annals of Russian history alongside the exploits of Catherine the Great.

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A frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine gives him leverage over the rest of that country. And his approval ratings are at record highs, a measure of how skillfully he has convinced people that he is confronting a West determined to declaw the Russian bear.

Many of the developments of the past year run counter to Putin’s most important strategic goals, including furthering the prosperity that was crucial to consolidating power in his first years in office. Russia enters the new year on unsteady footing, as falling oil prices and tough Western sanctions threaten to cripple its economy.

But in a swaggering year-end news conference last month, Putin showed little sign of distress. The West would have found another way to attack Russia, even without Crimea, he said. He promised the economy would be better than ever in two years. Divorced in 2013, he even announced he had found love.

RELATED: Putin calls Crimea annexation historic

Despite the Russian leader’s assurances that prosperity is around the corner, Kremlin advisers, diplomats, and analysts say that no stability is in sight.

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‘‘This is not the price we have to pay for Crimea,’’ Putin said last week. ‘‘This is actually the price we have to pay for our natural aspiration to preserve ourselves as a nation, as a civilization, as a state.’’

It is a steep price. One of Putin’s primary goals has been to fend off NATO, the Western defense alliance that many Russians see as a threat to their security. NATO’s 2004 expansion to the Baltic states — and thus to Russia’s borders — is a major thorn in Putin’s side.

Kremlin advisers say he was convinced that Ukraine was the next target. That would have threatened the Crimea base used by Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

In reality, Western diplomats say, NATO membership for Ukraine was never on the table, particularly because a majority of Ukrainians opposed it. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March wound up reinvigorating the alliance.

Since the Crimea annexation, the number of NATO fighter jets patrolling the Baltic skies has tripled, and the jets have frequently intercepted their Russian counterparts. US tanks are now training in Latvia, where in November they paraded through the streets of Riga as part of independence day celebrations.

And in Ukraine, a slim majority of citizens now favors joining NATO, according to opinion polls. Before the annexation, support for NATO ranged between 20 and 25 percent.

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Germany, too, has turned against Russia, despite the sizable trade between the two nations. German public opinion had been sympathetic to Russia, even after the Crimean annexation.

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That changed after a passenger jet was downed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July. Meanwhile, European Union sanctions have grown increasingly tough.

In recent months, Russia’s souring economy has become even more troubled. Oil has shed value, and the ruble has plummeted. With Western sanctions choking off the flow of dollars, the worst pain could be yet to come.

The central bank is now forecasting a contraction this year of up to 4.8 percent, and independent economists expect even worse.

But Putin shrugged off the difficulties, and for now, so have most of his citizens.

In January, 65 percent of Russians held positive views of Putin. By March, that number stood at 80 percent, according to the independent Levada Center. Putin’s ratings have stayed high — in part because Russians have rallied around the president in response to the imposition of Western sanctions.

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