Panels rotate on a trivision election campaign billboard poster featuring incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

The Russian Election Means More of Putin's Risky Gamble

(Bloomberg View) -- On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will, with 100 percent certainty, be "elected" to his fourth official term in power (there was also an unofficial one while placeholder President Dmitri Medvedev was in the Kremlin). Russia enters his next six years as president committed to a reckless gamble on the absence of any enforceable international rules.

Putin spent the last six like a player in a shooter videogame. He started out with a puny handgun -- a Russian military exhausted by half-hearted attempts at reform and only promised modern equipment. He had a thick suit of armor, though: plausible deniability. When he needed it, he could construct elaborate excuses for his actions cloaked in the language of international norms or conventions. 

Throughout his latest term, Putin and his underlings have denied lots of things: that Russian troops took control of Crimea; that Russia intended to annex it; that Moscow fomented the uprising in Eastern Ukraine and backed it with troops and weapons; that the rebels or even Russian troops sent to aid them shot down a passenger airliner in July 2014; that ally Bashar al-Assad has used bombs and even chemical weapons against civilians; that Russia had anything to do with the 2016 Democratic National Committee hack or with any freelance hacking, trolling and mercenary operations anywhere; that Russia poisoned a former double agent in the U.K. with a military-grade nerve poison earlier this month. It's been hard to keep track of all the denials -- even for Putin himself. During a recent interview with Megyn Kelly, he nodded at his press secretary Dmitri Peskov -- the Kremlin's denier-in chief -- and said, "Sometimes he talks up such a storm that I watch it on TV and think, what is he talking about? Who instructed him to say this?"

That's not to say all the denials are insincere. Whether it's reports of Trump-Russia collusion or hacked elements of U.S. infrastructure, Putin is right that the public, his and America's, has the right to see the evidence; it shouldn't blindly trust intelligence services.

By this stage of the game, however, the armor of deniability is largely gone, worn out from overuse. Putin doesn't need it so much either; he no longer has a toy gun but instead wields a modernized military tested in the biggest armed confrontations Russia has faced since Soviet times and fitted with 21st-century technology. Reluctant to change anything domestically and likely at a loss for what to do about the economy, Putin will continue his current game of aggression.

Even so, if Russia is accused of anything at all, its default mode is denial and stonewall. It will not cooperate in good faith with any investigation. Rather, it will try to throw the investigators off track, as it did repeatedly with the Dutch Safety Board's inquiry into Flight MH17. That's what the Kremlin is trying to do now in the spy poisoning case, too, pointing fingers at other countries that it says could have produced the chemical used in the attack.

It's also clear by now that no amount of evidence will silence the denials; they can only be abandoned when Putin decides they're no longer needed, as in the Crimea annexation, glorified in a 2015 state TV documentary starring Putin. 

The denials have turned into a ritual, and that, to put it mildly, doesn't inspire trust, even when the evidence of wrongdoing is missing. The Kremlin only bothers to keep denying everything because many Russians choose to buy the line that Russia is the victim of a concerted Western effort to paint it black. They want to believe it because otherwise they'd have to be ashamed of their country, and that's intensely uncomfortable. And, while believing the denials, the same people can also take pride in the way Russia thumbs its nose at the West, grabs historic territory or metes out punishment to a traitor. It's a psychological paradox made easier by low engagement and state TV's mind-numbing cultivation of this impossible combination of pride and victimhood.

Putin knows fellow world leaders don't believe anything he says. So the way official Russia communicates with the outside world today is largely non-verbal. Examples of this one-sided communication include crude videos of rockets flying toward the U.S., which Putin used in his state of the nation speech earlier this month, real-life airstrikes and troop movements, and likely also cyberattacks and assassinations. Friday's successful $4.5 billion government bond sale is also a non-verbal signal, if of a different kind: It shows that, regardless of all the noise, Russia still has the most important kind of credibility -- as an investment destination.

Putin says he'd like to have a conversation with the West -- on his own terms. Even that, however, requires a modicum of trust, and it's hard to see how Putin can win it back. The revelation that he isn't really looking for a partnership with the West, no matter how limited, is probably the most important takeaway from his third presidential term. 

That makes the fourth one decisive, in a way. If Putin continues getting away with aggression of various kinds, if it turns out that whatever rules have existed since the Soviet Union's collapse do not apply to a country as big and militarily powerful as Russia, if the economic damage to the Russian state and companies is as minimal as it has been in the last six years, and if non-Western nations continue working constructively with Putin the way Turkey, Middle Eastern nations and China have been doing, Putin's legacy will be assured. His successors will learn the lesson that thuggishness is no sin if you have the strength, or even just the appetite for risk, to back it up. 

If, however, Putin is tripped up by the consequences of a risky move -- for example, if Russia's chemical weapons problem escalates and turns it into a pariah state -- the succession battle may get interesting while Putin is still in power. Those who believe Russia can power through any attempts to isolate it will be up against more sensible technocrats. I wouldn't like to bet on the outcome of that fight; in any case, Putin is taking a massive gamble with the nation's future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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