Vladimir Putin has a lot on his plate right now. And just like Trump, he appears to be winging it.
His most recent poll numbers are significantly lower than Trump’s, and that’s saying something. It’s not a big concern to Putin, since he answers only obliquely to his voters, and fair elections are off the table. Which is what Trump envies most about him.
Still, Putin’s rapidly plummeting popular appeal is a sign that the old razzle-dazzle has lost some dazzle. And he finds himself playing whack-a-mole with pop-up crises across seven time zones.
While Russia has been hit hard by Covid, it seems to have weathered the worst, at least for now. Not so much because the outbreak was well-managed, as because it wasn’t actively mis-managed, as in this country. Still, the incompetence was there for all to see, and the virus has made a real dent in Putin’s approval rating.
So he’s gone for the grand gesture and announced a vaccine. There isn’t a reputable epidemiologist in the world who would even consider green-lighting a vaccine this early in the testing process, but Putin is going for it anyway. He’s happy to gamble with the lives of his citizenry, in much the same way Trump went all in on hydroxychloroquine. This is a disaster waiting to happen. And Putin is starting to understand, just as we all are, that the virus is a mole that won’t stay whacked.
Meanwhile, in Belarus, Victor Lukashenko — a Putin puppet known to occasionally bite the hand that feeds him — is now dealing with a hundred thousand pissed-off countrymen who think he’s rigged one election too many. After he ludicrously claimed to have won eighty percent of the vote — when it’s clear he was thoroughly trounced — people took to the streets in massive numbers.
Of course, Lukashenko overreacted, bringing in the police to do the usual arrest-and-torture thing, which in this case backfired in spectacular and highly visible fashion. Between phone videos and social media, it’s getting really hard to brutalize a population in the privacy of your own country. The word gets out. Trump should take note.
So now, with the whole world watching, there’s a general workers’ strike shutting down most of Belarus’s industrial base. And the police are starting to change sides. These are ominous signs for any dictatorship.
Putin has his own issues with Lukashenko, but he can’t just let Belarus off the leash. He knows full well it’ll attach itself to the West in a heartbeat. But how hard should he whack? His instincts are to go for the grand gesture — he can easily shut off the country’s entire oil supply — but he knows how bad that will look. On the other hand, he can’t do nothing or he’ll look weak and he’s not eager to encourage any success stories that might give other people ideas.
Like Khabarovsk, for example — in the Russian far east — another pop-up dumpster fire. Mass demonstrations have been going on in that city for the last six weeks. While the immediate cause was the arrest of its hugely popular mayor on laugh-out-loud phony charges, the underlying rage at Moscow — from decades of economic neglect, corruption, and incompetence — has an intensity Putin isn’t used to seeing. He could still go for the grand gesture — a brutal crackdown, say — but again the optics on that are terrible. So what’s a dictator to do?
Especially given the regional elections next month, all over Russia.
The opposition parties in those elections — those brave souls willing to buck the Putin kleptocracy at considerable risk to life and limb — are looking at Belarus and Khabarovsk as potent examples, not just of successful political tactics, but also of the tactics being used against them. These parties are a diverse and amorphous group — and they can’t really threaten Putin — but they are unanimous in their wish to see him removed. And the one person most of them look to for leadership is Victor Navalny.
The same Victor Navalny now lying comatose in a German hospital, poisoned presumably on Putin’s orders. Not that there will ever be proof, there never is. But there is no one in the world who doubts it, so it doesn’t even matter if it’s true.
Still, as grand gestures go, this one is off the charts. Navalny has been a persistent irritant to Putin for over fifteen years, but Putin never felt the need to kill him. Not that he couldn’t have done so at any time. So why now?
As many, including Rachel Maddow, have said, it’s important to see Russia through the lens of its weaknesses, not its strengths. For all the sophisticated skullduggery and internet mischief, Russia is a huge country — 145 million people — that still can’t produce a single product that’s competitive in international markets. Yes, it turns out world-class cyber-hackers, but it doesn’t make anything you can buy at Home Depot or Best Buy or Amazon. The Russian economy is all about the exploitation of natural resources, especially oil. So when the price of oil tanks, Putin’s poll numbers tank with it. And the natives get restless.
This is the price of kleptocracy. When there’s nothing but corrupt cronies at every level of government, any crisis exposes their incompetence and casts them in a harsh light. At some point, people want their government to, you know, govern.
At the same time, willful incompetence numbs the citizenry, creating a culture of mediocrity. Any sign of initiative is smothered in its infancy, breeding frustration, resentment, and ultimately, anger in the populace — a seething anger that seeks an outlet anywhere it can find one.
If Putin or Lukashenko or Trump could take even a minimal interest in the well-being of their people, they might be able to enjoy the fruits of their corruption. But instead, they have to lie constantly, suppress brutally, and play a dangerous game of whack-a-mole with each new uprising that pops up. Standing up for incompetence and grift is harder than you think.