It felt a bit like a return of the Vladimir Putin of yore today as video was released of the Russian president climbing into a small submersible to view the recently discovered wreck of a Byzantine era trading ship off the coast of Crimea. Putin spoke by radio to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev while still underwater, saying the wreck showed "how deep our historical roots are." As Buzzfeed's Max Seddon notes, the timing is unfortunate as this month marks the 15th anniversary of the sinking of the submarine Kursk, one of the worst naval disasters in Russian history and a lowpoint of Putin's presidency, but official media accounts are unlikely to dwell on that.
This type of adventurous outdoorsy stunt—often involving wild animals, sometimes not involving a shirt—used to be fairly common (this isn't even his first submarine ride), but then they started to work against Putin: Rumors that he had been injured on a glider flight with endangered cranes drew unwanted attention to his advancing age; he was publicly ridiculed after emerging wet-suitted from the Black Sea having “discovered” several rare amphorae. So Putin’s handlers transitioned him to a more serious, sober image. But given recent events, perhaps it was decided that some levity was in order.
Russia is struggling through a deep recession, the first since 2009, and the ruble just hit a six-month low against the dollar with analysts saying deep structural changes are needed to right the country’s economy. The main culprit is the falling price of oil—the source of about half of the Russian government’s revenue—currently trading at around $42 a barrel compared to $115 last summer. Western sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine have also limited Russian access to foreign capital and much-needed equipment for the oil industry.
Meanwhile, the retaliatory sanctions Russia placed on imports of western food products have hurt Russian consumers more than foreign producers, with prices for consumer goods increasing while the economy craters.
As the New York Times notes today, none of this has put much of a dent in Putin’s approval ratings, which remain high thanks to his popular interventions in the face of western opposition in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. But the future outlook’s not so bright there either.
In addition to underwater sightseeing, Putin’s three-day trip to Crimea is an opportunity to tout the integration and development of the region that Russia annexed from Ukraine last year. But elsewhere in Ukraine, the violent stalemate continues with nine killed this week in some of the worst fighting between Russian-backed separatist and Ukrainian troops since a fragile ceasefire went into effect in February.
As analyst Brian Whitmore recently argued in the Atlantic, if Eastern Ukraine remains a “frozen conflict” with sporadic low-level violence and no political resolution, it’s not great for Moscow, which finds itself occupying a region that was economically depressed even before it was devastated by war. In contrast, Ukraine will be freer to pursue integration with Europe, with ethnic Russian voters in the east effectively cut out of the political process. If Putin’s original goal was to punish Ukrainian leaders for rejecting Russian influence, he may in the long run end up accomplishing the opposite.
No matter how many submarine expeditions Putin takes, the dismal state of the economy will eventually take its toll on the government, particularly if the president’s foreign policy goals are stalled.
That could push Putin toward more aggressive international moves, like, as Whitmore suggests, an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Or perhaps Putin will embark on a new land grab. The North Pole perhaps?