While world leaders focused this week on coping with the coronavirus, Vladimir Putin’s attention was elsewhere.
The Russian president was busy setting himself up as president for life.
After 20 years as president or prime minister, the 67-year-old former KGB spy organized a brazen end-run around Russia’s presidential term limits that will permit him to serve two more six-year terms after his current mandate expires in 2024.
This internal coup frees Putin to pursue his bitter vendetta against the West, which he blames for all of Russia’s troubles. Indeed, he justified his power grab by arguing that Russia was too vulnerable to “containment” by Western countries for him to surrender power.
The Kremlin leader has made clear he seeks to undermine the West with hybrid methods ranging from election interference, to assassinations, to invading European neighbors, to renewed nuclear competition with Washington.
A normal U.S. administration would consider itself duly warned. President Donald Trump is more likely to ignore president-for-life Putin’s misdeeds — or even egg him on.
Putin makes no secret of his desire to hasten the decline of Western democracies, which he sees as decadent and crumbling, by exploiting and widening existing divisions among Americans.
Continuing Russian election interference is only one tool, yet Trump still vehemently dismisses its importance, which makes it harder to counter. Just this week, the president railed against upcoming classified intelligence briefings to Congress on Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere in 2020 elections.
Even more disturbing is Putin’s effort to solidify the gains from invading neighboring Ukraine in 2014 and annexing Crimea. Yet, even after the impeachment saga, Trump continues to undercut Ukraine, promoting the line of Russian intelligence that Kyiv, not Moscow, was behind the hacking in the 2016 election. GOP legislators are even pushing legislative investigations to prove this canard. (Trump’s reelection campaign has even sued the Washington Post and New York Times for opinion articles on Trump’s attitude towards Russian interference.)
Trump also seems unmoved by other Russian crimes in Ukraine: this week a Dutch court is trying four men with ties to Russian security services for the shooting down of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 passengers, mostly Dutch citizens. Despite mountains of evidence, Russia continues denies any involvement.
Putin’s criminal behavior extends as well to assassinations of his opponents on British soil, by poison. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made clear that relations with Moscow can’t normalize until the Kremlin stops denying any involvement.
If the Russian leader can still get away in 2020 with assassinations and the shooting down of a civilian jet, what will he try next? Especially if he is president for life.
You can get an idea by looking further at Putin’s current international behavior. In Syria, Russian planes repeatedly bomb civilian hospitals, clinics, and shelters — committing massive war crimes — in a successful effort to ensure that their proxy, Bashar al-Assad, remains in power. Putin aims to expand Russian power, with bases in Syria and probably Libya, to challenge NATO in the eastern Mediterranean.
Meantime, as the coronavirus spreads, Putin has helped exacerbate the global economic shock by waging an oil war with Saudi Arabia and driving prices down. His broad aim — to undercut shale producers in America and make their production unprofitable, even if it costs Russians dearly at home. (He has amassed a reserve fund of $500 billion from previous oil profits that will enable him to continue to play such games for quite a while.)
Indeed, in his effort to restore Russian glory and power, Putin is indifferent to the desires of his own citizens. According to Russia’s Levada-Centre polling organization, around 44% of voters want Putin to quit in 2024, while 45% believe he should stay, reports the Moscow Times. But such numbers don’t seem to matter.
The Russian ruble keeps falling, his economy is weak, and Russia has failed to diversify beyond its energy resources into the high-tech economy that once seemed within its reach.
From the little that is known, the Kremlin appears to have done little to contain the coronavirus, with only 20 cases reported this week. Yet Putin appears impervious. “After his self-coup, there will be no protests allowed because of coronavirus,” says the noted independent Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats.
Nor is there likely to be any pushback from President Trump, despite Putin’s malignant political and military interference in Europe, the Mideast — and the United States. Instead, President Trump often amplifies Putin’s denials of malfeasance.
Consider this: China’s Xi Jinping eliminated term limits and made himself president for life, and now Putin has followed suit. The world’s two most prominent authoritarians are set never to leave office.
Trump has joked about staying on beyond two terms, should he win in 2020. We know Putin’s misbehavior doesn’t concern him.
Even as he muffs the U.S. response to the coronavirus, does Trump, too, dream of becoming president for life?