by Denis Churilov
Russian March 2018 Presidential Elections are approaching. Putin has recently announced that he will run as a candidate. The global players who don’t want Putin to stay in power will likely do everything possible to get rid of him. Let’s explore some possible pressure points and try to predict the most unpleasant developments.
The measures to destabilize Russia amid the elections are most likely to be complex and could potentially include:
1. Exacerbating situation in Eastern Ukraine/Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. A coordinated, big scale assault on break-away regions by the Kiev government and ultra-nationalist battalions, if successful, could be exploited informationally by evoking a public discourse inside Russia about Putin betraying the people of Donbass/Novorossia, or being incapable of helping them, which could potentially decrease his approval ratings domestically. There are reports of soldiers from the US National Guard, namely the New York’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), being moved to Ukraine in late October 2017, so we might expect some dangerous provocations early next year. Also, as post-2014 history shows, any increase in military clashes between the Kiev government and Donbass rebels could as well be used internationally to demonise Russia and Putin personally (by blaming it on him directly), which could conveniently serve as a justification for tougher economic sanctions, thus enabling more intense economic warfare against the Russian Federation.
2. Direct US/NATO attack against the Syrian government. Similar to what happened on April 07, 2017, the United States government could use casus belli (manufactured by, say, the White Helmets) to launch a series of missile/airstrikes on the Syrian Arab Army forces, leaving Russia with very little choice but to leave its Syrian ally behind and surrender its geostrategic interests in the region in order to evade direct military confrontation with the United States government (the confrontation that could potentially escalate to a nuclear war). That would not only plummet Putin’s domestic approval ratings, but would also harm his reputation in the Muslim world and in Arabic speaking countries, compromising Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Central Asia, Pakistan, as well as potentially spawning an anti-Putin sentiment in the Caucasus region. Such strategy would certainly be dangerous to play, because it, indeed, can lead the world to a Nuclear Apocalypse; yet, given the observed desperation and lack of wisdom among certain circles in the modern US elite, we can’t rule this scenario out completely.
3. Banning Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyengchang and excluding Russian athletes and representatives from various international sports organisations. This has already happened. Russian track and field athletes were previously banned from participating in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Then the entire Russian Paralympic team got under a “blanket ban” followed by a WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) report written by a Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, who accused the Russian government of running a state-funded doping program. The report was based on unverifiable testimony given by the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) Gregory Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov’s sister Maria was accused of selling illicit substances by the Russian Federal Drug Control Service way back in 2011. Rodchenkov himself was also accused of being complicit in the illegal drug sale, but he managed to evade jail because he was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (F32.3). Yet, the written testimony of a convicted drug dealer (convicted by the Russian government itself!) who also suffers from mental health issues was enough to play as key evidence in the case against the Russian government, which originally led to the ban of the entire Russian Paralympic team in 2016, and now also to the ban of the Russian Olympic team in 2018. It is noteworthy that Russian athletes are given an option to participate in the Games under the Neutral Flag, which further suggests the political nature of the ban, as opposed to doping and genuine concerns for fair competition. It is also noteworthy that banning athletes from Olympic Games based on their nationality (as opposed to individual bans, e. g. when a specific athlete shows positive doping test results) violates the Fundamental Principles of Olympism outlined in the official Olympic Charter. Competitive sports have always been a significant part of Russia’s culture, with the Olympic Games playing a vary important role in forming national pride. Humiliating Russian athletes in Pyengchang 2018 by not letting them perform under the national flag will certainly sow disappointment and dissatisfaction among Russian general public, which can potentially be harvested to destabilise the political situation amid the Presidential Elections in March.
