MOSCOW – A joke I heard repeatedly during two weeks in Russia hints at what we should expect from Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as president, which begins this week.
One Russian academic admitted, “This joke isn’t really funny.” But it does reveal the difficulties America will continue to face in dealing with Putin in the coming six years (compounded by Donald Trump’s strange affection for the Russian strongman).
Angry at new Western sanctions, the joke goes, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tells a security official, “Bomb London.”
“But my daughter is studying there,” the security official complains.
“OK, bomb New York.”
“But my son is working there,” a Cabinet minister interjects.
“Then bomb Voronezh,” Lavrov finally snaps in frustration, referring to a Russian provincial city.
Among the Russian intelligentsia, the meme “Bomb Voronezh” means Putin’s reactions to sanctions are hurting ordinary Russians more than they do the West.
On the surface, Moscow doesn’t look as if it is hurting. Throughout the city, glitzy malls feature high-end Western brands of clothing and furniture. A wall plaque of Lenin not far from the Kremlin sits next to a huge glass window splashed with the Valentino label. Fancy restaurants and coffeehouses are full.
But the Russian ruble has slid as sanctions took hold, badly hurting ordinary Russians. A professor may make only several hundred dollars a month, with salaries in the provinces far lower.
During my stay, the Russian Duma proposed banning the import of Western medicines in retaliation to sanctions, although many of these meds are essential for Russians. (In retaliation for previous sanctions imposed by Congress, the Duma banned U.S. adoptions of Russian children.) Truly, perfect examples of Bomb Voronezh.
Moreover, Putin’s hostility to Facebook and Twitter — which he views as U.S. tools against authoritarianism — encourages those in the Kremlin who want to take full control of social media — and ban foreign internet servers. “For Putin, the internet is the enemy,” says Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru. “He has no internet account, never.”
That kind of thinking led to the Russian government’s disastrous attempt last month to shut down the Telegram messaging app.
The “Bomb Voronezh” meme also hits at the hypocrisy of top Kremlin officials and allies whose kids work or study in Western capitals; ordinary Russians — academics, students, business people, those with relatives in America — must now wait for many months to get a U.S. visa. That’s because of Russia’s imposition of massive staff reductions at the American embassy, which were Moscow’s response to last year’s congressional sanctions over Russian election meddling in 2016.
But the meme also has a bigger geopolitical meaning.
Putin’s anger has grown at what he considers Western disrespect for Russian sovereignty and greatness. “Putin is after something he can never get,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He wants to be respected as a coequal of the United States. There is a bit of obsession in his mind about the U.S.”
In his search for Russian greatness, the Russian leader has enmeshed his country in foreign ventures — Ukraine, cybertrolling, election meddling — that have boomeranged badly. The resulting Western sanctions, along with much lower energy prices, have fueled economic stagnation in Russia.
“The non-oil sectors of the economy are going down,” says Andrey Movchan, director of the Economic Policy Program at Carnegie Russia. “Entrepreneurs, businessmen don’t invest because no one knows what comes next. Banks don’t loan. Many companies are sold to the state.”
The real problem, says Movchan, is the sanctions’ impact on Russian access to needed technologies for oil extraction, avionics, lasers, extraction of shale. This will impact Russia’s future.
In his State of the Union speech after Russian elections in March, Putin promised to advance high-tech and private business. But just about every Russian expert with whom I spoke said Putin has been making similar promises for his entire 18 years in the Kremlin, and has yet to deliver. Such modernization is even more unlikely if the Russian president further isolates Russia from the West.
The bottom line: Putin’s foreign adventures — and the resulting sanctions — have undermined Russia’s economy and threaten its future modernization.
Yet, there is little sign that the Kremlin is ready to back off — or admit to — the behavior that led to sanctions: whether the continued military venture in Ukraine, or cybermeddling, or poisoning opponents abroad.
So far the Russian public accepts Putin’s behavior. Focus groups by reputable pollsters such as Levada find that 80 percent approve of the activities of the current president, seeing him as a symbol of Russian resurgence. This despite 41 percent saying they want radical change in the economy to give them a better life.
Aided by state television and intense internet propaganda, Putin has created the impression that there is no alternative to him, despite the hostility of the West, which seeks to destroy Russia.
But that raises the question of how he will distract Russians if his overseas ventures continue to alienate the West and result in more sanctions. Someone has to be blamed for economic stagnation. Putin can’t admit he is hurting his own people.
“No one knows how anti-Americanism in such a high degree, combined with World War III rhetoric, combined with a stagnating economy, will work in the next year,” says political analyst Konstantin Gaaze.
More-educated, urban Russians may joke about “Bomb Voronezh.” But Putin needs to give the hinterland a better reason for their problems. And that means we should expect deepening tensions between Russia and the West.