Vladimir Putin Isn’t a Supervillain
Russia is neither the global menace, nor dying superpower, of America’s increasingly hysterical fantasies.
America’s hysteria over Russian President Vladimir Putin is mounting, and there’s no reason to think the fever will break anytime soon. At this point it’s only tangentially related to the accusations that Putin has made President Donald Trump his “puppet” or that Trump — or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or any number of other administration officials — is in cahoots with Russian oligarchs.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the sudden death of Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin? It’s all nefarious Kremlin intrigues — or so we’re told. In fact, a lot of Russian diplomats have died recently — isn’t that suspicious? And don’t look now, but while you were fixated on Russia’s subversion of American society through psychological warfare, you may have missed that Russia’s expanding its influence in Syria. And provoking Japan. And meddling with Britain. And it’s sowing “chaos” in the Balkans. And the Baltics. And Ukraine. And may invade Belarus. And Finland. And if that weren’t enough, Putin has a “master plan” for overthrowing the entire European and world democratic order. We might as well give up: Russia “runs the world now.”
With such bombast dominating American political discourse, citizens and pundits rightly worry about the potential for geopolitical competition from Russia. But is Putin’s regime really as threatening and omnipresent as it is cracked up to be?
Western commentary on the Kremlin’s foreign-policy ambitions tends to fall into two opposing camps, each with different starting points: One begins with Russia’s foreign policy, the other with Russian domestic politics. Both are prone to hyperbole in their appraisals and conclusions, albeit in different directions. And neither is useful for understanding, or responding to, the reality of Russian ambitions.
I call the first camp “Putler,” a mashup of Putin and Adolf Hitler, the two leaders whom Western commentators seem most fond of pairing. Largely a result of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass, this lens portrays Russia as the foremost threat to liberal democracy: a scary, aggressive, expansionist, revanchist reincarnation of the Soviet Union, equating Putin with the worst excesses of authoritarianism. Rooted in 20th-century historical analogies, specifically World War II, this camp implicitly prescribes military confrontation: Anything less, including economic sanctions, is weak-kneed, Chamberlainesque appeasement, to evoke the Hitlerite comparison.
Another favored historical analogy for Putler adherents is the Cold War. For many observers, it is a given that we are already grappling in a life-and-death “Cold War 2.0” (just without, they neglect to mention, the ideology of communism, the nuclear arms race, realist power balancing, global competition for proxies, or any of the other elements that defined the original Cold War). House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent reference to Russia as a “global menace led by a man who is menacing” falls squarely within this school of thinking, along with his rejoinder that President Barack Obama’s sanctions followed “too much of an appeasement policy.”
Turning from geopolitical ambitions to Russian domestic policy, the Putler worldview tends to highlight Putin’s consolidation of autocratic control, fraudulent elections, his harassment and murder of opposition journalists, curtailing of civil liberties, and his use of disinformation through state-run media to disorient and control the public. It is a portrait of Putin as an unrestrained totalitarian, intent on weaponizing “absurdity and unreality.” Such appraisals often border on the hysterical, but one imagines they draw a lot of internet traffic.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Putler worldview is the “Dying Bear” camp. This approach is dismissive of Russia as a threat; its adherents instead presage stagnation, corruption, and decline. The term originated with demographers, discouraged by Russia’s dim health prospects, but could reasonably include its political, social, and economic limitations as well. To be sure, Russia’s health and demographic statistics lag far behind those of Western Europe and the United States, with relatively high mortality rates, relatively low fertility rates, and average life expectancy on par with impoverished African countries. In the medium and long term, that means demographic decline: Fewer Russians means fewer taxpayers, fewer conscripts, and fewer state resources; all exert downward pressure on Russia’s growth potential. There are a bevy of other limitations on Russia’s potential for future economic growth: an undiversified economy cursed with an overreliance on resource extraction; a lumbering, systematically corrupt, and growing state bureaucracy that impedes entrepreneurship; technological backwardness; and a kleptocratic political system that rewards cronyism and penalizes development. Without economic diversification and freedom, we’re told, Russia’s economy has hit “rock bottom.” Groaning under the weight of Western sanctions and low global oil prices, Russia’s own Economic Development Ministry is forecasting no real improvement in living standards until 2035.
