The most disconcerting recent development on the legal front, however, has been the arrest of the prominent Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov on embezzlement charges. Serebrennikov, a cutting-edge artist, mounts productions that deal with issues like homosexuality, violence and alienation, all of which run afoul of Putin’s increasingly conservative politics. The Kremlin insists that the case is about finances. But it is obviously about much more than that.
“No one doubts that we are witnessing a political show trial,” said Irina Prokhorova, the well-known literary critic and cultural historian, “that marks the end of the independence of post-Soviet culture.”
Serrebrennikov’s arrest sends an ominous signal about Putin’s future plans. A crackdown on the arts means that Putin sees potential enemies everywhere, beyond even politics and business, signaling dire consequences for one of the few remaining open public spaces in Russian life.
So if the domestic agenda holds little prospects for change, what about foreign affairs? Again, the chances for a major breakthrough looks remote. Putin wants a negotiated settlement in Syria; so far, all he has to show for it is a limited ceasefire with the United States in the southwest part of the country.
A resolution of the Ukrainian standoff appears equally unlikely, particularly with Washington raising the possibility of sending advanced defensive weapons to Ukraine. Putin does not necessarily want to escalate the crisis — Russia quickly rejected a recent attempt by the separatists to declare the independent country of Malorossiya or “Little Russia.” Putin has also proposed UN peacekeepers for Ukraine. But no one should expect him to back down if the current balance of forces is challenged, no matter the consequences.
History shows that Russia’s “liberal” alternative only presents itself when the state is at its weakest. A big win for Putin in the March election, however, would serve as a victory for the Russian state in its current autocratic form. Unless a severe crisis forces Putin's hand, he is not for turning anytime soon.
William Pomeranz is deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is now writing a book on the history of Russian law.