“The poverty that came with Boris Yeltsin generated both a cynicism and a lack of faith in the system. Putin made life bearable and made it clear that Russia was back”
Russia is an enormously weak country that Putin is working desperately to make appear far more powerful than it is. He is doing extremely well at creating that illusion. There is a saying that perception is reality. That saying is rubbish. If it were true, reality would never have caught up with the perceptions surrounding the subprime crisis. Germany would have won the Battle of Britain, and – for that matter – the Soviet Union would still exist. Perception can buy time and time can, sometimes, change reality. But sometimes all that perception puts off is the inevitable, and in my view that is the case with Russia.
Russia’s fundamental problem is economic. Energy sales
There is a belief that poverty in Russia poses less of a threat to the regime than it does in other countries. This is true, but with a strong caveat. If the Russians believe that their suffering is in the name of a state that stands with and for them, they will endure. This is why Josef Stalin could call on Russians to fight, starve and die. The Russians believed he was with and for them. It was why the Soviet Union collapsed and Yeltsin nearly plunged the country over the edge. No one believed that Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and least of all Mikhail Gorbachev cared about them. And certainly no one believed Yeltsin did. But Putin made them believe that he cared about them, and he made them feel that he would not only feed them, but that he would make all the suffering worthwhile. He convinced them that he was a winner.
The problem was in an economic failure so fundamental that it is frequently ignored. When Putin took power, wealth was in the hands of a dozen or so oligarchs, and the economy and Russian power depended on energy, which was the source of revenue and leverage over nations reliant on Russian supplies. In many ways, Russia was like Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Putin’s task was to build a modern economy in Russia using the revenue from energy as investment capital. It was a daunting task and he failed at it. This strategy made Russia dependent on something it didn’t control – energy prices. And since energy prices have historically fluctuated, Putin’s primary strategy was to hope that prices would stay high – but that hope ran out in 2014.
Energy prices fell because there was worldwide economic stagnation and oversupply. A vague hope was that Russia and Saudi Arabia could force the price up by cutting production. But the Saudis were issuing bonds to raise money and the Russians had months to go before reserves were exhausted. Cutting production meant cutting income, but once production resumed to make up lost income, prices would quickly decline. The math didn’t work.
The situation in the regions grew harsher, and Putin was forced to focus on building patriotism to show that the privation was worth it, for it had made Russia great again. But Putin could not simply assert this, he had to show it. He had to demonstrate his power in the only way possible, by confronting the United States.
This became even more important after the pro-Russian government in Ukraine was deposed. Putin pointed to the seizure of something his forces effectively held – Crimea – and the rising in eastern Ukraine as evidence of his power. He gave Russians a sense of being under siege but, given that the rising only reached a stalemate at best, he did not give them a sense of ultimate victory. He therefore duelled with the United States rhetorically, using the apparent clumsiness of President Barack Obama to demonstrate his skill. But in the end, the Russian economy was in a tailspin and Ukraine was lost. The appearance of besting the United States was colliding with the reality of Russian weakness.
The Russian move into Syria was the response. The Russians have no strategic interests in Syria. There have been attempts to figure out why Russia intervened and what its end game is. Its intervention is limited and it is bogged down, just as the Americans are. Even if Aleppo falls, the war isn’t over. Yet they are there.
One theory is that Putin intervened in Syria because he believed Russia’s control over gas supplies to Europe was under threat. Perhaps, but any potential pipeline going through Iraq and wartorn Syria was unrealistic in the first