For Vladimir Putin, the face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden was a small victory. The Russian president has gone from being considered in public by his American counterpart an assassin to being defined as a “worthy adversary”; and now to be treated as a statesman. With the summit on Wednesday in Geneva, at the initiative of Biden, Putin has managed to give himself a halo of legitimacy on the world stage by appearing – despite his declining economy – as a power that must be considered. The head of the Kremlin will now try to capitalize on the appointment and the visibility at home, where the health crisis due to the coronavirus does not give truce, and social discontent over inflation and political repression can once again take a toll on his popularity.
The summit of mistrust and thaw between Russia and the United States opened the way for dialogue, but left few concrete results in the short term. Both leaders were satisfied but cautious. And it is difficult to take stock: the Kremlin must show signs that it remains interested in continuing the talks and intends to put the pranks aside. This Thursday, the Russian leader once again had words of praise for Biden. He noted that Russian and American state media have at times mistakenly portrayed the White House leader as out of focus because of age (78 years). “Biden is a professional, and you have to be very careful working with him to make sure you don’t miss a thing. He does not lose anything, I can assure you ”, said the Russian president in a conference on-line before a group of university students.
Balance sheets aside, for now, for his internal speech, Putin has obtained the recognition he longed for from the summit. Especially when Biden defined Russia as a “proud” nation and a “great power”; unlike former President Barack Obama, who spoke of the Eurasian country as a “regional power.”
Putin’s popularity has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, the economic situation and social repression. The nationalist effect after the illegal annexation in 2014 of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which led the Russian leader to reach more than 80% approval, according to the polls of the Levada center – the only independent center in the country – began to fade in 2018 with the controversial pension reform that increased the retirement age. And it continued to drop to 60% in the middle of the pandemic, with the Russian leader isolated in one of his official residences. These are extremely high numbers by Western standards, but for the Kremlin they were a blow.
Now, timidly, Putin’s approval is rising again, as the Russian authorities are systematically stifling and silencing the opposition, and have wiped his fiercest rival, Alexei Navalni, who is serving time in a Russian prison for a controversial case and who almost lost his life last August due to a poisoning after which the West sees the hand of the Kremlin. The dissident’s case, which deeply worries Biden, hovered over the Geneva talks. And it also served Putin as a message to Russia, when in the press conference after the meeting he accused the United States of defending the opposition to weaken the Eurasian country. Moscow, says political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, has made the United States a crucial factor in the system by giving it the role of “enemy” when it needs to mobilize society. “The weaker the legitimation of power through elections, the more necessary is the enemy”, Describes the expert in an analysis.
Political consultant Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech writer for the Kremlin from 2008 to 2010, explains that the protests that eroded the Russian leader’s popularity have been “drowned out” and the effect on popularity numbers will continue until another wave of popularity returns. demonstrations that the Russian authorities are trying so hard to tame. The expert has no doubts that the Russian government will use the results of the summit for “propaganda” purposes. “He will say that Putin surpassed Biden and, much more importantly, he will try to show that Russia is not a marginal country, as Russians are beginning to think, but a key actor who decides the fate of the world,” he says.
The legislative elections next September are just around the corner, and the Kremlin will use whatever cartridge it can use. And the summit, after which Putin once again exploded before the cameras of half the world his usual rhetoric that Russia suffers external interference in foreign policy, was a good platform. United Russia, the party that receives the support of the Kremlin, is at historic lows of vote intention: 29%, according to the latest data from the VTsIOM pollster, and the government is concerned that it will not be able to maintain the current supermajority (343 out of 450 seats).
With the stagnant economy and the effect of sanctions, Russia has used the threat of force and displayed its military muscle to remember on the global geopolitical board that it is still there: that it is a player; one with nuclear weapons. On Wednesday, while the leaders spoke on the shores of Lake Geneva, Estonia and Latvia (members of NATO) reported that Russian planes violated their airspace. And Russia has not yet withdrawn a large group of troops from the borders with Ukraine, where they mobilized in April, triggering the alarm of the Atlantic Alliance and the EU. The most humiliating thing for their logic, says the political scientist Shevtsova, is that Washington begins to ignore Moscow: “Russia can find a reason to regain attention.”