Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Center
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued a ruinous path. The Russians will have to decide themselves how to deal with that.
Putin has been a very lucky guy, coming into power when the price of oil was about $20 a barrel, and for most of his presidency it has risen to over $100 a barrel. But instead of using this newfound wealth to diversify and modernize Russia’s economy, he has allowed his rent-seeking cronies to enrich themselves. If you are part of the tiny elite surrounding Putin, you have a good life. But for the broad mass of Russians, there has been no rise in standards of living comparable to that in Poland, for example.
Putin has maintained control by ensuring that salaries of the public sector are paid on time, but he has not managed to keep the brightest and best in Russia. Indeed, they are leaving the country in ever-increasing numbers. It is clear that Russia has become a sick society when the first thing Russians do when they make money is take it abroad, the second thing is buy a property abroad, and the third thing is educate their children abroad.
For the EU, there is only one sensible option: principled engagement. The EU must decide on its interests and defend them as a united union, bearing in mind that the EU’s values are also part of its interests.
Stefan MeisterSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
Above all, Putin’s mode of rule is the ruin of his own power base.
In his first two presidencies, Putin brought Russia stability and played the role of a flexible moderator between the different interest groups in the Russian elite. In his third term, however, he has isolated himself from the proactive part of society and the elite. He has surrounded himself with hardliners from the security service who promote Russia’s “modernization” (which has become a nonword) through the country’s military-industrial complex.
But this is fantasy. By following this policy, Russia will lose even more competitiveness and become more resource-dependent. The “vertical of power” is not working, and Putin mobilizes foreign policy primarily as a tool for legitimizing his rule. As a result, he has isolated himself not only domestically but also from the European partners that Russia needs for a genuine transformation. Competition with the EU over the common neighborhood will increase conflict between Moscow and Brussels.
Moreover, Putin’s decision to pursue Eurasian integration through a proposed union with a number of former Soviet states will burden the Russian economy and increase polarization inside Russian society through labor migration from Central Asia. Putin has brought a degree of welfare to Russian society, but he is incapable of seeing that Russian people want to do more than consume. He is a man of the past, not of the future.
Matthew RojanskyDirector of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center
Russian President Vladimir Putin is no more Russia’s ruin than he is the sole author of the country’s remarkable resurgence over the past decade and a half.
When former president Boris Yeltsin elevated Putin to the highest level of political power in 1999, ethnic and sectarian violence threatened to undermine fragile post-Soviet sovereignty, and business was dominated by violent criminal gangs. That Russia has largely recovered from these ills is as much a testament to the determination and creativity of society as a whole as it is to Putin’s now famous “vertical of power.”
Moreover, Russians are far more connected to the wider world today by technology, financial flows, and people-to-people ties than ever before. This connectedness is the biggest reason for Russia’s relative prosperity. If it continues, Russians will continue to prosper.
Putin attracts critical attention from international commentators because of his paranoia that any change in Russia or its neighborhood will mean the end of the rigid political order he has constructed. Yet his ability to orchestrate developments around him in Russia is limited, despite the success he has enjoyed recently on the geopolitical stage.
By his own admission, Putin may not serve another presidential term. But even if he does, Russia’s success or failure will continue to hinge far more on the Russian people than on any occupant of the Kremlin.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Yes. Russia is headed for a systemic crisis in the years ahead, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s unsustainable political system.
Putin helped stabilize a chaotic transition during the Yeltsin era. There can be no real liberty or economic development without order and some sense of stability, and Putin provided that at a time when Russia desperately needed it.
However, in doing so he created a system that is not only corrupt but also, because it is entirely dependent on him, inherently unstable. He has created a personalized system of power, but not an institutionalized polity. Russia’s economy remains too heavily dependent on energy and natural resources, and Putin has not used the vast income from these sources to diversify the economy or create a stable social structure.
The verdict is still out on Putin’s zero-sum, ultra-realpolitik foreign policy. That approach may seem well suited for dealing with the neighborhood created by the Soviet system, but it has little soft-power attraction beyond like-minded oligarchic states.
The Putin regime does not have an institutionalized mechanism for political succession, and once he leaves the scene, the prospect of a mafia-style war of oligarchs seems high. That does not mean that Russia’s future is necessarily bleak. The country is still the most open Russia in history and has an educated, open-minded middle class that is waiting for a political system more compatible with its values and ambitions.
Marcin ZaborowskiDirector of the Polish Institute of International Affairs
It is extremely difficult to give an unambivalent view of Putin’s rule in Russia. There is no doubt that under Putin, Russia has overcome the chaos of the Yeltsin years and prospered economically. Since Putin’s arrival in 2000, Russia’s GDP has more than doubled, and even in per capita terms, it is now higher than that of some EU member states.
From being a humiliated and declining power, Russia has risen to become a member of the BRICS club of the fastest-growing economies, together with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. With more resources comes greater international clout. That was evident in Syria, where Russia held firm in its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and eventually prevailed in shaping the terms of the agreement for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. Overall, Russia today is in a better condition than when Putin took the reins.
However, Putin’s stability has its price. For starters, he has reversed Russia’s progress toward democracy. In Putin’s view, democracy is a foreign and undesirable concept that opens up the political system to uncontrollable influences. He has also neglected economic reforms, making Russia’s economic success almost entirely dependent on gas and oil exports.
A visitor to today’s Russia has no doubt that, sooner or later, the country will become a democracy, and that it has great potential to become a modern and diversified economy. The question that future historians will wrestle with is whether Putin prepared Russia for this phase or delayed the country’s maturing into a modern liberal democracy.