Putin Eyes New World Order After Crushing Opposition in Russia

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

(Bloomberg) -- Just before Russia’s presidential election six years ago, Vladimir Putin delighted lawmakers by showing off video simulations of the country’s newest strategic weapons. One was even aimed at a map of Florida.

Most Read from Bloomberg

This time around, the muscle flexing has gone further. Last month, he took a test flight on Russia’s latest nuclear bomber while issuing blunt warnings to the US and Europe about the risks of Armageddon over his invasion of Ukraine.

The posturing captured the mindset of an emboldened Putin. Now 71, he’s heading into an election this weekend with the result a foregone conclusion and his adversaries — both inside and outside Russia — seemingly unable to stifle his ambitions as the war in Ukraine shifts in his favor.

If Putin’s last term was about trying to fashion the world order more to his liking, the next one will be about his determination to complete that project, according to people familiar with the thinking in the Kremlin.

Read More: Putin Seeks Revenge on a World Order He Once Wanted to Join

The Russian leader is now preparing for a long confrontation with the West, five people with knowledge of the situation said. And even if the war in Ukraine is brought to an end, relations between Moscow and western capitals have been severed and won’t be easily restored, they said.

“Russia needs to establish a parallel globalization, to build a new world,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant close to the presidential administration. “That is what Putin is going to focus on.”

Putin looks set to start another six-year term with his forces on the offensive for the first time in months as Ukraine’s allies struggle to keep it supplied with ammunition and officials in Kyiv worry about a Russian breakthrough.

Divisions over the prospect of allies dispatching troops to help Ukraine avert defeat have added to a perception of indecisiveness. More than $60 billion in US military aid remains stalled by political disputes between President Joe Biden’s administration and Republicans in Congress.

Elsewhere, the Kremlin is putting the squeeze on countries such as Moldova, the Baltic States and in the Caucasus region in the name of protecting Russian minorities. European leaders warn openly about the prospect of a Russian attack on a NATO member state and wonder whether the US will abandon them if Donald Trump regains the presidency in November.

Putin, meanwhile, has gained a platform to continue challenging the West among nations of the global south and to weaken international sanctions on Russia. He’s dispatched grain to six African countries, some of which have been supportive of his foreign policy in the United Nations and efforts to undermine the West.

Assuming the chairmanship of the BRICS group this year, he’ll host a summit in October with the leaders of China, India, South Africa and Brazil, as well as new BRICS members Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates.

Putin sees an opportunity to further reshape global relations in Russia’s favor and he intends to seize it in his next term, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

“Naturally, we will focus on enhancing foreign policy coordination,” Putin said in a statement. The group will also look at about 30 other countries joining the BRICS agenda, he said.

Read More: How Vladimir Putin Engineered Russia’s Longest Rule Since Stalin

At home, the former KGB agent is making the war the defining factor in the formation of a new Russian political and business elite, one forged by nationalism to replace what emerged from the wild capitalism of the 1990s following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Opposition to that looks increasingly futile. Unlike in past presidential contests, the Kremlin didn’t allow even a symbolically independent candidate to run this time.

Alexey Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison on the eve of the presidential election campaign removed Russia’s most powerful symbol of resistance. While thousands defied riot police and Kremlin threats of punishment to pay their respects at Navalny’s funeral, state media and top officials refused even to acknowledge it had taken place.

Days earlier, Oleg Orlov, co-founder of human rights group Memorial, was jailed after being convicted of “discrediting” Russia’s army by condemning the invasion. Memorial, banned by the Kremlin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

“Those who have dragged our country into the pit represent the old, senile, outdated order,” Orlov said before he was incarcerated for two and a half years. “They have no vision for the future, only false narratives of the past, delusions of ‘imperial greatness’.”

Since emerging to lead his country after the chaos of the 1990s, Putin has made no secret of lamenting the demise of the Soviet Union as a world power. The concern in Europe, particularly in Baltic capitals, is how far he will go to restore it.

There’s growing confidence that Russia has the military advantage in Ukraine “and a sense of the weakness and disunity of the West,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Fiona Hill, a former top White House adviser on Russia, said Putin wants to demonstrate that war will work and “that he is the one who’s willing to wage it for as long as it takes.”

The more Putin succeeds in Ukraine, the less willing he’ll be to end the war, one senior European official said. While Putin won’t win this year, he won’t lose either, another senior European diplomat said.

That’s all as Russia’s economy continues to weather the impact of sanctions from the US and its Group of Seven allies. China, India, Brazil and other countries continue to buy Russian oil in large volumes, while the US has been reluctant to impose tougher restrictions to avoid a surge in crude prices.

