Putin in Moscow. (AFP)
Moscow, July 30: Russia, facing the toughest round of western sanctions imposed since the Ukraine crisis erupted, has adopted a nonchalant public stance, with President Vladimir V. Putin emphasising the importance of self-reliance.
A new poll released yesterday indicated a “What, me worry?” attitude among the bulk of the population.
But beneath that calm facade, there is growing alarm in Russia that the festering turmoil in Ukraine and the new round of far more punitive sanctions — announced yesterday by both European nations and the US — will have an impact on Russia’s relations with the West for years to come and damage the economy to the extent that ordinary Russians feel it.
Until now, Putin’s tactics seemed to be working. Russia was feeding the separatist insurgency in Ukraine without leaving distinct fingerprints — able to press Kiev to come to terms while avoiding a rupture with Europe that would alienate Russia’s business elite. But that strategy is beginning to crumble, battered under successive shock waves generated by the crisis.
More frequent and prominent critics are saying that Putin and the hardline leaders in the Kremlin overreached by suggesting that Russia, far more dependent than the old Soviet Union on international trade and financial markets, could thrive without the West.
“They were not anticipating the West to make radical moves, costly moves,” said Nikolai Petrov, an independent political analyst. “What is happening is different from what they wanted and what they expected.”
He and others pointed to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over embattled southeastern Ukraine on July 17 as upsetting the balancing act that Putin had managed to pull off to maintain support from the public, hard-line nationalists, the security services, the oligarchs and the more liberal business community.
“Until this catastrophe, Putin’s calculations were pretty good in terms of being able to win any tactical battle,” Petrov said.
The Kremlin had been counting on its ability to maintain just enough instability in Ukraine to keep the country dependent on Russian good will, while making Europe and the US cautious about intervening too assertively there.
Right after this weekend, when the likelihood of more serious European sanctions materialised, Putin met advisers to say that Russia needed to become self-reliant. He was referring to arms production previously done in Ukraine, but the sentiment echoed in other fields.
“No matter what the difficulties we may encounter, and to be honest, I do not really see any big difficulties so far,” he said, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website, “I think that they will ultimately work to our advantage because they will give us the needed incentive to develop our production capability in areas where we had not done so yet.”
Domestically, grumbling over the creeping isolationism has grown louder. Roughly 50 per cent of the economy is state-run, and the loyalty of those who direct such companies to Putin remains absolute. But the rest are changing.
“It is still a very polite version: ‘Maybe something is going wrong,' ” said Sergei Petrov, an opposition member of Parliament and the founder of Rolf, one of the biggest car importers in Russia. “They would never say it to you, a foreigner, but I hear more and more critics.”
A former finance minister and a close Putin ally, Alexei Kudrin, voiced rare public criticism of Kremlin policy in an interview last week with the state-run news agency Itar-Tass.
Kudrin said he was worried that the Ukraine crisis would drive Russia into a “historic confrontation” that would retard the country’s development across the board.
The business community was dismayed by the amount of anti-western comments on television and radio, he said, indicating a “fundamental” shift that made the West Russia’s adversary again.
“Things are different in business,” he said. “Businessmen want to work, to invest, build factories and develop trade.”
Some analysts saw that interview as a sign that Putin was looking for a way out, preparing to abandon the Ukraine separatists publicly.
They linked it to a similar sentiment in a column in the newspaper Kommersant on Tuesday, by a journalist close to the President, suggesting that he had allowed the black boxes from the Malaysian airliner to be sent to the West because he did not fully trust the information he got from his advisers.