And on top of it all, Putin has an energy problem. It’s not just that oil prices are low and will remain so for sometime, although that certainly is a problem. The real essence of Putin’s energy woes are structural, not cyclical. The global energy game is changing—and it is not changing in Moscow’s favor.
Shale, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and renewables—three areas where Russia is extremely weak—are ascendant and are dramatically altering the market. The potential for ending sanctions on Iran puts a powerful new player and competitor —the world’s third-largest natural-gas producer—in the game. And the Ukraine conflict and Moscow’s aggressive posture toward the West have led Europe—Russia’s most important market—to change its energy policies and seek alternative suppliers. Moreover, rather than looking the other way as the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom repeatedly flouted the European Union's antitrust laws, Brussels is now cracking down. If one looks at Gazprom as a barometer of Russia’s fortunes, one statistic says it all: In 2008, the company had a market value of $360 billion; today it is worth just $55 billion.
Energy has always been Putin’s trump card. He has been able to use it to bully former neighbors into submission and bribe and blackmail the Europeans. Now it’s a trump card he is losing fast.
But at least Putin is still winning the battle for hearts and minds, right? For more than a year, we’ve been hearing about how Russia’s slick propaganda machine is crushing the West in the information war.
Moscow has no doubt been very effective in mounting guerrilla-marketing campaigns aimed at sowing doubt and confusion in the West. And Russian officials have been skillful in manipulating and surreptitiously influencing media narratives on issues like the war in Ukraine and the downing of flight MH17.
But guess what? After spending nearly half a billion dollars to get its message out to the world, after unleashing armies of trolls to disrupt Western news sites, after launching the most widespread disinformation campaign since the end of the Cold War, after all this, Russia’s global image is in the toilet.
According to the Pew Research Center’s new report, only three countries in the world have a net positive opinion of Russia: China, Vietnam, and Ghana. Worldwide, a median of just 30 percent of respondents viewed Russia favorably. Writing in Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky quipped that “the money might be spent just as wisely buying more $600,000 watches for Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.”
And the numbers are dismal across the board. In Europe, just 26 percent view Russia favorably; in the Middle East, only 25 percent do. In Latin America, it’s only 29 percent. In the regions most favorably inclined toward Russia—Asia and Africa—it’s just 37 percent. And if Russia’s global image is bad, Putin’s is dismal. Worldwide, just 24 percent trust him. In Europe, just 15 percent do.
To be sure, Russia’s propaganda machine is working wonders at home, where Putin’s popularity is stratospheric despite a flailing economy. But one has to wonder how much longer that can last.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.