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Putin’s Crooked Road to Damascus

MOSCOW – When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, he knew he would grab the world’s attention and upstage US President Barack Obama with his call for a united front in the battle against the Islamic State. But Putin was addressing Russians, too, knowing full well the need to distract them from their country’s increasingly obvious economic woes.

Last year, the distraction was the annexation of Crimea, followed by the encouragement of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. The recent dispatch of Russian aircraft, missiles, and a few thousand troops to Syria is a flag-waving substitute for that failed “Novorossiya” project. Putin’s critics rightly see his Syrian adventure as yet another appeal to Russian nostalgia for the Soviet past: the USSR was mighty – and Putin claims that Russia can and does have the same power.

But to what end? Wrong-footing the United States and the West may be good tactics in the short term, but there seems to be no long-term vision of the purposes that Russian power is supposed to serve, other than to preserve the power of Russia’s elites. As a result, the regime mimics the forms of democracy while using its propaganda to foment an aggressive form of nationalism.

In the early years of this century the combination of high oil prices and economic growth dulled the elites’ appetite for strategic thinking and allowed them to ignore the subsequent rollback of health-care, education, and social-welfare reforms. The regime and the public now see the current situation as more or less normal – a “non-crisis crisis.” Because perception shapes reality, everything is normal, nothing has to be done, and Putin – having supposedly restored Russia’s dignity – can enjoy his approval ratings of more than 80%.