Savchenko’s release signals Putin’s fall to Earth

Nadiya Savchenko far into one of her hunger strikes while in Russian prison

Nadiya Savchenko far into one of her hunger strikes while in Russian prison 

Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Dirk Mattheisen

The return of Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine is an inflection point in the Russian-Ukrainian [political and military – Ed.] conflict.  It is the moment when Putin tacitly acknowledged that the cost for Russia of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is too high, and he has to do something about it.  Cold calculation, not the sudden embrace of humanitarianism, accounts for Putin’s change of heart.

However, Nadiya’s return to Ukraine will prove costly to Putin as well.  Nadiya has become the Joan of Arc of Ukraine.  Her belligerence while on trial in Russia on fabricated war crime charges made her the embodiment of Ukrainian pride and resistance to Russian aggression.

While captive in Russia, she was also the embodiment of Russia’s ability to act with impunity.  Now that illusion is gone.

Russian nationalists, and all stripes of the Russian political right, will not readily accept this betrayal.  Already the Russian blogosphere is alive with indignation and shouts of betrayal.  The general Russian population will be left confused and uncertain. Giving Nadiya up in exchange for two hapless Russian soldiers [military intelligence operatives carrying the ranks of a captain and a sergeant – Ed.] captured in Ukraine does not obviously support Putin’s narrative of a strong Russia pushing back a duplicitous and weak West.  Putin’s supporters do not give a damn about humanitarian gestures in the face of their imperialist ambitions.

Read also: Savchenko free, Russians furious and confused

Putin’s awareness of this is reflected in the treatment of the two Russian soldiers who were swept away from public view as quietly as possible when they arrived in Moscow, unlike Nadia who made a one-woman victory march through Kyiv before thousands of enthusiastic Ukrainians.

Putin did not give up Nadiya without a thought about how it served his larger purpose.  Possibly, the West made it clear that Minsk II could not advance without Nadiya’s release, and Putin buckled.  But, possibly, also, there is an understanding already between the West and Russia about how Nadiya’s release will lead to next steps to unwind the conflict.  News reports at the time of Nadiya’s release that the “The Kremlin supports Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s wish ‘to return Donbas’ for humanitarian reasons” may be a tiny scent of something more in the air.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.

Putin has started down this road because he needs an exit—and well before the 2018 presidential election.  Although most Russians still support his imperialist ambitions, the Russian economy is Putin’s Achille’s heel.  The headline GDP number is not falling as fast as last year, but underlying indicators, such as sales and consumption, are still in freefall.  GDP is reported to have fallen by only -1.2% in the first quarter of 2016.  However, real wages fell by -1.7%, retail sales by -4.8%, and disposable income by -7.1%.  The export sector, including military sales, may slow the fall in the headline GDP number, but it isn’t enough to turn the economy around and the risks are to the downside.  Alexei Kudrin, now deputy chair of the Russian Presidential Economic Council, believes the economy has hit bottom but there is no evidence it will grow.  Wages will still go unpaid or fall.  Working hours will be reduced.  Wages and pensions will not be indexed to inflation, which remains high enough to erode the average Russian’s sense of economic security.  The appointment of Kudrin as a deputy means he can argue for reform from within Putin’s administration, but he can’t command the reforms to happen.  This suggests that Kudrin’s appointment is more about using his prominence to take the steam out of opposition criticism of the economy before this fall’s parliamentary election, without actually doing anything.  His ideas will in any case be strongly opposed by others resulting in policy gridlock.

True patriots, Russians welcomed easy victories to restore Russian glory and even tightened their belts to weather the passing storm, but they did not sign on for continually falling wages and pensions.  And they did not sign on for retreat from Russian glory.  Nadiya’s release signals Putin’s opening gambit in dialing down the Ukraine conflict so that he can project normalcy to the West and relieve Russia’s isolation (while continuing more subtle forms of subversion; after all, the big game is still in play).  However, each retreat from what has been acclaimed as restoring Russia power and glory will suck air out from under Putin’s wings and bring him quickly to earth.

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