Third Rome: Russia Weekly Update, 21st March 2019

The Kremlin

For the third year in a row, Russia’s position on the World Happiness Index has slipped – it now ranks just beneath Pakistan. Part of the reason its high rank (*sarcasm*) must be the exuberant joy of President Putin, who earlier this week signed into law a bill that empowers the State to demand that websites take down material critical of the government (broadly subsumed, in truly Trumpian style, within the label of “fake news”) within 24 hours, and prescribes imprisonment and fines in case they refuse.

Why is Putin cracking down on internet dissent? Despite the Russian President’s general snarkiness about American sanctions – he joked last week that Russians facing sanctions must be “doing a good job” – it seems that they are beginning to take an economic and political toll, necessitating tighter controls to ensure that resentment doesn’t go viral. Putin’s inauguration of a huge new gas field in the Arctic may be tied to this as well – much of Russia’s current economic strength, such as it is, stems from hydrocarbon sales in the early 2000s. Whether the model will continue to work indefinitely is, however, doubtful.

Nevertheless, foreign policy remains as bombastic as ever. Russia has refused to back down from its position that Nicolas Maduro is the legitimate President of Venezuela, resulting in the failure of talks with the US aimed to resolve the crisis. Putin has also made public statements about the upcoming Ukrainian elections on March 31st, hinting that the return of President Poroshenko, who remains opposed to Russia because of its 2014 annexation of Crimea, would not go over well. This has led to some Ukrainians accusing him of interfering in their election, though there is no evidence yet indicating that Russia is up to more of its infamous “information operations”.

Crimea remains a sensitive issue in Ukraine, and anti-Russia sentiments run strong. Last November, a diplomatic crisis erupted over Russian boats seizing Ukranian boats and sailors in the vicinity, leading to much international consternation. (Crimea is also one of the reasons behind the sanctions which are currently crippling Russia’s economy). Now, as Ukraine’s elections loom, the US has dispatched B-52 bombers, capable of dropping nuclear payloads, to Kamchatka (in the Indo-Pacific), and the Norwegian and Mediterranean Seas (in Europe) for “theatre familiarisation” operations, a not-very-subtle hint to Russia. Russia is likely to see this as little more than posturing – with the INF treaty now well and truly dead, its nuclear weapons programme gives it plenty of geopolitical swagger. Now, its new Internet censorship laws arguably address the domestic political costs that Putin has had to pay for his adventures. Substantial changes are thus unlikely to materialise in Russian foreign policy. Expect more fun and games from the Kremlin.