Russian President Vladimir Putin notched another public relations victory on Oct. 30 when Forbes magazine named him the world’s most powerful person, reports news intelligence agency Stratfor.
Every year, the magazine publishes a list of the heads of state, financiers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who “truly rule the world,” so it is little surprise that the U.S. president ordinarily ranks No. 1. Indeed, Barack Obama has topped the list every year of his presidency, save for 2010, when Chinese President Hu Jintao surpassed him following the financial crisis in 2009.
But a lot has happened in 2013 that apparently swayed Forbes’ opinion. The magazine had this to say when it bestowed the (admittedly symbolic) title on the Russian president: “Putin has solidified his control over Russia while Obama’s lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president - latest example: the government shutdown mess. Anyone watching this year’s chess match over Syria and National Security Agency leaks has a clear idea of the shifting individual power dynamics.”
Certainly, Russia has become strong and relatively stable since the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. More recently, it has been quick to point out its foreign policy successes and U.S. failures. Russia has gloated that it was the country to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria, preventing a U.S.-led international military intervention. Moreover, Russian news agencies, especially those tied to the Kremlin, have been actively promoting the NSA security leaks that are complicating foreign relations for the United States.
Russia’s goals in promoting its successes are manifold. First, Moscow is trying to portray the United States as weak and untrustworthy. This comes as Russia is also trying to expand its influence into its periphery, particularly Central Europe, where many countries have turned to the United States for protection over the past decade.
Moscow is slowly dispelling the notion that the United States is a reliable defender that is able to stand up to Russia. In addition, Russia hopes the leaks over the NSA spying scandal will weaken Washington’s alliance system, particularly with European heavyweights such as Germany and France.
Second, Russia is trying to present itself as a viable alternative to U.S. global authority. Putin most famously did so in his September op-ed in The New York Times, in which he harshly criticized American exceptionalism. The article was written as world powers were negotiating a solution for Syria. Russia wants to be seen as a global decision-maker and power broker, and its regional and global expansion has registered with many Russo-wary states, such as Turkey and Poland.
Last, Russia is making a large show of strength in the world to divert attention from its various domestic problems. Putin’s rationale is that the stronger his country looks on the outside, the longer it will take the rest of the world to realize the weaknesses on the inside.
Despite massive energy revenues, the Russian economy is stagnating, with a projected growth rate of only 1.8 percent. Projections suggest that growth will remain slow for the next three years. By comparison, the Russian economy has grown by 3.4 to 4 percent annually in recent years. Russian energy may suffer more in the coming years from competition in liquefied natural gas developments and shale gas production, creating an uncertain future for the government’s largest source of revenue.
Russia is also currently experiencing elevated levels of social unrest. A more politically vocal generation is rising in the country, as are tensions among ethnic and religious groups. Over the past month alone, Russia has seen anti-migrant and anti-Muslim riots by nationalists, subsequent riots by Muslims and migrants and a militant attack outside the Caucasus region.
Meanwhile, after 15 years of domination by Putin, the Russian political system is showing signs of atrophy. There are growing discrepancies among the Russian elite, who care more about preserving their positions than they do about the state. And yet there is no system in place that can bring the next generation of Russian leaders into the fold.
Russia is a country that is only as strong abroad as it is at home. Right now, Putin is projecting Russia’s strength outwardly, knowing that there are serious domestic threats to that strength. In short, Putin is enjoying the moment while he can.