Western Criticism Bolsters Putin at Home

By FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, being cast in the West as a global supervillain is proving a boon for his image at home.

The day before Mr. Putin announced a re-election bid last week, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia's athletes from competing under their own flag in the 2018 Winter Olympics, citing evidence of a state-organized doping campaign extending all the way to the top echelons of government. The president's loyal oligarchs, already hampered by international sanctions imposed after Mr. Putin's 2014 moves to annex the Crimea and help ethnic Russians gain control of parts of Ukraine, have been further stymied by a new round of U.S. sanctions imposed in August. Those measures were meant to punish Russia for its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, which U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed directly on the Kremlin leader.

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Far from harming Mr. Putin, such negative headlines merely create narratives that enhance his stature, Russian political observers say.

"They are simply a gift to Putin," said Andranik Migranyan, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "It creates the impression for the most of the population that Russia is like a besieged fortress, and we need to rally around the leader."

That is an image Mr. Putin is likely to play up as he takes the stage Thursday for his annual press conference, particularly since he can't point to much in the way of economic success for Russia. The traditional end-of-the-year televised marathon of questions and answers gains special significance this year as the president seeks to extend his 17-year stint running the country by another six years in March elections.

Mr. Putin has acquired an aura of competence and power in part thanks to Russia's swaggering return to the world stage in recent years. On Monday, during a trip to the Middle East, he declared Russia's military intervention on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a success; the next day Russian state television broadcast images of Russian troops returning home. The Russian president, who previously got the cold shoulder from other world leaders over the annexation of Crimea, is once again a fixture at international summits. At last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vietnam, he had several conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump, who said he found Mr. Putin "very insulted" by the allegations of electoral meddling.

But Russian observers say those allegations have helped create an impression among Russian citizens that their president is a political mastermind, a factor they say has raised Mr. Putin's presidential stature much as his assertive foreign policy has.

After the U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Mr. Putin ordered a campaign to influence the outcome of last year's U.S. election, the Kremlin denied any such interference. But viewed from Moscow, the mere suspicion that Mr. Putin and his alleged legion of hackers managed to throw a U.S. election feeds perfectly into the president's narrative of state power, figures in Russia's embattled liberal opposition say.

"This is one of the trumps of the Kremlin to make them look all powerful, all important," said Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian political adviser. "Secondly, they have this picture of an enemy, and this helps unite people behind Putin."

That foreign foil is proving especially important for Mr. Putin's campaign. The Kremlin leader is widely expected to win a fourth term as president in March, but the domestic outlook isn't positive.

Russia is emerging only haltingly from a recession brought on by Western sanctions and a slump in global oil prices. Ordinary Russians have seen the value of the ruble drop by half against the dollar since 2014. And the country is confronting forecasts of long-term population decline.

Mr. Putin isn't entirely immune to those negatives. In a recent survey by the respected pollster Levada-Center, 55% of respondents said they held the president "fully responsible" for the problems Russia faces, up from 43% in January 2016.

So Thursday's message, analysts say, will be simple: Mr. Putin will show himself as the man in charge of a country under attack. Mr. Shkliarov said Mr. Putin is formidably well prepared for his annual televised Q&A, and knows how to dominate the format.

"He knows this is the highest rating on TV," he said. "He can play a really good game, his game."

Being accused, and even feared, in the West hardly hurts him.

"External pressure strengthens Putin's position within the Russian elite; the same thing with the population," said Evgeny Minchenko, a Russian political analyst. "That sense of injury that people have about the Russian team in the Olympics consolidates everyone around Putin."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 13, 2017 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)