What does the future hold for Vladimir Putin?

23 January 2016 12:48 pm

What kind of fallout will we see from last Thursday’s British report into the polonium murder of dissident Alexander Litvinenko? The report by a retired judge, Sir Robert Owen, said it was probablle that Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his spy chief at the time, Nikolai Patrushev, had approved an operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko, using a highly toxic and rare isotope, polonium 210.

In his report, Owen listed various possible motives for Mr. Litvinenko’s assassination, including a belief among Russian security officials that the former officer had betrayed Russian security services and had begun to work for British intelligence after he fled to Britain in 2000. According to the report, Mr. Litvinenko was also a close associate of prominent opponents of the Kremlin based in London, including Boris A. Berezovsky, a former oligarch and enemy of Mr. Putin’s who died in 2013.

Facing European Union sanctions and international isolation over its intervention in Ukraine since 2014, the Russian government reacted furiously. The Russian ambassador told the British government that his country “will never accept anything arrived at in secret and based on the evidence not tested in an open court of law”. The Russians view the timing of the report, which comes 10 years after Mr. Litvinenko was killed, as an attempt to put pressure on Russia over differences on a range of international issues.

The bottom line however is that Owen’s report flies in the face of Vladimir Putin’s campaign of rapprochement with the West. Putin wants Russia to be a great world power. The sanctions and its 2014 expulsion from the G-8 group of leading industrialized powers hurt the country’s image. They have been big setbacks for the Russian leader.

Internationally, Putin is well known for his KGB background. Killings of journalists and opposition figures have been a key feature of his rule.

These days, however, these facts often get overlooked in favour of Russia’s supposed campaign against ISIL in Syria.

The big question is what impact this will have on international relations. According to the New York Times, the British home secretary, Theresa May, called the Litvinenko murder “a blatant and unacceptable breach” of international law and civilized behavior that would be raised with Mr. Putin at the next opportunity.

The Owen report might well raise questions about the legitimacy of Putin’s regime. True, the West was triumphant at the end of the Cold War but Putin was a creature of that triumph. The Putin regime arose by looting the benefits of Russian integration in the world economy, especially its oil revenues.

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics calls it the “greatest corruption story in history.”

The other big test for the Putin’s regime is the falling oil price. Oil and gas accounts for 67 per cent of Russia’s exports and Russia is being pummelled by the low oil price and global sanctions.

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, told the Express that time is running out.

“I don't think you can underestimate how bad the situation in Russia is right now, you've got oil below any measure where the budget can survive and you've got sanctions from the West. Russia is in what I'd call a real serious economic crisis,” Browder said. “Eventually they're going to run out of that money and when they do, that's when the real trouble begins.”

Hence Vladimir Putin’s glorious foreign policy. Like for example the war in Ukraine and patriotic euphoria and the flexing of its military muscle in Syria with its first Middle Eastern intervention in decades in support of its long-time ally, embattled President Bashar Assad, against anti-government rebel targets (and to a lesser extent Islamic State).

The conundrum for the West is that Russia is still a nuclear power and a key energy exporter. Also, it will be indispensable in any resolution of the war in Syria.

But as The Wall Street Journal points out, Mr. Putin’s propensity for recklessness and miscalculation could make the West’s hope-for-the-best strategy end up looking penny-wise, pound-foolish.