President Putin is up for re-election on 18 March and things are not going well. Although effective competition for the election was long ago eliminated by fair means or foul, criticism, largely indirect, has been mounting from within the Russian establishment.
Not so long ago the Chief of the General Staff came under direct attack for grossly overstating the achievements of the military on every count. Today, Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev is under sustained assault for dishonestly exaggerating the good health of the economy which is a long way from recovery (O. Solov’eva, “Medvedev prevratil minusy v plyusy”, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 1 December 2017.) Only yesterday Russia agreed with Saudi Arabia to maintain cuts in oil exports, but given the massive increases in production from the United States, the Kremlin cannot be optimistic about enhancing foreign exchange reserves by this means. Continued sanctions from the West are not only bedevilling economic growth but also demoralising the business élite, who are not so keen on photo opportunities with the President for fear of being targeted individually by new Congressional sanctions.
Once again, the administration is accused of filddling the figures.
And the problem of military intervention in Syria never goes away. It was always an unpopular decision to embark on the Syrian escapade, after the disaster of war in Afghanistan. Not so long ago Yevgenii Krutikov, an outspoken commentator close to the intelligence community, vented his spleen about the recent assassination of General Asapov in Syria, evidently betrayed from within the Syrian élite, whose traditional Eastern ways are “in no way compatible with a régime of secrecy; and even if Russian counter-intelligence suddenly began demanding that the Arabs and Bedouin observe strict norms of conduct, it would simply not work’ (Vzglyad, 26 September 2017.)
Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the FSB and chairman of Putin’s security council, has now declared that preparations are under way to withdraw. The Russian military implausibly claims that 95% of Syrian territory is in Assad’s hands. Yet whole swathes of the country are under the control of others. The establishment press now suggests that actually Assad controls no more than about 60% and it concludes that Patrushev’s prognostication is basically eyewash. “It seems one can once again forget about plans to reduce Moscow’s military presence” laments Nezavisimaya gazeta; not least because the head of Russia’s fig leaf international security organisation, Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov, is airing the idea of sending in weighty peace-keeping contingents (A. Sharkovskii, “Dzhikhadisty vnosyat korrektivy v plany Moskvy”.)