For some in the Dying Bear camp, Russia’s foreign-policy aggression — including its incursions into Ukraine and Syria — is just Putin’s attempt to distract patriotic Russians from the misery of their own existence and have them rally around the flag of patriotism, since he can’t deliver the performance legitimacy associated with the economic growth of the early 2000s, driven by sky-high global oil prices. While the Putler perspective calls for confrontation, Dying Bear prescribes management or marginalization, if not disengagement: Why bother taking Russia seriously if it’s doomed anyway?
President Obama’s dismissive public statements about Russia being at best a “regional power,” or a “weaker country” that doesn’t produce anything worth buying “except oil and gas and arms,” and that its international interventions are borne “not out of strength but out of weakness” are all reflective of the Dying Bear position.
The reality, of course, is somewhere between these extremes. Russia is not nearly the global menace that many fear, nor is it doomed to collapse. Russia’s geopolitical strength is indeed constrained by its demographic, economic, social, and political weaknesses, but those aren’t as catastrophic as they’re often made to be. Russians today are healthier and living longer than they ever have. Though having ever fewer women of childbearing age presages long-term demographic decline, with births outpacing deaths, Russia’s population has recently registered natural growth for the first time since the collapse of communism.
Economically, the ruble has stabilized following the collapse of late 2014, and the recession of 2014-2015 is statistically over. However, Russia isn’t out of the woods, with low oil prices leading to dwindling state revenue, and little private investment for the foreseeable future, which will inevitably mean stagnation and low growth. Russia’s economic performance is so intimately tied to public spending that any curtailment of spending despite dwindling oil receipts would reverberate throughout the economy. And the economy ultimately constrains its political options. Although Putin’s geopolitical gambits in Ukraine and Syria can boost his approval ratings, they come at the expense of increasing poverty and unpaid wages, which are fueling a notable rise in labor protests nationwide. While presently manageable, the Kremlin will need to address these socio-economic issues in order to maintain domestic tranquility, limiting its resources for foreign adventurism in Syria, Ukraine, and beyond, to say nothing of investments in health care, education, science, and infrastructure. Russia can’t have it all.
So, despite its high-level meddling in American affairs, for the foreseeable future, Russia is poised to continue to muddle through, with economic and demographic stagnation constraining its lofty geopolitical ambitions. Unsurprisingly, the Russia of 2020 will look more like the Russia of 2012 or 2016, rather than the expansionist Soviet Union of 1944 or the collapsing Soviet Union of 1991. Accordingly, American foreign policy toward Russia should not be given to the militarization and conflict of the Putler camp, nor to the marginalization of the Dying Bear view, but rather a respectful engagement, recognizing the interconnectedness of Russia’s varied strategic interests, which may conflict with Washington’s own.
The problem, though, is that stasis isn’t a particularly sexy prognosis, which means it is not a frequently made one. There are two reasons for this. First is a lack of nuanced understanding of Russian governance. Most experts know what liberal democracy looks like and — if we believe democratization scholarship (and there is good reason for skepticism, especially in the Trump era) — that once “consolidated,” democracies are robust and durable. We also understand that autocracies can be reasonably stable, too: just look at the longevity of Fidel Castro’s reign in Cuba or the Kim dynasty in North Korea. But we have a harder time understanding a polity like present-day Russia, which is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. For a long time, democratization theorists have struggled to understand this sort of neither/nor “illiberal democracy” or “competitive authoritarian” regimes like Russia that combine democratic and nondemocratic elements. If liberal democracy is understood to be the optimal endpoint, then it is understandable to assume that Russia is just “stuck” in transition, rather than having achieved something of a stable equilibrium in its own right.
Second, still haunted by Kremlinologists’ fabled inability to foresee one of the most significant geopolitical events of the 20th century — the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union — Russia watchers now appear to be hypersensitive to any economic or social clue that may portend trouble for the Putin regime. When the global financial crisis rocked Russia in 2008, we were told it was “the end of the Putin era.” When popular protests opposed his re-election in 2011-2012, experts called it “the beginning of the end of Putin.” The Euromaidan revolution in next-door Ukraine likewise allegedly portended “the end of Vladimir Putin.” As it turns out, competitive authoritarian regimes in general, and Putin’s Russia in particular, tend to be surprisingly durable.
With Russia’s new prominence in American political discourse, it is necessary to have a sober assessment of the country’s capabilities and limitations. Russia is neither the juggernaut nor basket case it is varyingly made out to be. A well-reasoned Russia policy begins by quelling one’s hysteria long enough to recognize this and then engaging it accordingly.
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