After Russia’s surprise withdrawal from Syria, pundits are casting President Vladimir Putin as a shrewd and calculating commander.
Besides neutralizing some 2,000 Islamist fighters, destroying more than 200 oil production facilities and liberating 400 towns and villages, according to the Kremlin, they say he’s achieved another, more implicit series of goals.
But there is another solid reason Russia had to call a time-out from war in Syria: After having his attention fixed abroad, Putin now needs it back at home, where an ailing economy is pushing down living standards and threatening to undermine the economic and social stability on which he’s long based his rule.
In this video, crowds in the western region of Voronezh welcome Russian fighter pilots back home.
The Kremlin’s airstrikes in Syria cost up to an estimated $4 million per day, an amount some observers said was manageable. But on top of that, sagging global oil prices and Western sanctions, to punish Russia for meddling in Ukraine, have both steadily taken their toll on the Russian economy.
As a result, small protests have bubbled up across the country, the Washington Post reports, from demonstrations over the price of foreign currency-denominated mortgages to disgruntled truck drivers angry with rising tolls.
The number of those ready to publicly voice their grievances isn’t large, but it’s rising.
According to a fresh poll from the Levada Center, a respected think tank, 24 percent of respondents believe a drop in living standards could spark protests in their communities. That’s up from 18 percent in October, just as Russia began its bombings in Syria.
Analysts say the country’s economy is also plagued by more deeply seated problems, like stunted industrial production capacity, poor governance and a lack of overall trust.
“There is a complete crisis of confidence among entrepreneurs, professionals, and capital market investors in the Russian economy,” wrote Andrey Movchan, an economics expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “The investment and business resources it needs are not there and will not appear unless and until Russia’s governance model undergoes radical change.”
More from GlobalPost: If these Syrian kids’ drawings don’t move you, what will?
Indeed, one of the goals behind Putin’s intervention in Syria was to distract the Russian public from economic malaise, observers say. Taking aim at terrorists abroad, without involving Russian ground troops, was an effective way of reasserting Russian power abroad and consolidating support at home.
And it’s largely worked: According to Levada Center researcher Alexei Levinson, Putin’s approval ratings have remained steady despite the rise by 7 percentage points in the past two years of the number of people unable to afford anything but food. The number of those with disposable income, meanwhile, dropped by 10 percent.
Others, however, argue the Russian strongman may have realized that his Mideast muscle-flexing could cost him dearly if he doesn’t keep it under control.
Mark Galeotti, a security expert at New York University, says Putin’s decision to pull out of Syria could either be “short-lived” or aimed at shifting his focus back to keeping Ukraine — still plagued by a separatist war in the east — in Russia’s orbit.
“Or it may be that, his economy suffering, his elite worried and his people increasingly discontent, that this is the first sign of the emergence of a more pragmatic Putin,” Galeotti wrote, “who has come to realize that his grand vision for a re-empowered Russia is actually driving it towards penury and chaos.”
Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.