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Putin: living on borrowed time?

The decline of post-Soviet Russia continues apace and an article on the Weekly Standard site points out that one of the major exacerbating factors in that decline is Vladimir Putin. The crushing of the media, the confiscation of a large company because it was owned by a political rival on trumped up charges, the failed attempt to direct the result of the Ukrainian elections and the pathetic reaction by the Kremlin to the Beslan atrocity are described at the key indicators of the probably terminal decline of the current regime.

The article is summed up at the end from a very narrowly ‘American policy’ perspective but the most interesting point for me was author Ander Aslund’s contention that the Putin regime is not long for the world. Whilst the Russia of 2005 may be a banana republic without bananas, political instability in a nuclear power that may well be unable to protect its nuclear weapons (Russia’s corrupt and famously inept military are somewhat like the ‘Keystone Cops’ with live ammunition) is something that is of interest to the rest of the world. I wonder when the focus of attention will start shifting away from the Middle East…

15 comments to Putin: living on borrowed time?

  • Euan Gray

    Hmm, I think there are a few facts and a hell of a lot of wishful thinking in the cited article.

    Whether Putin is doomed or not I would not know, but I certainly don’t see too many credible alternatives right now. Let’s face it, Russia has had many worse rulers, and not so many better ones.

    Whilst it is true that Russia’s attempt to control or at least split Ukraine was somewhat inept, it should not be overlooked that Russia has successfully extended its control in central Asia and continues to do so. Asia is far more of a strategic threat to Russian interests than Eastern Europe and the EU, so I don’t imagine the Kremlin is particularly bothered that most of Ukraine is thoroughly pro-Western.

    Military reform is ongoing, but will take a long time and amounts of cash that are simply not available right now. This is not unlinked to the situation in the Caucasus, which is compelling expensive reform but at the same time needs garrisons.

    As for the oligarchs, it should be remembered that these are not really businessmen in the western sense – they acquired what they have through corruption, the incompetence of Yeltsin’s administration and straightforward theft. However, what is done is done. It is common enough knowledge that the Kremlin doesn’t interfere in the affairs of the oligarchs’ companies provided the oligarchs don’t try to interfere in politics – pay the slightest attention to the matter and you will see that the only oligarchs troubled by the state are those who have tried to buy a major say in politics, people like Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, et al. There are many more oligarchs, and those who don’t play politics don’t get bothered by the state.

    Finally, it is unwise to judge Russia by western standards. Russia is not and never has been a truly western country.


  • Hank Scorpio

    “Finally, it is unwise to judge Russia by western standards. Russia is not and never has been a truly western country.”

    Agreed. I frankly think that Russians aren’t quite content unless their rulers are at least a little autocratic. Even Yeltsin was guilty of undermining his supposedly democratic values.

    IMO, Russia would be far better served going the route that China is, an authoritarian state with an ever-increasing free market. Democracy will eventually come with time, but you’ve got to have the economic framework in place for it to really take hold. Democracy without a market just leads to the old South American style plantation dictatorships.

  • Daveon

    I think there are some significant differences between China and Russia which make it hard for Russia to go that route.

    It might be inate, although I find that hard to believe, but the Chinese seem to always have had at least a trading class within the various strata of society – not even communism could crush that. Taiwan has shown what the people who got out can do in a punishingly short time even under an autocratic government.

    Russia pre-1917 was still pretty feudal. If I remember my history correctly, even the other European powers were worried pre-WW1 about the state of the place and it’s ability to handle the modern world. The Russia-Japan war of 1904/5(?) demonstrated some pretty serious short comings.

    OTOH – they’re Russians are damn good engineers and scientists, and they are able to put up with crap in a way that nobody else seems to be able to.

  • Shawn

    I’m inclined to agree with Euan. Those wishing for the speedy demise of Putin need to explain who the viable alternative is.