4. Expanding and intensifying economic sanctions on Russian businessmen and oligarchs in order to mobilise them against Putin and his strategic course. Back in April 2017, following the US Tomahawk missile attack on Syrian Shayrat airbase, US State Secretary, Rex Tillerson stated that Russia must choose between Assad and the United States. Tillerson knew about Syria’s strategic importance to Russia and that Putin isn’t going to give it up easily, so it could be speculated that his message was addressed not to Putin but to Russian oligarchs and those segments of the Russian political elite who are oriented towards the economic integration with the Western world (principally the neo-liberal “reformers” from the 1990s Yeltsin era). Essentially, the Russian elites were told that if they don’t oust Putin, they are going to lose their personal wealth and power (and many Russian oligarchs and businessmen are known to keep their finances offshore). So we might expect certain segments of Russian elites mobilising their political, organisational and media resources amid the March 2018 election in an effort to destabilise the political climate and prevent Putin from being re-elected.
5. Expanding and intensifying sanctions against Russia in the energy sector in an effort to decrease Russia’s economic security. Nowadays, Russia is heavily dependant on oil and natural gas sales to the European Union countries. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a significant portion of all the replaceable parts in the Russian oil and natural gas mining equipment has been imported from the West. The United States already implemented sanctions that forbid Western companies to trade and cooperate with Russia in spheres such as oil mining, oil refinery and oil transportation back in August 2017. If sanctions intensified and/or expanded, the Russian companies would have to invest time and resources into developing and implementing technologies that would allow Russians to replace sanctioned items. Such investment could potentially cripple the entire Russian natural resource mining industry for an indefinite period (especially given that, before the sanctioned items are replaced, the industry wouldn’t be able to function at an optimal level). The economic consequences would be felt by the public, decreasing people’s financial security and overall quality of life. The resulted dissatisfaction could potentially be utilised for social and political destabilisation amid the Presidential Elections.
6. Targeting the construction of Turkish Stream and Nord Stream 2 pipeline projects to decrease Russia’s economic security. Since the start of the Ukrainian Crisis in 2014, and due to increased risks of gas supply interruptions, Russia has been working on two major natural gas pipeline projects to create alternatives to the old pipeline routes that go through Ukraine. One route is being constructed to supply gas to Turkey and South Europe through the Black Sea (Turkish Stream) and the other one is being built to supply EU countries with natural gas through the Baltic Sea (Nord Stream 2). Before Turkish Stream, Russia was working on the South Stream project, with original plan of supplying gas to Europe through Bulgaria, but the European Parliament forced the Bulgarian government to freeze the construction works in 2014 due to increased tensions with Russia over Crimea, so the original project had to be cancelled and all efforts refocused on the alternative route through Turkey. The Nord Stream 2 has also been repeatedly met with attempts to sabotage the project by the pro-Transatlantic elites in an effort to minimise the EU-Russian trade and to make the EU switch to the American gas imports instead. So, for example, the US senator John McCain (a huge “friend” of Russia) was sending letters to European Commission in 2016, accusing Russia of trying to make EU more dependant and urging European officials to cancel the project. Recently, on 29 November 2017, John McCarrick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Bureau of Energy Resources Department, made a statement asserting that Nord Stream 2 will not happen. It is evident that there are certain political forces within the US establishment who are interested in disrupting the EU-Russian gas and oil trade, and that they have been working systematically to actualise their interests. Compromising Russia’s economic security by torpedoing major gas pipeline projects amid the March 2018 elections could play into the hand of those who want Putin gone.
7. Assassinating opposition figures to provoke organised uprising. Killing political activists, journalists and prominent Putin critics would most certainly consolidate the “liberal” opposition inside Russia, sow hysteria and provide grounds for further system destabilisation. The socio-political algorithms could be employed as follows: first, a marginal opposition figure/Putin critic is assassinated, Putin and his security services are blamed immediately. Social media is then used to spread alarmist views and hysteria, making opposition feel threatened, most likely leading to unification and consolidation among its members, as well as attracting new people to the movement. The assassinated figure is iconised and turned into a symbol of a newly formed “resistance”. Shortly after, people flood the streets to commemorate the dead and to protest the regime. From there, further provocations (ranging from police clashes to unseen snipers) and escalations become possible. The history of “colour revolutions” (e. g. the “Arab Spring” or the recent Euromaidan events in Kiev) provide multiple examples of how street protests can be exacerbated into riots that eventually lead to social polarisation, political destabilisation and regime change. Given its effectiveness and well-developed algorithms, this particular option is likely to be considered by the forces who want to see Putin gone. The role of the “sacrificial victim”, in such a case, could be played by marginal political activists who are known to public yet who don’t have any real political and/or legal potential (thus rendering them “expendable”). Potential candidates could be people like Alexey Navalny (who can’t legally run for president due to his criminal record and yet is popular among teenagers and young adults as a “corruption fighter”), Ilya Yashin, or Mark Feygin, for instance. Assassination of Russian opposition figures would also allow the Western mainstream media to further demonise Putin, with Western politicians potentially using it as a justification for further economic sanctions.
