Russian President Vladimir Putin took a page out of George W. Bush’s “Mission accomplished” playbook on Monday when he staged a surprise visit to Syria and told Russian servicemen they’d soon be “going home victorious.”
But the news was met skeptically by the Pentagon, which pointed out Russian troops have remained through previously announced drawdowns, and by independent political analysts, who said the whole affair appeared to be about something else entirely: Putin is running for president again.
Putin’s trip to Syria, coming just days after he announced his bid for a fourth term, was the first leg of a carefully calculated presidential campaign designed to remind Russians just how much he’s raised the country’s profile abroad at a time when he’s got a lot less to brag about at home, close analysts of Russian affairs said.
[pullquote pullquote-size="large-quote"]“There’s a lot of paranoia in the Kremlin that what happened in Kiev could happen in Moscow.”[/pullquote]
Though Putin’s reelection in March is taken for granted by even his most bitter rivals, simply winning isn’t enough, analysts said. And with only limp economic growth after a painful recession and the number of Russians living in poverty reaching its highest in a decade in 2016, Putin needs to prove to Russia and the world he’s got more than just inevitability behind him.
The Russian leader wants a clean win with strong voter turnout and to cement his power with a victory seen as genuine, analysts said.
“That veneer of legitimacy is incredibly important,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
As Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Putin is all too aware that flagrantly fraudulent elections can result in regime-toppling mass demonstrations, as seen recently in former Soviet countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.
“There’s a lot of paranoia in the Kremlin that what happened in Kiev could happen in Moscow,” said Olga Oliker, of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Putin has long rallied support by painting himself as Russia’s defender against nefarious global forces seeking to keep Russia down by any means possible, from economic sanctions to Russia’s banishment from the 2018 Olympic Games.
It’s a theme he’s been perfecting for years.
“The message of Russia standing up to Western aggression is one that seems to resonate,” Oliker told VICE News. “There’s a rally-round-the-flag effect.”
As if on cue, Putin announced his bid for a fourth term as president last week just hours after Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The International Olympic Committee said it was punishing Russia for running a massive state-sponsored doping program.
[pullquote pullquote-size="large-quote"]“Putin’s primary role is to be the protector of Russia from foreign conspiracies, from foreign pressure, from attempts to isolate the country, and from any attempt to instigate regime change.”[/pullquote]
But Putin dismissed the IOC’s allegation that his government had overseen a “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules,” transforming the “entirely orchestrated and politically motivated” ruling into an us vs. them treatise.
Hours later, Putin hit the stage in front of cheering autoworkers in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod to formally announce his fourth presidential campaign, taking the opportunity to swipe at the Olympic committee. “Russia will only go forward, only in this direction, and no one will ever stop us,” he said.
The re-election announcement was a direct “answer to the IOC,” said Irina Rodnina, member of the Russian Parliament and three-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating.
“Putin’s primary role is to be the protector of Russia from foreign conspiracies, from foreign pressure, from attempts to isolate the country, and from any attempt to instigate regime change,” said Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But now, people want to see domestic achievements as impressive as what Russia’s done abroad with weapons and diplomacy.”
In that sense, Putin’s worldly tour this week was the Russian leader playing his greatest hits.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Syria, where observers likened Putin’s so-called troop-withdrawal announcement to a glorified campaign stop, rather than any truly significant foreign policy shift.
On the contrary, Russian troops in Syria appear to be digging in for the long haul, said Anna Borshchevskaya.
“This announcement showcases a victory ahead of the elections,” Borshchevskaya told VICE News. “He’s tried to present a very clean, distant campaign that didn’t cost the Russian people anything. Now the message is that Russian troops are coming home. But there’s going to be a very serious presence for the next 49 years.”
And why wouldn’t Putin lean on Syria? Russia’s surprise success in the prolonged civil contrasts well against America’s long, bloody intervention in Iraq, not to mention Washington’s ineffectual insistence that Assad must step down.
[pullquote]“The most important thing will be the social sphere, economic reforms, and the public’s well-being and security.” [/pullquote]
Victories abroad will be a constant crutch for Putin in 2018, but that won’t be enough on its own.
A small but vocal opposition has turned the regime’s cronyism and corruption into their rallying cry, contrasting average Russians’ drab lifestyles with the mind-boggling, platinum-plated wealth of Putin’s inner circle.
Putin himself seems to get this, at least rhetorically. On Thursday, he promised his campaign would feature a domestic program of “infrastructure development, healthcare and education,” as well as “high technology… and improving labour efficiency. There is no doubt that the ultimate goal of all these initiatives should be to increase household incomes in our country.”
But Russians are eager to hear how a fourth Putin term will actually improve their daily lives, analysts said.
“Of course, the success of Russian military forces in Syria can’t be ignored, and it will have a positive impact on Putin’s re-election campaign,” said Alexei Mukhin, director general of Moscow’s Centre for Political Information. “But the most important thing will be the social sphere, economic reforms, and the public’s well-being and security.”
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen onboard a plane as he travels to the Hmeymim air base in Syria Dec. 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik.