Vladimir Putin’s political strategy is all about himself

by Clara Ferreira Marques

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s the opportunistic Tancredi’s advice on how to manage political turbulence in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 classic “The Leopard.”

Vladimir Putin is trying to hang on by doing the exact opposite.

The president’s state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday was much anticipated. Rumors swirled he would make dramatic moves like a ratcheting up of confrontation in Ukraine, an indication of feverish times.

Instead, what Russians got was an underwhelming pitch ahead of September’s parliamentary elections, with a Brezhnev-esque hour-plus of populist tropes, a litany of handouts and vague policy pronouncements that said far more about the state of Putin’s Russia than any foreign-policy hectoring. This is a regime well aware of the pain of falling living standards and flatlining growth, but it has no real plan to resolve either.

There should be relief, of course, that there were no fireworks on Ukraine or Belarus. Putin limited himself to some fist-shaking directed at countries he said were ganging up on Russia, implausible talk of foreign interference in Minsk and a warning to enemies considering crossing Moscow’s “red line.” Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the domestic adversaries, even as almost 1,800 people were arrested at demonstrations across Russia in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The significance of Putin’s address lies in just how little substance there was. Valentina Matviyenko, pro-Kremlin stalwart and speaker of the Federation Council, had promised a message of the “new age.” It was nothing of the sort.

Putin often projects the image of a benign patriarch, and this would have been a good time for some elder-statesman vision. While Russia’s economy weathered the pandemic better than some, growth ahead looks anemic, especially compared to developed rivals. Prices are rising and real incomes have shrunk. Fresh sanctions will bring more pain. The popularity of the main United Russia party has been fading.

It’s a bleak landscape ahead of legislative elections in which the Kremlin needs a strong majority to lay the foundations for the 2024 presidential vote.

And yet, there was little evidence of a grand spending strategy to get the economy moving again. There was help for indebted regions and cash thrown at some pressing issues, particularly the country’s shrinking population: Promises of benefits for single parents, an average monthly subsidy for needy mothers-to-be, free hot meals for primary children and even full paid leave for parents caring for a young child who’s sick. Plus a one-off payment for families with school-age children.

However the pledges were all so modest that they can be covered by funds already available.

A litany of figures (5,000 new ambulances, 16,000 new school buses), exhortations that decisions “must be made” and Putin’s dramatic shows of frustration with slow-moving officials couldn’t cover up a missed opportunity to lay out a comprehensive economic vision. Perhaps because there is none. Hinted-at tax changes, for example, won’t come close to fixing what is holding companies back from investing more heavily.

As Vladimir Gelman, professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, put it to me recently, Russia is falling into a repression trap. A focus on cracking down, without working to appease people’s demands, becomes a vicious circle, requiring more repression. It’s a strategy of sticks without carrots, he says, that’s unlikely to yield good results with an urbanized and educated population.

By jailing Navalny, arresting his supporters and preparing to ban his movement, Putin silences irritants. What he hasn’t dealt with is the underlying popular discontent Navalny so ably taps. That requires real change.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.