By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to run for re-election in 2018 and may impose tougher authoritarian rule to curb unrest over the slumping economy, the CIA’s top Russia analyst said on Tuesday.
The rare public comments by Peter Clement, head of the CIA unit that watches Russia, shed light on how some senior U.S. intelligence officials view Putin and where he is taking his country as he prepares an expected run for a fourth presidential term in 2018.
Most intelligence analysts think Putin will run again, as he indicated three years ago, said Clement.“But he’s got to be thinking now, ‘What happens between now and 2018?’”
Clement spoke at a George Washington University conference a day after the pro-Putin United Russia party won a lower house majority in parliamentary polls seen as a likely springboard for a Putin re-election bid.
Putin recently said it was too early to say if he run in 2018 for a fourth presidential term that would keep him in power until 2024.
The veteran Kremlin watcher said he had seen some “indicators” of where the former Soviet intelligence officer is likely taking Russia. These included a recent news report of a possible “major restructuring” of Russia’s intelligence services in which the civilian domestic and foreign intelligence agencies would merge into a single organization dominated by the domestic agency, the Federal Security Service, he said.
“What I see there is the potential tightening up of society,” said Clement, adding that he thinks Putin “genuinely, genuinely fears instability and disorder.”
John McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director, said at the same event that Putin is “playing a weak hand” due to the nagging steep slump in oil prices and U.S. and EU sanctions imposed over his annexation of Crimea.
Clement said Russia is stuck in a petroleum “mono-economy” and cited Russian news reports that the government will raise the retirement age.
“The point is they’re starting to count nickels and dimes,” he said.
The Russian leader’s fear, he continued, also appears to stem from an experience related by Putin in his autobiography. In December 1989, Putin, then a KGB officer, watched a crowd storm the Dresden headquarters of the East German secret police and threaten the nearby KGB headquarters where he was based.
Clement said Putin’s concern with unrest was amplified by massive protests that erupted in Moscow over alleged fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections.
“He is not going to let that happen again,” he said.
After being elected to his first term in 2000, Putin concentrated on ending post-Soviet turmoil and re-integrating Russia into the international order.
“Now I’ve seen he’s come full range. Now I’ve seen much more the KGB Putin that we knew,” Clement said, adding that the Russian leader appears intent on building a legacy as a strong leader that includes his seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
“I think his own view now is that he’s done something that will mark his place in Russian history. He would also like to be the man who restored Russia’s greatness and he definitely believes Russia needs to be a strong competitive military power,” said Clement.
He said defense spending has soared under Putin, although there is a debate for the first time over cutting the military budget. Also, the intervention in Syria’s civil war has reasserted Russian influence in the Middle East.
Putin’s intervention “forced the U.S. to come to the (negotiating) table and acknowledge him essentially not just as an actor, but as an equal,” Clement said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by David Gregorio)