Has 2016 given us a demonstration of Russia's strength? It may look that way on the surface, but the facts tell a different story, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.
At first glance, the year 2016 seems to have been a successful one for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Syria, Turkey, Brexit, the refugee crisis, Trump: The autocrat in the Kremlin is considered to have benefited from every significant development this year. However, this assessment should not be made too hastily. Both Russia's strength and Moscow's new global importance are greatly overestimated.
Russia's strength is the weakness of the West
Russia appeared strong in Syria in 2016 only because in previous years the West - in particular the United States - did not become significantly involved in the conflict. Mindful of the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, US President Obama opted for military restraint in Syria.
When Obama backed away from intervening against Assad, it created a power vacuum in the Middle Eastern conflict region that Putin exploited for his own ends. In 2015 and 2016 Russia, together with Iran, helped to stabilize the power of the Assad regime and bring important parts of the country back under Damascus' control by means of a manageable military air operation, presumably supported by a few special forces on the ground. It is, however, doubtful that Russia is militarily strong enough to also move against the fighters of so-called "Islamic State."
Similarly, Russia does not have the economic power to rebuild the dictator Assad's war-ravaged country. The terrible cruelties perpetrated against the civilian population conceal the lack of a long-term Russian strategy in Syria. As in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin is only capable of spreading war and violence. Russia lacks the political and economic power to impose a stable and future-oriented order in the "zones of influence" it has reclaimed for itself.
Russia is economically weak
The Kremlin can certainly be regarded as a beneficiary of Brexit, since the latter has cast considerable doubt over the future of the European Union. And the election of Donald Trump as US president also plays into the hands of the Russian president. Had Vladimir Putin's archenemy Hillary Clinton been elected, she would have posed a far greater challenge to Russia. But the extent to which Brexit and US President Trump will really benefit Russian politics in 2017 remains unclear.
The Kremlin's craving for international status should not allow us to forget that Russia itself is an economically weak country. The Russian economy has shrunk in recent years, and it didn't grow in 2016, either. Real wages are falling. The gulf between rich and poor is widening. Russia's economy is dependent on the export of natural resources, and the price of oil remains low. Its production industry lacks both the capacity for innovation and capital - and all the while, as has always been the case, Russian capital is being transferred out of the country. Every attempt at modernization in recent years has completely run aground. No economic reforms should be anticipated in 2017, either, as the Kremlin will avoid any disturbance before the Russian presidential election in March 2018. Economic stagnation, or even further decline, will continue over the coming years unless the oil price unexpectedly hits record highs.
Everything ostensibly under control
Politically, the Kremlin ostensibly has the country under control. The few opposition leaders, civil society organizations and free media have been marginalized following repression by the security services. The Russian people are not in the mood for protests, either. The low turnout - particularly in the cities - for Russia's parliamentary elections in September revealed the extent of political apathy. Should there be social, economic or political upheaval in the future, support for Putin's regime could abruptly fall away, especially as trust in Russian officialdom is practically non-existent because of widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Given all the above, Putin's Russia is certainly not starting the New Year from a position of great strength. Like the United States, Europe, Turkey, Japan, China, Brazil and many other countries, Russia, too, faces considerable challenges in 2017. There are no grounds for the Kremlin to be feeling victorious.
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