DMITRY KISELEV, anchor of Vesti Nedeli, a weekly television show, and Russia’s chief propagandist, has had much to say about victory in recent weeks. The Syrian ceasefire that began on February 27th, he told his viewers, was “definitely a Russian victory”, made possible by Russia and America, two great powers, taking joint responsibility for the world’s biggest crisis. The Americans had been convinced “to work with us and forget about their exceptionalism” both by Russia’s diplomacy and by its display of military might: the precision of its bombs, the efficiency of its pilots and the range of its missiles—“which, by the way, can carry nuclear explosives.”
His words were music to the ears of Larisa Kirillova, a pensioner from Kursk. Yes, her pension is no longer rising while food prices are soaring; yes, her daughter has lost her job: but Russia is once again a great power. “Of course things are tough, but we are encircled by enemies and will bear this crisis,” she says resolutely.
On March 13th, walking along the flightline at Khmeimim, the base in Latakia from which the Russian air force has been launching its Syrian operations, Mr Kiselev rejoiced in “the victory of good over evil” and the mix of Russian firepower and acumen that had brought it about. “Russian planes are beautiful and splendid...Our strikes are more precise and efficient than [America’s]. We are making deals with the moderate opposition faster and deliver humanitarian aid more quickly. While the Americans are only coming to, we are already making friends, feeding and [medically] treating them.” The only thing that could have made the message plainer would have been a banner in the background saying “Mission Accomplished”.
The next day, as peace talks were set to get under way in Geneva (see article), Vladimir Putin went on television to announce the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria: “The task set for the Ministry of Defence and the military forces has been accomplished.” Bashar al-Assad has been bolstered (though not to the extent that he might have wished), America has been exposed as ineffective and dithering, troublesome Turkey has been sidelined. But though those are all welcome achievements for Mr Putin, there is another overarching one.
When Russia started its bombing campaign in September, Barack Obama warned that Syria was “not some superpower chessboard contest, and anybody who frames it in that way isn’t paying very close attention to what’s been happening on the chessboard.” But if Mr Obama did not see it that way, Mr Putin did; and though what would come about on the chessboard mattered to him, the simple fact of playing mattered more.
The purpose of Russia’s action in Syria was not just to shore up the regime of Mr Assad, nor to resolve the largest humanitarian crisis of the century so far. Indeed, to the extent that that crisis is a problem for the European Union (EU), Russia is all for it. Mr Putin wanted to force the West to recognise that, for all that it may deplore Russia’s actions in Ukraine and seek to isolate it with sanctions, Russia is a global power—the player on the other side of the board. “The process of asserting itself as a great power is more important than the result it achieves,” says Maria Lipman, the editor of Counterpoint, a journal.
Mr Obama believes that Mr Putin’s adventures in Ukraine and Syria betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how power works in foreign policy. “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” Jeffrey Goldberg recently quoted him as saying in the Atlantic magazine. But for foreign policy to bolster Mr Putin’s domestic agenda by satisfying people like Ms Kirillova, exerting violence is crucial. It is not just a means for getting what Mr Putin wants, but a goal in itself. Just so long as it is seen on a screen.
Yadda Yalta yadda
Mr Putin’s first two presidential terms, which ran from 2000 to 2008, were sold under the banner of political stabilisation and economic growth. The third, begun in 2012, has brought neither of these things (see chart 1). Russia is not becoming any more stable and it is getting distinctly worse off. The economy contracted by 4% last year. Disposable incomes have been falling since 2013. Thus the need for this current term to be reconfigured as a wartime presidency, its successes presented with polish by men and women like Mr Kisilev.
The underpinning of this policy requires the world to be read in a number of seemingly contradictory ways. America must be seen as both a model for modernisation and a source of evil to be resisted. Russia must be seen as both unconstrained and beleaguered—a duality that harks back to the years of Stalinism, which saw the Soviet Union both as a beacon leading the world into an inevitable communist future and as a fortress besieged by enemies and shot through with spies.
The Soviet Communist Party once ruled that no international issue could be resolved without Soviet participation or against its will. Mr Putin lacks the firepower or economic resources of the Soviet era, but lays great stock in the geostrategic position it aspired to, and which it surrendered with its collapse. He wants to return to the times of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements when America, the Soviet Union and Britain divided Europe into Soviet and Western spheres of influence.
