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In what direction will Putin guide Russia?

By Dale R. Herspring

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is approaching a critical point.  He faces an increasingly restive populace. People no longer appear afraid of either the government or of Putin.  Second, if comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Moscow supplying Syrian with attack helicopters turns is true, Putin would be closing the door on U.S.-Russian relation regardless of who the U.S. president is in November. Neither situation bodes well for the Russian people’s future — or our mutual future

Consider the “democratic” experiment Putin claims to be leading in Russia.  It is common knowledge that Russia’s presidential election was rigged. Despite the government’s insistence that the election was “fair and valid,” few people in Russia or the West accept that assertion. The most surprising aspect of the election and the ensuing period is that the Russian people are no longer afraid of Putin. That doesn’t mean they cannot again become afraid of him. But it does mean that they will not just go away.

Recognizing the danger that crowds can pose, Putin has taken steps to regain control of the situation. First, he tried to reason with his opponents. The burden was on them to accept him as Russia’s legitimate leader, and then he would listen to them. Ideas he found acceptable would be adopted.  However, if he did not agree with they protesters, they would have to accept his decision. This clearly is a different kind of democracy (or demokratizya, as Russians call it) than we in the West expect. When he first seized power in 2000, Putin argued that a more authoritarian form of government was necessary to rebuild the country’s economy as well as its social, political and military structure. Russians agreed; support for him was at an unbelievable rate of 72 percent his first term as president as well as his term as prime minister.

However, playing musical chairs with Dmitrii Medvedev — the former president and now prime minister — did not go over well with the populace. To the average Russian, it was no longer about rebuilding the country, it was about Putin’s determination to retain power. That was the impetus for the demonstrations. “Putin is a thief,” “Russia without Putin”  and “Time for Putin to retire” are only some of the placards one sees in Moscow now.

To maintain a semblance of order, Putin pushed a new law through the Duma several weeks ago.  The law sharply increased penalties for protest violations. If, for example, police declare that a protest exceeds 50,000 people or if people stay at the protest site past 6 p.m. — or commit other violations — organizers will be fined up to $9,000 apiece.  Not only is that a huge increase from the $60 fine levied in the past, but it exceeds the average Russian’s annual income of $8,500.00.

In addition to the new law, police sent a summonses to the leaders for one hour before the demonstration were to begin.  Then individuals descended on many leaders’ apartments, rifling through personal belongings and leaving the apartments a shambles. As more than one Russian has pointed out, this heavy-handed approach is the protesters’ best recruiting tool. Putin’s thugs are creating martyrs. 

At a Russian Day event June 12, Putin did not sound forgiving. At one point, he said, “Anything that weakens the nation and divides our society is unacceptable for us. We cannot tolerate any decisions or act-ions that may result in social or economic upheavals.”      So what does this mean for our relations with the Kremlin? Assuming Putin remains an authoritarian leader and yet avoids the heavy-handed tactics of the past, the nature of his international behavior would be more important than our view of how he treats his own people.

There will be instances in which we find it hard to work with him — such as on Syria and on missile defense. The Rus-sians are doing things we disapprove of, and I suspect the two-hour meeting between Putin and President Obama at the summit last week in Mexico City did little to improve things. At least the two leaders are talking. One of the things most American commentators fail to acknowledge is Russia’s assistance to our forces in Afghanistan. Hundreds of tons of goods are shipped across Russia for our troops. With the Pakistanis having closed the border, Moscow’s help has been invaluable.

What bothers me the most, having watched Putin for many years, is that he may have convinced himself that it doesn’t matter who wins in U.S. election in November. That assumption could contribute to a rocky relationship in the future.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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