Why Putin survives


“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart,” Russian President Vladimir Putin famously said in 2010. But he quickly added, “Whoever wants it back has no brain,” notes Chris Miller, associate director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University and the author of “The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the U.S.S.R.” Mr. Putin isn’t usually known as a savvy economic steward. Yet as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse this week, his famed comments sum up the increasingly clear results of an epic historical experiment, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

To run that experiment, first, take two authoritarian regimes based in Moscow, one rooted in state-run socialism, the other in crony capitalism. Next, expose them both to a series of shocks: low oil prices, costly military adventures abroad, confrontation with the West and a sluggish economy in which political dictates override market forces. Then wait several years to see which regime survives. ….Yet on the economic issues crucial to the survival of Mr. Putin’s regime, the record is far better. Macroeconomic stability has underwritten a decade and a half of relative prosperity. The coming anniversary of the Soviet collapse won’t be widely marked in Moscow. The demise of the U.S.S.R. is a period most Russians would prefer to forget—and a catastrophe that Mr. Putin is determined not to repeat.

Russia’s return to the global scene, not only as an opponent of the west but also as a state that aims to influence internal developments in western societies, has created a new intellectual and geopolitical challenge, argues Chatham House analyst Lilia Shevtsova. Despite being much weaker than the Soviet Union, Russia today nevertheless has a greater ability to provoke mischief than the communist empire ever did, while western debates on how to contain (or engage) Russia have an air of helplessness, she writes for The Financial Times:

This situation is without historical precedent. Russia failed to transform itself into a liberal power and, in a bitter irony, it is Russian liberals who, by supporting one-man rule and working for it, have played an important role in helping the revamped system of personalised power to endure. The system has survived by dumping communism, mimicking liberal standards and by faking partnership with the west and then opposing it. Here is a state that has given itself a shot of adrenalin, not by openly combating its opponent (so far), but by undermining it from within.

“The west will not be able to respond until it decides what to do about the support mechanisms for illiberal systems like the Russian one that have established themselves in its societies, and until it is less ambivalent in its defence of liberal democratic norms,” adds Shevtsova, a member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies Research Council. “The prospects for such a change, however, are gloomy. Political elites in both Russia and the west have shown no sign that they know how to manage adversarial relations in an era of globalisation.”


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