And the Russian people want that, too. One of the greatest hopes the public had for Mr Putin when he first became president in 2000 was that he would restore Russia to the position the Soviet Union had once held. According to polls carried out at the time, people cared about this considerably more than they cared about the recovery of savings lost in the early 1990s, social justice or the fight against corruption. Only the rule of law and stopping the war in Chechnya came close.
It is not, after all, just America which believes itself a special nation. Soviet citizens were assured that they had a special place in the world and its history. But by 1991 half the Russian population felt that their country had reached a dead end. Journalists spoke slightingly of a homeland that had suffered one of the deepest traumas in its troubled history. The almost masochistic pleasure many took in national self-deprecation was the obverse of earlier and future exceptionalism.
Small wonder that by 2000 many craved a restoration, and that they remain grateful to Mr Putin for providing it (see chart 2). In 1996 36% of Russians were proud of their country’s political influence in the world; at the end of last year the figure was 68%. Pride in the military surged from 40% to 85% over the same period.
Lev Gudkov of Levada Centre, a pollster, says the growth in pride and self-worth is inseparable from anti-Americanism: “Russia’s collective identity is a negative one: people are consolidated only in the face of a perceived threat from the outside enemy.” Unwilling and unable to influence Russian domestic politics, people are easily induced to focus their anger on America and the West. In doing so, Mr Gudkov argues, they project on to America the qualities of their own country’s ruling class: cynicism, disrespect for human rights, greed and corruption.
This attitude towards the West allows Russians to absolve themselves of responsibility for any wrongdoing and assume the role of a victim. Some 80% of Russians, while saying that they feel no personal animosity towards the West, blame its hostility for the confrontations that pit it against their country. The Kremlin portrays the annexation of Crimea and the bombing of Syria as defensive; according to Russian propaganda it was America that staged the coup in Ukraine in order to claw it away from Russia. The best way to stop the advances of the EU and NATO towards Russian borders is to try to undermine and rupture both alliances.
You furnish the pictures...
It was in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008-09 that this anti-Americanism became the main staple of the regime. The popularity of Mr Putin fell in the wake of the crisis—and though GDP growth soon returned, his previously sky-high ratings did not. In late 2011 and early 2012 tens of thousands of middle-class citizens took to the streets demanding a modern, European-style state.
The annexation of Crimea in early 2014 turned things around. It distracted people’s attention from their daily lives, in which the state was a menace, to a historic narrative where the state is a source of Russia’s greatness. Television news ratings, which had been falling for almost a decade, perked up; Mr Putin’s popularity soared to new heights. “His mandate today is far bigger than the job of the president; he is the embodiment of Russian statehood,” says Ms Lipman.
It is thanks to this role as the avatar of a resurgent nation that Mr Putin is staying popular during one of the worst economic crises in modern Russian history. As recently as the first air strikes in Syria, many believed that the current recession would be short-lived and bearable, like its predecessor. Not so. Though recession hit only in the third quarter of 2014, the economy had begun to slow at the end of 2012, when oil prices were still high and Crimea was still part of Ukraine. Natalia Zubarevich, an expert on Russian regions, argues that bad institutions and poor governance have brought about a slow, grinding downturn that risks turning into a long-term degradation. The model of economic growth fuelled by the redistribution of growing oil rents has run its course.
The latest oil-price shock, coupled with Western sanctions which have cut Russia off from Western capital markets, made matters worse. Foreign direct investment fell by a staggering 92% last year. “A country in which investment has fallen for three years in a row is a country that is squeezing its future,” says Ms Zubarevich. “There is a feeling, among the elite, that while the train of history runs ahead, Russia is left behind,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist.
The brunt of the crisis of 2008-09 was borne by business; the public was sheltered by spending increases. This time the population has suffered. Large firms are under strict instructions not to lay people off, but they have cut hours and salaries. The high share of imports in Russian consumption means that the devaluation of the rouble hurts everybody. In dollar terms the average monthly salary in the year to January 2015 fell from $850 to $450.
Yet this does not mean that Russians are about to take to the streets. The urban middle class has not been moved to public protest in the style of 2011-12. “When everything is being squeezed, a Soviet instinct kicks in: people survive in small groups, bonding with friends and relatives,” says Ms Zubarevich. The fact that it is relatively easy for the successful to leave the country provides the system with a safety valve.
