Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held his annual marathon press conference, taking questions this year from the over 1,640 accredited journalists for almost four hours.
Amid questions on everything from geopolitics regarding Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea, to his own upcoming re-election campaign for President, the backdrop of Russia’s rapidly deteriorating international reputation was simply unavoidable.
With Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics for doping allegations, a severe move, its support of far-right European movements almost completely failing, increasingly painful sanctions, and in the United States growing bipartisan interest in and public awareness of Russian political interference efforts, it is undeniable Russia’s worldwide machinations have backfired greatly this year.
In contrast, ranging from the essentially nominal competitors lining up to challenge Putin in his bid for re-election to him even berating one journalist at the press conference by saying “[t]his is not a discussion. You ask a question, I answer,” it is clear that Putin’s domestic control of Russia remains for the moment strong and absolute.
Furthermore, Putin himself remains defiant and still opposed to the United States’ actions and efforts, ranging from spreading doubt about our nation’s global integrity to challenging our geopolitical efforts.
It was also recently revealed that Putin’s interference in the United States was fundamentally guided by the intent to divide Americans through fueling both the far-left and the far-right, polarizing and crippling our internal cohesion.
Undoubtedly the Russian interference investigation remains an important focal point for American domestic politics, yet alas one that also has become at great risk of polarization.
It is of the utmost national security concern to study the extent of Russia’s support of the far-right and far-left in our country. In our modern digital age, cyber efforts are both extraordinarily powerful and a particular weak point for our country right now, as evidenced by the frequent hackings by foreign actors as well as the systematic interference of Russia in our domestic politics.
However the essential goal of such an investigation should be to protect ourselves in the future, as well as bring to justice those who may have facilitated it, rather than misusing the investigation for political ends.
On a grander international scale, it is clear Russia still poses immense challenges to American interests, with hope of a “Russian reset” seemingly as impossible as ever. Russia at the moment appears intent on supporting a bloc against American interests rather than joining the community of nations as a beneficial participant.
Historically, America has always been a scapegoat for those ranging from strongmen to totalitarians that need to keep a modicum of consent among their ruled-over populations. Putin practices a form of this in demonizing the United States as an enemy of Russia and the Russian people, and thus bringing the Russian people into his cold embrace.
In the meantime, the few public dissenters in Russia find themselves consistently the target of harassment and even death. Many Russians may be generally content with their daily lives at the moment, but without true rule of law or individual liberty if problems arise they may find they have little redress or voice.
Russia’s economy has begun edging up lately as well, albeit with weak fundamentals, from its heavy downturn in recent years. This recent trend will likely boost Putin’s domestic support for the near-term, as in illiberal nations it is difficult to encourage change when the system appears to be functioning on a level sufficient for sustenance, even if still on an overall meager level.
It may be a very long time before we ever see a free and democratic Russia that is an open and positive participant in world affairs. The two major opportunities Russia had in recent times to liberalize, during the few months of the democratic provisional government under Kerensky in 1917 and in the immediate few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, were separated by almost a century.
Alas, hopefully it will not be another century before that chance emerges again.