What to expect from Putin and a resurgent Russia

Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin welcomes Ksenia Sobchak, Pavel Grudinin and Sergei Baburin during a meeting with other candidates in the poll, a day after the presidential election, at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2018

What to expect from Putin and a resurgent Russia

MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin now has a stronger hold on Russia — and stronger place in the world — thanks to an overwhelming mandate for yet another term as president.
His domestic opponents are largely resigned to another six years in the shadows. His foreign opponents are mired in their own problems, from Britain’s messy exit from the European Union to chaos and contradiction in the Trump administration.
Even widespread voting violations are unlikely to dent Putin’s armor. And accusations that he meddled in the US election and sponsored a nerve agent attack in Britain have only bolstered his standing at home.
Here is a look at what to expect from Putin’s next six years in power, for Russia’s rivals, neighbors and its own 147 million citizens.

New Cold War?
Relations between Russia and the West are already at their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago.
Despite a friendly-ish relationship with President Donald Trump, Putin’s new mandate gives him little incentive to seek entente with Washington, especially as the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election intensifies.
Putin-friendly leaders have made gains in recent Italian and German elections. Western countries are likely to see more Russia-linked hacking and propaganda aimed at disrupting elections or otherwise discrediting democracy — including the US midterm elections in November.
Since Putin’s domestic popularity bumps whenever he stands up to the West, expect more tough talk from Putin the next time he faces threats at home, and bolder Russian vetoes at the UN Security Council of anything seen as threatening Moscow’s interests.
His claim several weeks ago that Russia has developed new nuclear weapons that can evade missile defenses clearly showed Putin’s adamant determination to boost Russia’s power to intimidate.

Syria and the extremist threat
Russian-backed Syrian forces helped rout the Daesh group from Syria, and Putin argues that Russia saved the day in a conflict that had confounded US-led forces fighting against Daesh.
Now those Russian-backed Syrian forces are closing in on the last strongholds of Western-backed rebel forces.
Viewing that as a geopolitical and military victory over an illegal Western-led intervention, Russia is unlikely to pull out of Syria anytime soon.
An emboldened Putin could position the resurgent Russian military as a peacemaker in other regional conflicts — for example in Libya, where Russia has oil interests and where a disastrous Western invasion seven years ago left a lawless state now seething with extremists.

Russia’s neighbors
To Russians, Putin’s biggest victory in 18 years in power was annexing Crimea and crushing Ukraine’s ambitions to move closer to the EU and NATO.
Putin is frustrated at the resulting US and EU sanctions but appears unwilling to make concessions that would bring them to an end. Ukraine is split between a volatile government in Kiev and a Russia-backed separatist region stuck in a frozen but still deadly conflict that serves Putin’s interests.
Moscow’s actions in Ukraine sent a warning signal to other countries in Russia’s orbit that reaching westward is dangerous. And former Soviet bloc states within the EU are increasingly drifting back toward Moscow, from Hungary and Poland to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Fellow Russians
Putin’s new mandate could theoretically hand him the power to make bold reforms that Russia has long needed to raise living standards and wean itself from its oil dependence.
But Putin has convinced Russian voters that drastic change is dangerous, and that protecting the country from threats takes precedence over improving daily life.
Experts predict he may enact some changes like expanding affordable housing and fighting corruption on a local level.
But less likely are bigger changes such as overhauling the pension system, which is unpopular among a strong Putin voting base, or spending cuts in the security sector, unpopular among the ex-KGB friends in Putin’s entourage.
Russia has weathered a two-year recession, and inflation and the deficit are low. But personal incomes have stagnated, the health care system is crumbling and corruption is rife.

His own future
The biggest question for Russians over the next six years is what happens after that.
Putin is constitutionally required to step down in 2024, but he could change the rules to eliminate term limits, or anoint a malleable successor and continue to run things behind the scenes.
Asked at an impromptu news conference Sunday night if he would seek the presidency again in 2030, when he would be eligible again, the 65-year-old Putin snapped back: “It’s ridiculous. Do you think I will sit here until I turn 100?“
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most serious foe, will face further pressure from authorities as he works to expose corruption and official lies.
Other Putin rivals such as candidate Ksenia Sobchak and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky will try to gain a foothold through upcoming local elections and the Parliament.
And members of Putin’s inner circle will be jockeying for position for the day when he is no longer in the picture.
Putin may revive efforts to promote artificial intelligence and other innovation as part of a focus on the younger generation, whose loyalty he needs to ensure his legacy outlives him.

Canadian woman missing in west Africa believed to be alive: PM

In this handout photo released on January 17, 2019 from the Facebook page dedicated to their disappearance, Luca Tacchetto (L) and Edith Blais (R) pose for a selfie picture. (AFP)
Updated 4 min 47 sec ago

Canadian woman missing in west Africa believed to be alive: PM

  • Smaller groups are also active, with the overall number of fighters estimated to be in the hundreds, according to security sources

MONTREAL: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that a Canadian woman reported missing along with her Italian partner in Burkina Faso is believed to be alive.
“To the best of my knowledge, yes,” Trudeau said in response to a reporter’s question.
“With all that I know so far, I have not been told anything else other than that she is believed to be alive.”
The Canadian government said earlier it was leaving no stone unturned as it tries to determine what exactly happened to Edith Blais, 34, and her companion Luca Tacchetto, 30.
The pair were last seen on December 15 traveling by car in Burkina Faso between the town of Bobo-Dioulasso and the capital Ouagadougou, for a four- or five-day stay.
Kidnappings have increased in the impoverished Sahel state, which has been battling a rising wave of jihadist attacks over the last three years.
A Canadian travel warning had reported a risk of banditry and kidnapping in the area.
Late Wednesday, a Canadian geologist kidnapped at a remote gold mine in northeast Burkina Faso by suspected jihadists was found dead.
Blais and Tacchetto were working on a reforestation project with aid group Zion’Gaia.
Investigators on the ground have found no clues in their disappearance, but a senior Canadian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that they may have fallen victim to a kidnapping or a robbery gone awry.
“All options are being explored,” Canadian International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said after meeting Friday with Blais’ family in Quebec province.
“We are doing everything we can,” she said.
Burkino Faso is in the front line of a jihadist rebellion in the Sahel, a vast, dusty region on the southern rim of the Sahara.
Canada has 250 soldiers and eight army helicopters deployed in neighboring Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.
After chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, an Islamist insurgency gained ground in northern Mali, while Boko Haram rose in northern Nigeria.
Jihadist raids began in northern Burkina Faso in 2015 before spreading to the east, near the border with Togo and Benin.
Most of the attacks have been attributed to Ansarul Islam and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM).
Smaller groups are also active, with the overall number of fighters estimated to be in the hundreds, according to security sources.
The groups are believed to be responsible for more than 270 deaths since 2015.
Ouagadougou has been hit three times, including a coordinated attack last March that targeted the French embassy and devastated the country’s military headquarters.
Eight foreigners have been abducted in the last four years, according to an AFP tally.
Among them is 84-year-old Australian doctor Kenneth Elliott, who was kidnapped with his wife Jocelyn in April 2015 in Djibo, where the pair ran a clinic for the poor.
Jocelyn Elliott was released after a year. Her husband, whose whereabouts remain unknown, has been declared a citizen of Burkina Faso, under a decree issued last November.