There have been some sector-specific protests by lorry drivers and doctors. But so far the protesters are appealing to Mr Putin more than they are attacking him. Recent polls show that most Russians are happy to give up Western goods and travel to America and Europe for the sake of Russia’s standing in the world. But they are not prepared to lose their jobs, or to see their salaries and pensions frozen. And that is the way the economy is heading.
The Kremlin is making contingency plans. The riot police have been exempted from pay cuts and last December Mr Putin signed a law allowing the FSB, the state security agency, to open fire on crowds. Yet, for all his authoritarianism, Mr Putin is not a bloodthirsty dictator, but a cautious former KGB officer. He prefers mass manipulation to brutal repression.
...I’ll furnish the war
The country’s state television channels have been his favoured tool to that end. As part of the process the president has made himself, in the words of Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, a “TV personality”. Mr Putin has dressed up (or stripped down) to compete in judo matches, fly a microlight with migrating storks and recover sunken treasure on prime time. War leader is a weightier role—but not one of an entirely different sort.
Kirill Rogov, an independent political analyst, argues that support for Mr Putin’s regime depends on television’s ability to draw the public away from their everyday experiences and into its news agenda. When people switch off the news, look around them and see the economy in a bad way, by and large Mr Putin’s ratings fall, too. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine saw the news and the president bounce back again (see chart 3). People who had previously distanced themselves from politics were mesmerised by dramatic imagery, martial music, well staged and edited action.
Russian television does not simply cover wars that are driven by foreign policy. It takes foreign adventures as raw material from which to generate events that stoke domestic passions and reinforce the government narrative. For example, fake stories such as the one about “fascists” crucifying a Russian boy in eastern Ukraine helped to mobilise the population there against the Ukrainian government in 2014. A recent bogus story about a Russian girl being raped by migrants in Germany led to anti-migrant rallies by ethnic Russians in Berlin; it became a contentious issue between Russia and Germany, generating yet more footage for Russian television.
Domestic news is given short shrift, since people’s personal experiences would allow them to see through official lies. What there is is dominated by orderly meetings of Kremlin officials. Death and destruction for the most part only occur abroad. The 31 miners and five rescue workers who perished in Vorkuta in February were barely covered on the nightly Russian news; the macabre story of an Uzbek nanny brandishing the severed head of a four-year-old girl outside a Moscow metro station received almost no mention on the state channels. Had the coal miners died in Ukraine or the girl been decapitated in Germany, Russian television would have spent days bombarding the audience with special reports, talk shows and investigations.
For now they have the spectacle of warriors returning from Syria; jubilant crowds waving flags; women in traditional dress offering pilots bread and salt. This pageantry does not necessarily mean that Russia has disengaged completely: some Russian forces will stay at their base in Latakia and may continue to offer support to Mr Assad. But it does mean that there will now be slots to fill on the nightly news, and that makes Russia’s neighbours nervous. Soon after reporting the exit from Syria, Russia’s main news channels aired footage of renewed fighting in the Donbas, leading some in Ukraine to wonder whether the withdrawal may prove a redeployment.
In truth, though, any of the former Soviet republics with a sizeable ethnic Russian population could be at risk. As a secret-service operative, Mr Putin excels in concealing his intentions. This tactical nous, Ms Hill argues, has allowed him to stay one step ahead of his opponents at home and abroad. From the war against Georgia in August 2008—the original template for Russia’s strategy of spectacle—to the operation in Syria, Russia’s adventures have repeatedly caught the West by surprise.
In February Mr Obama announced plans to quadruple military spending in central and eastern Europe—including the Baltic states—to $3.4 billion. That makes deterrent sense. But Mr Putin’s ultimate goal is not to have a full-scale war with NATO. The sort of conflicts he needs to stay in power do not require him to fight over territory; just to keep the ratings up and feed the public’s appetite for a story in which they deservingly come out on top.
Such conflicts, though, do have a limitation: Mr Putin cannot afford to sustain big losses. The Syrian footage focused on aircraft soaring high above any risks; when a few Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine, the Kremlin did everything it could to cover it up. It is these concerns, rather than fear of further sanctions, that have kept Russia from moving deeper into Ukraine or risking a serious confrontation with Turkey. They have doubtless been a factor in not hanging around in Syria, either. However proud and grateful television may make the Russian people feel to Mr Putin, they are not prepared to sacrifice the lives of their children and loved ones for him. As Ms Kirillova from Kursk says, “We can tolerate anything, as long as there is nowar.”