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3/8/16

Russia: The world is Vladimir Putin's stage, but some economic cracks appear on the President's homefront - by Mark Mackinon

Vladimir Putin: - vision and leadership
The news on state television shows Russia advancing on every front. Top of the bulletin, most nights, are images of Russian soldiers in Syria, apparently monitoring the wobbly ceasefire there. 

Then come clips of meetings between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and foreign dignitaries such as United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. Later are scenes from Ukraine, a country portrayed as descending into chaos since turning its back on Moscow.

The message is easy to grasp for viewers across all 11 time zones of this sprawling country: Russia is back.

The West tried to isolate Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and failed. It is too big and too powerful to be ignored.

“Russia has showed that it’s much stronger than it had been regarded by international media and the international elites,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the country’s Public Chamber that monitors government decisions. In both Syria and Ukraine, “Russia has shown that it’s an actor without which it’s impossible to resolve the situation,” he said.

The longer reply is that the Russian leader, while advancing on the global stage, may have left himself exposed on the home front. And his victories abroad may soon look Pyrrhic unless his foreign-policy gains are followed by a domestic economic turnaround.

Low oil prices (Russia is the world’s second-largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia) and Western sanctions over Ukraine have shoved the economy into a tailspin, threatening the key social compact of Mr. Putin’s 16-plus years in power: Kremlin-managed economic stability in exchange for the public’s passive support for its agenda.

The gains from Russia’s intervention in Syria have been many. Most obvious has been a break in the prolonged stalemate between Mr. al-Assad’s army and the assorted rebel groups – some backed by the United States, others by Sunni Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey – arrayed against the regime. 

With their opponents battered by Russian air strikes, Mr. al-Assad’s forces have been on the advance in recent months, encircling the main rebel-held city of Aleppo just before the ceasefire took hold on Feb. 27.

Mr. al-Assad, whose area of control was at one point reduced to just Damascus and the Mediterranean coast heartland of his Alawite sect, now speaks of recapturing all of Syria.

The gains from Russia’s intervention in Syria have been many. Most obvious has been a break in the prolonged stalemate between Mr. al-Assad’s army and the assorted rebel groups – some backed by the United States, others by Sunni Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey – arrayed against the regime. With their opponents battered by Russian air strikes, 

Mr. Putin recently told the heads of Russia’s FSB (the former KGB) that they needed to be ready to “quash” any efforts to “split our society” during the election period.

Opposition figures say such talk reveals how nervous the Kremlin, despite all its successes, really is about what might come next. Some believe that the television set is slowly losing its edge over the reality in Russians’ refrigerators.

“This is not the behaviour of a government that has 80-per-cent support, or whatever they say,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition figure who survived a severe poisoning last year that he believes was an attempt to kill him. “This is a regime that is afraid of the slightest challenge to its authority. I think they have a right to be.”

Regardless of some problems Mr. Putin is in firm control of Russia and his approval rating remains steady near 85 per cent.

 Read more: The world is Vladimir Putin's stage, but cracks appear on the Russian President's homefront - The Globe and Mail

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