Last Wednesday’s (July 31) phone call from United States President Donald Trump probably offered little respite to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since the start of this year’s unusually cold summer, every promising opportunity in foreign affairs was spoiled for the Russian leader with some domestic disturbance. The glitzy St. Petersburg Economic Forum in early June was ruined by international indignation over the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov (who was released) and US investor Michael Calvey (who was not) (see EDM, June 10). The long-expected meeting with Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan in late June was overshadowed by the catastrophic flooding in the Irkutsk region (see EDM, June 18; Kommersant, July 9). The visit, in the Vatican, with Pope Francis in early July (Kremlin.ru, July 4) happened only a couple of days after the tragic accident involving the secret nuclear mini-submarine AS-31 in the Barents Sea (see EDM, July 8, 11). The grandiose naval parade at the end of July made almost no headlines, with media attention captured instead by the severe suppression of street protests in Moscow (see EDM, July 29).
Putin would likely have loved to discuss with Trump the big issues of strategic stability and arms control; but his US counterpart demurred, and the badly damaged Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty duly expired last Friday (Kommersant, August 3). Trump also did not mention the new sanctions he signed into an executive order a day earlier, which sent tremors through the Russian stock exchange (Forbes.ru, August 2). The US President instead wanted to talk about the forest fires raging in Siberia, and Putin had to swallow much irritation before diplomatically declining his offer of help (Rosbalt, August 1).
The Kremlin had preferred to ignore this man-made (rather than natural) disaster up until that unsatisfactory conversation, when Putin was forced to assert that all necessary measures for exterminating the fires were being taken (Newsru.com, August 1). The army was dispatched to the most visible (from the media point of view) fire-fronts, but the vast majority of wildfires rage in the most remote areas, observable only from satellites (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 1). The experts argue about the scope of the scorched earth, but one important fact of Russia’s political life is that a conscious choice was made by many regional authorities not to fight fires that did not directly threaten main urban centers, even if Krasnoyarsk suffered from heavy smoke for weeks (Novaya Gazeta, August 2). That decision was justified by elementary cost-efficiency assessments (Moscow Echo, August 1). Most of the fires were, indeed, sparked by human activity, as they are convenient for eliminating the evidence of widespread illegal logging in the Siberian taiga for export to the insatiable Chinese market (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 29).
The worldwide resonance of this ecological disaster is of little concern for the Kremlin, but the possibility of interplay between the public anger in many Siberian cities and the street protests in Moscow is a serious worry. The strength of the disallowed rally on July 27 took the authorities by surprise, and the brutal application of police power was supposed to deter further protests (Carnegie.ru, July 28). But an even greater police force had to be organized to meet the follow-up rally this past Saturday. Eight hundred demonstrators were arrested, but the opposition refuses to be cowed. Meanwhile, Putin’s court is afraid to show any sign of weakness (Moscow Echo, August 4). The corrupt courtiers lack confidence in the “guardians”: though some special riot police units look intimidating, many other urgently mobilized police officers complain about the paltry financial rewards for their challenging work (Znak.com, August 1).
Trump refrained from any mention of this crisis in his conversation with Putin; but the German, French and British governments, the European Union, and even some United Nations bodies have condemned the excessive use of force against peaceful manifestations in Moscow (RBC, July 30). Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs duly rejected these “expressions of concern” but could not produce any evidence of supposed Western incitement or sponsorship of the opposition (RIA Novosti, August 1).
In the Kremlin’s view, Western interference in the form of “color revolutions” must be deterred using convincing demonstrations of military might (New Times, July 28). One attempt at such deterrence is the Ocean Shield 2019 exercise in the Baltic theater, which involves most of the ships gathered in St. Petersburg for the recent naval parade (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 1). Another strong warning was supposed to be sent by the first-ever joint patrol by Russian and Chinese strategic bombers; but that impression was spoiled by the aggressive intercept executed by the South Korean air force after a minor violation of its airspace (see EDM, Carnegie.ru, July 25).
The breakdown of the INF Treaty provides an alarming context for such military shows and also opens new opportunities for Russia to put nuclear pressure on the impressionable Europeans (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, August 2). Putin has developed a habit and even a passion for describing new hypersonic missiles and other high-tech weapons systems, and this boasting is not entirely innocent (Izvestia, July 27). Russia has invested a lot of resources into the modernization of its nuclear arsenal, and Putin needs to find a way to harvest political dividends from these ventures, particularly since the stagnant economy makes it difficult to sustain this wasteful funding. However, public support for prioritizing the defense expenditures tends to evaporate following revelations that 90 percent of the wildfires in Siberia were not contained due to lack of money and capabilities (Novaya Gazeta, August 2).
Putin used to enjoy good rapport with ordinary Russians, but presently he can barely hide his irritation with their pesky problems. The feeling is mutual, and 43 percent of Russians now accept his leadership only because they see no alternative (Levada.ru, July 30). In fact, there was never a shortage of alternatives; and 20 years ago, Putin himself seemed a rather improbable successor to the unpopular President Boris Yeltsin. August is often seen as a troublesome month in Russia; but this year it is July that may be remembered as the month when the power-holders abandoned all pretenses at democratic legitimacy and proved that their claim to authority was based on crude force. That force was sufficient to disperse some 25,000 Muscovites, but the blatant injustice is certain to double and triple this crowd by the time of local elections in September. And the outrage in many fire-affected Siberian regions could prompt ten times as many people to actively protest. Putin’s support base is going up in smoke.