RUSSIA

Vladimir Putin Gloats At The End Of His Very Successful Year

“Nobody believed [Trump] would win,” Putin said. “Apart from us.”

RUSSIA
Vladimir Putin at his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow. — REUTERS
Dec 23, 2016 at 1:26 PM ET

Vladimir Putin was in the mood to gloat.

And who could blame him, at the end of what has been a truly annus horribilis for his foes in the West?

“You need to be able to lose gracefully,” Putin told journalists at his annual news conference on Friday, when questioned about claims  that Kremlin hackers had interfered in the U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. “[The Democratic Party] lost on all fronts, and now they are looking for people to blame.”

From Europe to the United States, it’s been a year that has seen a reshaping of values in Putin’s nationalist, anti-liberal image. From Brexit, and the triumph of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader who has spoken long and often of his respect for Russia’s strongman leader, to the capture of the White House by Trump, a man who so admires Putin that he felt moved to invent a personal acquaintance with him, the West has undergone a startling ideological shift.

“This was the year that Western democracies acted on their Putin envy – the temptation for a strongman leader who will bypass government institutions,” said Anna Arutunyan, the author of “The Putin Mystique,” a study of the Russian leader.

“[Trump] is inspiring corrosive ideas in his followers,” she added. “It’s a way of thinking associated with authoritarian societies such as Russia — a deep-seated, fatalistic distrust in legal-rational institutions, in rule of law.”

Putin made little secret of his preference for Trump over Clinton during the U.S. presidential campaign, and although on Friday he again denied that the Russian government had been involved in a cyberattack on the Democratic National Convention, he couldn’t resist an aside that will surely reignite the row.

“Nobody believed he would win,” he said. “Apart from us.”

More For Russia, A Trump Victory Gives Putin Free Rein

If the past decade or so has seen what many analysts have described as a New Cold War, then this very well may have been the year that Russia finally leveled the scorecard.

Like the first Cold War, which saw the triumph of Western democracy over the Communist ideology that had held sway in the Soviet Union for over 70 years, the endgame was as unexpected as it was swift. And as in the late 1980s, it was media outlets that played a leading role in the triumph of one ideology over the other. Only this time around, according to some U.S.-based researchers, it was the Kremlin’s journalists who came out on top, rather than the BBC and Radio Liberty.

“Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2014. Less than three years later, and his words are beginning to look like a massive underestimation of the Kremlin’s reach and ambition.

When informed on Friday by a state media journalist that, according to a recent poll, 37 percent of Republican Party members have a favorable view of him, Putin welcomed the news as a vindication of his policies. “It means that a significant part of the American people have the same perception about how the world should be developing,” he said to applause. “It is good that people support us in this, in terms of traditional values.”

It’s not only millions of Americans who share the same ideas as Putin, the former KGB officer who has now ruled Russia for almost 17 years.

A pro-Kremlin prime minister is all but inevitable in France after next year’s likely presidential showdown between Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, both who have strong ties to Russia. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party, which this week became the first major European political party to sign a cooperation pact with Putin’s ruling United Russia party, is leading in the polls. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is open about his approval for Putin’s Russia, is taking his country in a distinctly hardline direction. Even Poland, where anti-Russia sentiment is high, is taking a leaf or two out of Putin’s authoritarian notebook.

“This was a breakthrough year,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst. “If in the past for Russia there were more failures than successes, then now there are clearly more successes than failures.”

And Putin’s influence is set to grow even further, should Congress approve Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of state. The ExxonMobil chief executive has some two decades of doing business in Russia and frequently meets with Putin, both formally and informally. He is also close to Igor Sechin, a Kremlin hardliner who is believed to have been part of a small group of Putin associates who plotted Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Speaking this year at an economic forum in Russia, Tillerson called Sechin “my friend.” For his part, Sechin has said he would like to ride motorcycles through America with the Texan oilman.

Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state would signal the biggest change in U.S. foreign policy “for decades,” according to Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank. “Tillerson is not guided by a set of post-Cold War dogmas,” he said.

Others have been far harsher. Writing in the Russian-language edition of Forbes, Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister who is now an opposition politician, said Tillerson’s willingness as Exxon chief to do business with dictators from Africa to Asia represented a “complete contradiction of what we have heard from American leaders over the past decades about the values of a democratic civilization.”

No wonder then that Russia’s parliament burst into applause and lawmakers opened bottle of champagne when Trump’s election victory was announced. “The euphoria among Russia’s ruling elite was even greater that at Trump headquarters,” said Valery Solovey, a professor at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations.

More Russia’s Slide Into Ultra-Conservatism

Putin’s newfound influence is visible nowhere so much as Syria, where Russia’s military has been instrumental in retaking Aleppo, the war-torn Middle East country’s second biggest city, for President Assad.

This week, Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to cooperate to stage peace talks between Assad and the opposition, and to become the guarantors of any deal. The United States is not involved in the negotiations. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, was blunt about why: “All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure,” he said. “None of them wielded real influence.”

But risks remain for Putin in Syria, which some analysts predict could become a second Afghanistan for Russia. The Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan took the lives of some 15,000 Red Army soldiers.

“Putin has taken Aleppo for Assad, but he doesn’t know what to do with it now,” said Alexander Shumilin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “Russia is getting deeper and deeper into Syria, and Putin wants to get out.”

Domestically, Putin may have all but crushed the country’s once vibrant opposition movement, but economic turmoil is making Russians poorer by the week. Over 20 million Russians – around 15 percent of the population — are now living beneath a poverty line defined as just 9,889 rubles ($155) a month, according to official statistics. He may have won the war of ideologies, but Putin desperately needs Trump to make good on his promise to “look into” scrapping US economic sanctions against Russia.

Some Russian opposition figures warned Trump not to kid himself that Putin is a man he can do business with. “If Trump thinks that Putin will observe any deals they may make, then he is deeply mistake,” said Igor Eidman, a Kremlin critic and cousin of Boris Nemtsov, the slain opposition leader. “Putin is the product of a criminal system where agreements are only observed as long as they are beneficial. Putin will dump Trump if he feels he needs to.”