What worries Putin more — re-election, or fracking?

Vladimir Putin now has something in common with Barack Obama — approval ratings in the fortieth percentile. So he and his machine are figuring out how to give Russians a better picture of who he is, and what he plans in the next six years. As a first step, he took questions for four-and-a-half hours ...

Alexey Sazonov  AFP/Getty Images
Alexey Sazonov AFP/Getty Images
Alexey Sazonov AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin now has something in common with Barack Obama -- approval ratings in the fortieth percentile. So he and his machine are figuring out how to give Russians a better picture of who he is, and what he plans in the next six years. As a first step, he took questions for four-and-a-half hours in a live call-in broadcast today. Russia's government needs "an update," Putin said, seeming to throw fuel on the fire of some who think that one of Putin's main tactics ahead of the March 4 presidential election will be to get President Dmitry Medvedev to quit, and blame Russia's troubles on him.

Yet, according to Russia hands Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Putin's main obsession at the moment may not necessarily be the election, but shale gas. Hill and Gaddy gathered this idea at the annual Valdai dinner, which Putin has hosted for eight straight years (they have just posted their impressions of the dinner, held last month, at the Brookings Institution web site).

Putin was extraordinarily flat this time, the pair say, becoming suddenly and solely animated on the subject of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial method in which gas is drawn out of hard shale by shooting a water-and-chemical mixture into the rock at tremendous pressures.

Vladimir Putin now has something in common with Barack Obama — approval ratings in the fortieth percentile. So he and his machine are figuring out how to give Russians a better picture of who he is, and what he plans in the next six years. As a first step, he took questions for four-and-a-half hours in a live call-in broadcast today. Russia’s government needs "an update," Putin said, seeming to throw fuel on the fire of some who think that one of Putin’s main tactics ahead of the March 4 presidential election will be to get President Dmitry Medvedev to quit, and blame Russia’s troubles on him.

Yet, according to Russia hands Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Putin’s main obsession at the moment may not necessarily be the election, but shale gas. Hill and Gaddy gathered this idea at the annual Valdai dinner, which Putin has hosted for eight straight years (they have just posted their impressions of the dinner, held last month, at the Brookings Institution web site).

Putin was extraordinarily flat this time, the pair say, becoming suddenly and solely animated on the subject of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial method in which gas is drawn out of hard shale by shooting a water-and-chemical mixture into the rock at tremendous pressures.

Others have noted Putin’s discussion of shale gas at Valdai (here and here for instance). And we have heard other Russian officials publicly rail against fracking, which should be expected since Gazprom is the most conspicuous loser from the ascent of shale gas. Russia’s balance sheet will be in trouble if shale gas takes off in Europe, which it might though not to the degree as it has in the U.S. But the Hill-Gaddy version is the first I have seen that expands on the Valdai exchange.

Hill, who was seated immediately to Putin’s left, peered over the prime minister’s shoulder as he sketched out this and that rendition of how fracking is done, and its impact on the environment. Fracking, Putin suggested, is exaggerated as a force — its impact will be felt only in the U.S. and perhaps Poland, Putin said. Gaddy recounts that Putin

took his menu or whatever it was, the paper he had in front of him, and he started drawing diagrams of what fracking supposedly looks like and how the horizontal drilling is carried out and how the fluid is injected and so on. With false modesty he said, "I’m no expert on this, but I probably know more than anybody else in this room." And he then went on to draw illustrations and held them up to show everybody.

Putin uncharacteristically got some of the details wrong. Hill recalled:

Rather oddly, he claimed that in the United States, drilling is only being done in remote areas. In fact, of course, it is being done in the heart of one of the densest areas of population on the East Coast. He also said even more bizarrely that if one were to take a helicopter ride over the U.S. East Coast — suggesting almost that he himself had done that — one could easily see the environmental damage from above. That’s rather strange, because you can’t actually see what’s going on to that extent from the air. We speculated afterwards that perhaps he was confusing it with mountaintop removal for coal mining. We had no idea what he was talking about.

Putin isn’t necessarily in another universe on fracking, whose economics have been challenged by smart people. At Smart Planet, for instance, Chris Nelder crunches the numbers on whether fracking can be profitable. But it is notable that the paramount leader of a gigantic nation under a host of pressures has chosen to make the drilling method central to his current interests.

Back to Russian politics, Hill and Gaddy trot out an interesting thesis on Putin’s background and leadership style in the Valdai recollections and in a piece to appear next month at the National Interest, all of which appears likely to be expanded on in their forthcoming book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. The takeaway: Putin governs Russia as a whole as an intelligence case, using his skills honed as a KGB officer in East Germany. It is not novel to suggest that Putin is at heart a KGB operative, but Hill and Gaddy explore new dimensions in the National Interest piece, which Hill has distributed by email.

Here at FP, the Independent’s Shaun Walker suggests that much of what we are witnessing in Russia’s election is a gigantic put-up job. At the Daily Beast, my former colleague Owen Matthews reminds us that Russians are not by and large liberals, and that the push-back against Putin stems from anger over corruption, not a crush on liberal democracy. I do not depart from either Walker’s or Matthews’ main points, but only note that the Arab Spring is not about democracy either, but economic hopelessness and official avarice.

Closing out on Valdai, one thing that pops out in the Hill-Gaddy material is a strange, long meltdown by both on the fact of having attended — between the two of them — seven years of the sessions. This blog has raised the ethical questions inherent in Valdai, in which the Kremlin pays for some 40 of the world’s premier Russia experts to fly in for a three-hour dinner with the man, then go home and, some might say, wax self-importantly about it.

But why should this be a problem — if one has a chance to evaluate Putin close up, one would be a fool not to take it. As for how to present one’s material, that is a matter of style. The catch is that the Valdai participants by and large are on a junket — they are arguably captive of the Kremlin because few pay their own way. The honest approach would be for all to get out their credit cards next year and pony up. Gaddy’s conscience bothers him:

You do learn a lot, but it comes at a cost. People ask, "Why are you taking part in this? You’re just legitimizing the system, you know. Why are you doing this?" Well, the answer is, as an analyst, as somebody who is trying to understand this country and this system, you feel you ultimately have no choice if presented with this opportunity.

Gaddy wonders aloud whether he and Hill will be invited to the next session. Given their collective intellect, one hopes they are.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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