8. Terrorist attacks. Terrorist plots that target civilian infrastructures to sow fear and a sense that the government can’t protect its people can potentially be used in an effort to discredit Putin in his presidential campaign. This particular strategy is less likely to be employed because, among all, it is most likely to cause the opposite effect, e. g. Russian people consolidating around their leader in the face of terrorist threat. But, again, given the intellectual and organizational degradation of the US elites we’ve been observing in the last few decades, this scenario can’t be ruled out completely. It is noteworthy that Russia has been a target of terrorist attacks regularly in the past, starting from the times of two Chechen Wars in the 1990s and the early 2000s, as well as the terrorist attacks in more recent years, most prominently the bus stop bombing in Volgograd in late 2013 amid Sochi Winter Olympic Games and the April 2017 Saint-Petersburg metro bombing (coinciding with Putin’s meeting Belarusian president Lukashenko in the city on that day).
The destabilising measures listed above are most likely to be employed simultaneously, in a complex and systematic manner. Russia might see itself being attacked from all the fronts in the early 2018: pro-Russian rebels and pro-Russian authorities being slaughtered in a massive attack in Donbass, Russia losing face in the Middle East while its allies in Syria are being extensively bombed by American warplanes, Russia’s strategic pipeline projects being cancelled, all while Russian athletes are being humiliated by IOC authorities under a neutral flag in South Korea, bombs are going off in airports and at train stations, and there are violent teenage riots in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, with people being murdered on the streets by unseen snipers. And, just to finish it all off, outraged by Western economic sanctions, Russian oligarchs and some influential people in the Kremlin are turning against Putin amid the March Presidential Elections. To say that the Russian leader would be in a difficult situation in such a case would be an understatement.
Further, president Donald Trump, while facing impeachment threats at home, would be relatively easy to manipulate into obnoxious military actions against Russia’s allies in Syria and Eastern Ukraine/Donbass, so that he could prove to the neoconservatives and to the domestic CNN- and MSNBC-watching populace that he is not an agent of Putin and that he can be a “true American leader” who “stands up to the bullies”. Note that launching Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase in April 2017 has been Trump’s only mainstream media “superstar moment” so far, with all American major news channels praising him for his actions. So there is no guarantee that he will not resort to it again while facing extreme political pressure by those who want Putin gone.
And there are many segments among the Western/Transatlantic elites who want to see Putin gone. He (and Russia as whole) has been an obstacle to their global hegemony, starting from the 2007 Munich speech, in which Putin condemned the current unipolar world order, stating that the US “has overstepped its national borders in every sense”. He further consolidated his “evil dictator” status when he prevented Obama from invading Syria in 2013, and then again in 2014 when he ruined the US and NATO plans of installing military bases in Crimea, thus preventing their dominance in the Black Sea region.
So, there are plenty of reasons for the Western elites to try to prevent Putin from being re-elected in March 2018, and they will do everything in their power to bury him from the international scene. The question of whether or not they will be able to execute all their plans (and whether their actions will actually lead to the desired outcomes) remains open. Putin himself isn’t novel to strategic and political games, after all. Besides, most Russian people have lived through Perestroika and they still remember the 1990s, so one should never underestimate the power of Russian cynicism while trying to manipulate the Russian public with socio-political technologies from outside.
Better be prepared for anything than sorry, though.