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Opinion: How Vladimir Putin came home from war After two years focused on foreign conflicts, the president turns back to Russia

Source: Vedomosti
Photo: Kremlin Press Service

Given that he's one of the most visible, recognizable people on the planet, it seems strange to say the words “Vladimir Putin has returned,” but that is precisely what Russian political analysts are arguing this week, following the president's sudden and sharp turn from foreign policy concerns to various domestic issues. In a new editorial for the newspaper Vedomosti, columnists Maria Zheleznova and Andrei Sinitsyn say Putin has finally reinserted himself into Russia's domestic political agenda, after spending years focused on armed conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Zheleznova and Sinitsyn say this shift of attention is already profoundly influencing Russia's political system. Meduza translates Vedomosti's text here.

Several important decisions by President Putin in the past few days indicate that he has returned to Russia's domestic affairs. 

It's been more than a month since Moscow announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from military bases in Syria, following the partial ceasefire between government troops and armed rebels. So far, despite what skeptics expected, Russia hasn't found any reason to get caught up in a new geopolitical crisis. Admittedly, this isn't because the Kremlin is confident that the threat has passed, though it does seem the danger is now less. Even the flare up in Nagorno-Karabakh has become more of a liability for Moscow than an opportunity. 

Formally, the president has returned to issues concerning how the Russian state is organized internally: in addition to unveiling a new National Guard, he's also revived the practice of meeting with economic experts (the Economic Council Presidium didn't meet for two whole years, while Putin was “away at war”). He's put Russia's Federal Archive Agency under his direct control, and created the Fatherland History Foundation (to "popularize" Russian history). A little earlier, he announced a new liberalization of the criminal laws regulating various business practices. These acts are hardly answers to Russia's most pressing domestic concerns, but the country's internal issues can't be addressed as quickly and decisively as other challenges, like when Turkey shot down a Russian jet over Syria.

The period when Vladimir Putin was immersed exclusively in foreign policy is over. The creation of a National Guard means the president has returned to domestic affairs, writes political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. The emergence of a new, potentially repressive, police force under the supervision of Putin's close friend, Viktor Zolotov, is the Kremlin's response to the nascent revival of political life in Russia. Decisions like this one carry their own risks, and some will start wondering if things weren't better when the president's attention was focused entirely on foreign enemies and threats abroad. 

For the past two years, Russia's domestic issues were removed from the country's political agenda. If an internal issue did arise, it was transformed immediately into a foreign threat. (“America is to blame for everything.”) The public, judging by sociological surveys, are quite aware of the Russian economy's dire situation, though they're compensated for their problems with the fact that the Kremlin has restored the country's image as a great power. It's unlikely that something has magically changed in Russia, and the authorities have suddenly decided to respond to citizens' growing concerns about their own economic situation. What has happened is that the country's “liberals within the system” have stepped up their pressure on the president, threatening that the economy will collapse if the Kremlin doesn't enact reforms.

Some might argue that the advantages of focusing on foreign policy have only vanished for the time being. But the reality is that prioritizing foreign policy over domestic policy is just too enticing to have abandoned it so quickly. The fight against foreign enemies is more entertaining, less problematic, and its effectiveness and results are much harder to evaluate than, say, attempts to curb the country's rising prices, inflation, unemployment, and social apathy, and the potential growth of public grievances.

Putin's return to the domestic agenda can also be interpreted as the necessity of reconfiguring the balance between the ruling elites—a balance that was also influenced by the president's decision to focus on foreign affairs and step back from managing domestic problems. We're already seeing how this plays out in the police and the armed forces.

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

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