He may not have made the cut with Time magazine, but in terms of international relations -- and according to Russian polls -- President Vladimir Putin was certainly the man of the year. His surprise annexation of Crimea and involvement in the protracted eastern Ukraine conflict threatened to realign the world order in 2014, at once reviving Russia’s profile as a formidable global player and stoking warnings of a Cold War revival.
But the year is drawing to a close with staggering figures on Russia’s economy, which looks to be veering toward a recession, and tumbling oil prices and a ruble in free fall could potentially spell Putin’s rapid descent in 2015.
Today’s picture of Russia is vastly different than the one the world saw at the beginning of the year. Putin had already taken center stage at the start of the year while preparing for the nervously awaited but ultimately peaceful Olympic Games in Sochi in February. But few people, if any, could have predicted his decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine just a month later. The move came after a popular uprising against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian who was ousted by the pro-Western Euromaidan movement.
Analysts painted Putin’s sudden move as a knee-jerk reaction borne of desperation at the prospect of losing Ukraine as a junior partner in the region, followed by a series of further improvisations that embroiled Russia in Ukraine’s separatist conflict in the east. The July downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 with the death of 298 onboard civilians, the vast majority of them Dutch nationals, ratcheted up the stakes even further as European and U.S. officials imposed ever-tougher sanctions on Moscow, which was suspected of providing the missile separatists may have used to shoot down the airplane.
For Russians, even many who had been longtime critics of the government, the return of Crimea -- regarded as ancestral Russian territory -- was a historic triumph and a moment of glory for their president. In February, Putin had a 69 percent approval rating, according to the independent Levada Center polling firm. After the annexation announcement, it rose above 80 percent and remained there, hitting a high of 88 percent in October. Putin was a hero at home, albeit an outlaw in the West.
But now in December, the calculus is swiftly and mercilessly shifting. Slumping oil prices fell even further after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided not to cut production in November, dipping to less than $60 a barrel this week. Russia, the world's third-largest oil producer, is being hit hard. In December, the ruble also saw its worst one-day drop against the dollar in recent memory, hitting 80 per dollar at the peak, despite Russia’s central bank pushing interest rates from 10.5 percent to 17 percent overnight in an attempt to shore up the currency. The ruble began the year at 33 versus the dollar, and as it kept falling, a joke began making the rounds in Russia: Both Putin and the ruble would be hitting 63 in 2015. Reality was much faster.
The economic situation and the fallout from Russia’s involvement in Ukraine may take their toll on Putin’s strength at home, analysts say. Russia’s Ukraine ambitions used up much of Moscow’s political capital, in addition to bringing about sanctions that are now starting to bite, said Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist and global affairs professor at New York University: “Combine that with the oil crash, and it’s clear that Putin ends 2014 in a dramatically weaker position than where he started.”
Russians may not be feeling the pinch that deeply yet, but the economic toll will likely spread over the coming year. And experts say the Putin-era social contract -- in which the government promises a rising standard of living, and citizens curb their political demands -- could then start to erode if Putin proves unable to pull the country out of the crunch this time.
“I think he has a store of support that can last one-and-a-half to two years,” Levada Center director Lev Gudkov told Reuters this week. “We will see the first signs of discontent in the spring.”
Political backlash won’t be imminent, Galeotti said, but Russia next year may see a “constellation of issue-based local protests” that could worry elites and plant the seeds for a larger movement. “Putin’s appeals to patriotism and historical glories are all very well, but I suspect they will be wearing thin,” he said. “I think Putin’s going to fall sooner or later, and the real crunch point will be 2016. And I think the way he’s going to fall is because the elite are going to decide that he’s no longer useful to them, and that he’s in fact become dangerous.”
Putin has in the past, however, remained resilient in the face of protests, and his popularity at home has remained solid for the past 15 years. He isn’t yet facing a unified opposition movement, either. “Yes, a great surge of discontent with Mr. Putin – from the Westernized proto-middle class – appeared in 2011-12. It then almost totally disappeared,” noted Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the Washington Post.
So far, Putin hasn’t demonstrated any clear signs of where he’ll take the country next. His state of the union address in early December was regarded as a deep disappointment across Russia, with critics saying the president delivered a messy speech without concrete answers or ideas. In his annual press conference on Dec. 18, he launched more fiery rhetoric at the West and assured the public that the economy would rebound. “In a worst-case scenario, I believe [recovery] would take a couple of years. I repeat: After that, growth is inevitable, due to a changing foreign economic situation among other things,” he said. But details of a plan were still scarce.
Few predictions can be made on Putin’s Ukraine calculations, either. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that sanctions could be lifted “in a matter of weeks or days,” depending on what the president does to de-escalate the conflict. But Putin -- who attributed the economic crisis primarily to Russia’s reliance on oil exports, and less to the sanctions -- hasn’t given any indication that he may back down on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Galeotti said, it wasn’t clear how much the economic realities have sunk in with the president. “Not only has his circle of people he talks to shrunk dramatically, but he has physically and mentally withdrawn from the country and the center of gravity of government,” he said. “No one in his inner circle is an economist; they’re all people who share a similar worldview.”
“He always spoke like a hard-line nationalist. But during his first couple of terms, he was perfectly willing to be pragmatic,” he added. “He could turn off the rhetoric if needed. Now he genuinely seems to believe the rhetoric and believe he’s an irreplaceable man.”