The Russian president’s only successes in Europe this year have to do with natural gas exports. One was Germany’s steadfast refusal to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project despite U.S. pressure and the objections of Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine. Germany badly needs more Russian gas to attain its environmental goals. The Turkish Stream pipeline, meant to supply Turkey and parts of southern Europe, recently made landfall in Turkey. If the pipelines come on stream in the next few years, they will be one of the few reasons for Russians to be grateful to Putin after he’s gone. But if they’re derailed by sanctions, they, too, will be part of his destructive legacy.
U.S. sanctions, meanwhile, got worse for Russia, and though the Trump administration intends to lift restrictions on Rusal, Russia’s biggest aluminum manufacturer, more punitive measures are likely to follow as a result of the Democrats’ victory in the American midterm elections in November.
Putin also has been unable to convert Russian military success in Syria into political gains. Even if the U.S. pulls out its small force, a political settlement in favor of Putin’s ally Bashar Assad would be difficult. A deal wouldn’t be in the interests of Turkey, which also is heavily involved in Syria, and Germany and France, which are expected to cough up the funding for the country’s post-war restoration. Talks will drag on into next year, with uncertain results.
Nor does Putin have a strong grip on Libya and Venezuela, which are strategically important to the Russian oil sector. The Kremlin has made inroads in both, cultivating current and potential strongmen, but the situation in both countries is volatile. Remaining a force there while fighting on all the other foreign fronts will be a huge challenge of Putin’s remaining years in office.
Ukraine, in particular, is a front on which Putin can’t seem to win. The Kremlin failed to prevent a split in the Orthodox Church caused by Kiev’s desire for spiritual independence from Moscow. Ukrainians in general haven’t warmed to Russia despite their country’s economic and military troubles, and they’re integrating more and more into the West. The next president of Ukraine, who will be elected in 2019, will find it hard to be accommodating toward Putin, even tactically.
Given Russia’s stagnant, inefficient, corruption-ridden economy and a population that’s likely to refuse to tighten belts any further, Putin can’t feel confident enough at home to take too many risks abroad. He might be tempted to try to regain popularity by stirring up trouble, but he’ll likely fight the temptation because, the second time around, it could have the opposite effect. His trusty propaganda machine cannot mask Russians’ dissatisfaction with economic conditions. At the news conference, Putin touted 0.5 percent growth in inflation-adjusted incomes this year, though, in reality, official data for the first 11 months show them down 0.1 percent.
Next year will be tough. Without the emotional highs of re-election and a major sporting event, Putin will face a hard struggle against a completely alienated West, even as he tries to maintain a foothold in the Middle East and Africa and keep finances at home stable enough to withstand shocks from sanctions and he deals with a weakening oil price. With no spectacular achievements on the horizon, the autocrat’s fading appeal won’t be easy to restore, and factions within the regime preparing for the post-Putin era are likely to become bolder and more visible.