Russian imports last year returned to their pre-war level as increasing flows of goods from China helped to offset the collapse in supplies from Europe. The Chinese yuan accounted for more than half of all trading on Russia’s foreign exchange market for the first time in January.

“Efforts to enforce sanctions more effectively run the danger of further alienating major countries of the global south, and decreasing Russia’s isolation,” said Thomas Graham, a former National Security Council senior director for Russia who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The challenge for the West and Ukraine is to convince Russia that it cannot achieve its goals on the battlefield.”

The West’s immediate goal is to keep Ukraine afloat long enough for ammunition production to match Russian levels by 2025, the senior European diplomat said.

In the meantime, the hope is that Russian resources will get stretched. Russia is burning through the money in its national wealth fund in an effort to shield the economy against the fallout from the war and finance defense spending. The Bank of Russia has hiked the key interest rate to 16% to tame inflation, while the government has imposed currency controls to counter a slump in the ruble.

Salaries in Russia are surging as the war siphons off labor. The Kremlin has so far avoided a repeat of September 2022’s unpopular mobilization of reservists by offering high pay for volunteers to sign up to fight, even as hundreds of thousands have been killed or wounded in Ukraine.

Russia still faces challenges in maintaining flows of combat-ready men to enable its forces to advance as Ukraine digs in while waiting for more aid to arrive.

At its most brutal, the war is a numbers game, according to Kusti Salm, permanent secretary at the Estonian Defense Ministry. He estimated Russia is able to train and deploy approximately 40,000 troops over six months. That means Ukraine needs to eliminate more than that number during the same timeframe to stop Russia regenerating, he said, and it’s shown it can do that over the past two years.

“Putin has to recognize at some stage that he made a horrible mistake,” said Christoph Heusgen, who helped broker the 2015 Minsk accord to halt fighting in eastern Ukraine as a foreign-policy adviser to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He now chairs the Munich Security Conference.

Yet the war has done little to dent Putin’s domestic popularity, according to a March 1 survey of 1,600 Russians by the Moscow-based VTsIOM pollster. More than 77% approved of the president’s performance, it reported.

With momentum on the battlefield starting to move his way, Putin’s riding a tide of nationalism that presents him as leader of the “Russian world,” asserting the right to defend Russian-speaking populations in the former Soviet Union. The same argument was used to justify Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

That’s spurring fears of more land grabs to redraw Russia’s borders if Putin emerges victorious in Ukraine. Tensions spiked in Moldova after pro-Russian officials in the breakaway Transnistria region that borders Ukraine made a Feb. 28 appeal to Moscow for political protection.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned envoys from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia last month to accuse the three Baltic states, all NATO members, of “sabotage” over preparations for voting in the March 15-17 presidential election at its embassies. It warned of “serious protest” by Russians living in these countries unless the issue was resolved.

A week later, Russia placed officials from the Baltic states including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on its wanted list over decisions to dismantle Soviet-era monuments in their countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at Armenia after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan froze participation in a Moscow-led defense bloc and turned to Europe for assistance as tension continues with neighboring Azerbaijan. Armenia hosts Russia’s only foreign military base in the Caucasus region.

“The Armenian leadership decided to rely on non-regional countries courting Yerevan, promising to help it in all its troubles if only Armenia would break off relations with Russia,” Lavrov said at a March 2 conference in Turkey’s Antalya. “The West does not hide this. This is its main goal in relations with the countries of central Asia, Armenia and any other post-Soviet states.”

Indeed, Russia doesn’t take being crossed lightly. The longest-serving Kremlin ruler since Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Putin has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in recent years that intensified after he ordered the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

While the repression doesn’t match the scale of the 1930s under Stalin, it’s “equal in cruelty, and due to the media impact, people have total fear,” said Irina Sherbakova, a historian who’s a founding member of Memorial, the human rights group banned by Putin.

Wartime Russia now risks tipping into a dictatorship that demands total loyalty. The three other candidates on this weekend’s ballot represent wholly loyal parties and have made no pretense of even competing against Putin.

That’s meant the biggest headache for the Kremlin is getting a high turnout from among apathetic Russians to make sure Putin’s victory looks overwhelming, and can support the Kremlin’s narrative that the country is united behind his showdown with the West.

Two years after the start of the war, “there is much exhaustion, much blood, much disappointment, and Putin has gone nowhere,” Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, told the European Parliament on Feb. 28. “Everything has already been used. Weapons, money, sanctions, nothing is working. And the worst has happened: Everyone got used to the war.”

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.