    Russia has serious problems of a long term survival nature. At its current rate of demographic demise, Russia and its people may well cease to exist in any meaningful sense within 150 years. What Russia needs now is stability, border control, military reform, security of her wmd’s, economic reform and the reversal of her population declineand its twin sister, the moral decline of the nation under Communism. This requires a strong state along with free market reform, and, at least imo, a rebirth of Orthodox spiritual culture.

    I dont know whether Putin is the right person for the job or not, and I certainly dont trust him. But some of what he is doing is right, and sadly I dont see anyone better capable of taking power and achieving the necessary reforms. In some respects Russia needs a mix of Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet. Until that person comes along, Putin seems the only viable choice.

  • Euan Gray

    Russia pre-1917 was still pretty feudal.

    Yes, but it was industrialising rapidly and the development of a more liberal democratic dispensation was slowly happening. The Tsar, as you no doubt recall, had to make some concessions after the mini-revolution of 1905, and this process would have continued, accelerating as economic growth took off. I’m not sure it’s fair to say the west was worried about Russia’s ability to develop.

    I agree with Hank that the economic development has to come first, as Russia is trying to do now, and as China, Taiwan and Singapore have shown quite successfully.

    But first Russia has to fundamentally restructure its economy to accommodate a post-Soviet system. Germany still struggles to cope with this, and Russia simply does not have the economic resources Germany had. It will take time.

    a rebirth of Orthodox spiritual culture

    As someone edging in this direction myself, I often think the west could benefit from the same thing …


  • Jacob

    “In some respects Russia needs a mix of Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet.”

    Pinochet wiil do.

    In a recent study by the Herritage Foundation and WSJ about freedom of econmy in the world Chile ranked 11, before USA no 13.

  • Those wishing for the speedy demise of Putin need to explain who the viable alternative is.

    My article stated no preference, just the contention made by the author that Putin’s regime was not going to last. And just because it might be preferable to some of the alternatives does not mean it will survive.

    So what are the plausible alternatives I wonder?

  • John K

    Before 1914 Russia was industrialising pretty rapidly. That was one reason the Germans though it would be a good idea to have a war quickly, because by the 1920’s it might have been too late.

    I believe that Russia did not get back to its 1913 levels of output until the late 1930s.

  • Euan Gray

    Chile ranked 11, before USA no 13

    And the same study puts good old Britain at 7, so it appears Thatcher is your man, so to speak. The Russians liked her too.


  • Daveon

    I’ll take your word for the “industrialising pretty fast” as I suspect it is for certain values of _fast_.

    My history on this is really old now, but I was under the impression the 1905 reforms were little more than a sop which did very little.

    I’m still not sure that this would have led to the equally rapid development of a competant mercantile class.

    Likewise, I believe that Russia did not get back to its 1913 levels of output until the late 1930s. quite possibly, however, it is germane to remember that it was recently, IIRC, that global trade as a percentage of global GDP reached the same percentages as 1913.

    It’s hard to over state the disaster for the world that WW1 actually was.

  • mike

    Even if Putin goes tommorow, are there any alternatives? Will his successor be KGB or perhaps an oligarch? No doubt Putin will try to avoid this latter outcome if possible. Which of them is most likely to attempt economic reform, and would he stand a cat in hell’s chance anyway?

  • John K

    Putin strikes me as being in essence a Fascist, I wonder what the future of democratic government in Russia will be with him in charge.

  • David Blue

    To me this article smells of the attitude of those who see countries other than America as strictly money or as threats to America. (By the way, don’t bother telling me I’m a leftie. It is to laugh. But some people really do have an exploiter mentality, and others do have an excessive, almost Marxist veneration for the economic base, even to the disregard of the more fundamental demographic base.)

    The article mentions three signal events, but focuses mainly on one, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the oil company Yukos.

    I agree that looks bad.

    I agree also that Putin’s response to Beslan was dreadfully weak, and even un-Russian.

    But this is unworthy of a conservative publication: “Meanwhile, his ill-advised policy on Chechnya continues unaltered and might destabilize a broader swath of the Caucasus.”

