Written by Sofia Schwallie
On August 10th, incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was reelected for his fifth term in office as Belarusian president. The same day, the country broke out into protest, citing voter suppression and election fraud at the expense of Lukashenko’s younger and more progressive opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovsky. Soon after, Lukashenko was met with praise and congratulation from a variety of world leaders, one the most prominent being Russian president Vladimir Putin. Following the onset of the protests of Minsk, Putin pledged to deploy military aid to Lukashenko should he require it to quell the rioting in many prominent Belarusian cities. Putin can’t afford to lose his influence in Belarus, and this incident is just one of many ways in which Putin and his administration are capitalizing on the weakening force of the coronavirus to regain influence across former Soviet Union countries.
In 1999, Putin rose to the presidency following the resignation of disgraced President Boris Yeltsin. Notoriously a drunk and the subject of criticism for Russia’s chronically ailing economy, there was significant pressure for him to step down and make way for a new visionary to lead the country. In his first nineteen years leading the country as president and prime minister, Putin was able to restore the pride and patriotism of Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union and a decade of economic downturn following its switch to capitalism. He touted previously unheard-of approval rates in the first decade after his succession to the presidency, reaching upwards of 80% in 2014.
Following the rapid spread of the coronavirus across Russia, Putin delegated virus responses to local leaders, absolving him of responsibility for the worsening situation across major metropolitan areas such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. This nonresponse from the Kremlin drew widespread criticism from Russians and the world, and consequently, Putin saw a drop in his approval rating dropping to 59% in June. With reports of lowering coronavirus-related deaths and the possibility of an effective vaccine from the Kremlin’s top scientists, Putin’s popularity rose to February levels. In August alone, Putin’s approval rating rose 6 points, setting it at about 66%, a drastic increase compared to his all-time low levels of 59% through June. Further, Putin has capitalized on crashing oil prices to regain traction in the oil market, as Russia’s position has been slowly edged out by competition from Saudi Arabia and the United States. This rise in popularity has allowed for Putin to consolidate his power domestically to increase the authority of the Kremlin in Russia. In June of 2020, a referendum passed that extended presidential term limits, allowing Putin to stay in power as president until 2036. Passing with 77.9% of Russians voting in favor of resetting Putin’s term limits, setting Putin on track to be president for life. In addition to this change in Russia’s constitution, Putin was also granted control over the composition of Russia’s Constitutional Court, giving him further liberty to amend the constitution at will. Despite the mass resignation of his cabinet and Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, these changes went into effect and solidified Putin’s position as the manipulator of Russian government.
With less and less concerns about dissent and rebellion within his borders and many other countries preoccupied with mitigating the effects of the coronavirus, Putin has redirected his efforts to re-exerting his power abroad, specifically in ex-Soviet Union and western European countries. Russia has been publicly demonstrating its naval capabilities along the Baltic Coast and in the White Sea, engaging in cyber warfare and misinformation in the US and EU, all while limiting the release of information about the impacts of the coronavirus on Russian citizens. Putin’s involvement in countries such as Ukraine and Belarus has expanded alongside his power, allowing him to slowly rebuild and influence not unlike that of Russia under the Soviet Union. In the midst of these emerging entanglements, Russia is still deeply entrenched in a war with neighboring Ukraine, where the two countries have been in deadlock throughout the course of the pandemic. Despite earlier agreements for a ceasefire amidst the pandemic, Russian troops have been widely accused of violating these agreements to continue its campaign to control Crimea. With the recent succession of Lukashenko to power, Putin has set his eyes southward to continue his expansion of international influence.
By strategically creating alliances and disruptions amongst its neighbors and adversaries, Russia and the Kremlin are setting the stage for a new era of Russian influence where it can once again become a superpower in the international sphere. A Russian superpower could potentially disrupt the balance of the UN, weaken U.S. and E.U. relations with fringe democratic countries, and theoretically launch the U.S. into an arms production upturn. This pattern is unlikely to be halted naturally as Putin accumulates more and more power domestically and abroad. Alongside Russia’s permanent seat on the UN security council, there isn’t an international or domestic body that could abate this spread of power. With the incoming Biden presidency and the promise of the reestablishment of NATO relationships, the force to stop Putin’s expansion of power will likely grow enough to lessen successful Russian involvement in destabilizing affairs.