    It’s a cheap shot, as though it was too obvious to mention what the well-advised policy would be. Russia already tried in effect to surrender to the Chechens for peace. It didn’t work: the jihad is fully international and the Muslims want a large swathe of Southern Russia carved away for a Taliban-style state – for starters.

    I do not think American conservatives would just dismiss an equivalent threat to America like this. Nor should they.

    Unfortunately I think the final line is right:- ” we should harbor no illusion that this colossus with feet of clay will stand up and fight with us in the war on terror.”

    Putin is a disaster in my eyes not mainly because of Yukos, bad as that was, but because he failed in response to Beslan as much as George W. Bush succeeded in response to 11 September, 2001. (And as much as Howard in Australia succeeded in response to Bali, and Spain folded in response to its mega-attack, and the Philippines folded in response to a kidnapping in Iraq, and as much as Fabricio Quattrocchi established Italy’s strength and honour. It seems we really are being tested out, with generally decisive results either way – and I never thought Russia would fail this test.)

    Putin decided the lesson of Beslan was that Russia was beaten because Russia was weak – and evidently that the root of weakness was too much democracy. Ever since then he’s accelerated his contraction of democracy at home and (he wished) in Ukraine, Russia’s most critical “near abroad”. Meanwhile, what did he do in response to the jihadis? He announced a policy that was in principle pre-emptive – and then did nothing.

    In sum: Vladimir Putin fights democracy, not the enemy. He’s chosen the wrong road, and now he’s walking down it, taking Russia to disaster with him.

    I’m utterly disgusted and repulsed, but so what. What matters now is not the sheer immorality of this weak response to a depraved, genocidal attack on Ossetian/Russian children, or the inherent wrongness of stifling democracy, but the consequences of this weak policy, which look likely to be big, long-lasting and bad in every way.

    Among other things, how can this be the basis of a partnership, which both we and the Russians need, between Russia and George W. Bush’s America, where democracy is now officially defined as the solution to terrorism, American security, and it seems everything else? It can’t. Exactly when I believe the Americans were ready to forgive Russia everything, and reach out to a new partner in the biggest way, Putin took exactly the wrong decision.

    I also think Shawn is dead right: ” Russia has serious problems of a long term survival nature.” (Etc., and I fully agree with all of it.)

    It’s a bleak time for those who wish Russia well. And I don’t see how it can avoid getting worse, and worse.

  • As a an old Russian (age 61), born and raised outside Russia in a strict monarchist/orthodox tradition, the political, moral and economic model that suits today’s Russia best is what happend to post Franco Spain. I agree that currently there is no alternative to Putin. I only hope that Putin has the wisdom, courage and strenght, to put Russia on a path that will give Russia lasting peace in prosperity. The form of government, in its final analysis is irrelevant, as long as there is prosperity and personal freedom … and unfortunately “democracy” is not always a guarantee of the later.

  • RedComrade

    So, Perry, do you think your scribblings will (giggle) hasten the demise of Russian Federation?

    Yes, the decline, the decline. Economy “declining” by 6.5 percent this year, the Western Investors flocking to declining Russia-based Funds, ah yes, the Beslan, how’s the “moral” support business for Chechen bandits going in Britlandia? Sent over any fresh party of metal detectors and comm-radios to the Pankissi gorge recently? Or maybe som GPS data, so the Wahhabis don’t break a leg in the mountains on their way to another Ossetian village school?

    I just love the self-delusion at work here.
    And Western hypocrits wonder why Putin is so popular.

    “Ander Aslund”? (giggle like a small girl) doesn’t this fella predict Russian Demise every quarter or so? Maybe time to vary himself a bit?

    “in a nuclear power that may well be unable to protect its nuclear weapons”
    Tell it to some Russians close to the military, they gonna boo you out real bad. They won’t be able to tell anything ofcourse. Or just try getting even within 5 kilometers of a silo site, and then a sudden bonus: pay a nice visit to a carcer in Yakutsk. Room & board paid, ofcourse, cockroach-free non guaranteed.