The end of Vladimir Putin?

REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Vladimir Putin almost certainly doesn’t care about ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They are a tool for him, not a cause.

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin.

When doddering old Boris Yeltsin announced on New Year’s Eve 15 years ago that a relatively obscure former KGB officer would become Russia’s acting president, there was little indication what was in store.

We’ve all gotten quite familiar since then with the virile, shirtless tough guy. If he’s not exactly master of the universe, he is undisputed ruler of nearly one-sixth of the planet’s land mass. For the second year in a row, Forbes declared him the world’s most powerful person. At an age when he could start collecting Social Security here (and when many Russian men already are dead), he shows no real sign of slowing down.

It’s certainly true that the image he crafted has played well with Russians traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the Yeltsin years. But he may have overplayed his hand in Ukraine this year. As developments this week have made clear, the Russian economy is in big trouble, and it’s not clear he knows how to get out of it. 

But before we get to that, the two most important things to know about Putin are: 

1. He is intent on rebuilding Russia’s prestige and power, particularly as a counter-weight to the United States and Western organizations such as NATO and the European Union, and particularly among neighboring countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.

2. By all appearances, he is a formidable tactician — but not so great of a strategist. 

Putin almost certainly doesn’t care about ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They are a tool for him, not a cause. But there is little point to rebuilding any regional union without Ukraine — just as there was no point to keeping the Soviet Union together without the second-most populous Soviet republic.  So on one level, his actions in Ukraine this year make perfect sense. 

If Ukraine up until this year had seemed chronically divided between Western-oriented and pro-Russian politicians, however, the effect of Putin’s actions seems to have been to encourage a headlong embrace of the West. Plus, many other former Soviet republics are plenty worried by what they’ve seen in Ukraine.

That’s not to say that Ukraine will quickly become a Western outpost. Ukraine is a basket case. And come what may, Kiev will always be much closer geographically to Moscow than Washington or any major European capital. 

Meanwhile, Western sanctions meant to punish Putin for his actions in Ukraine have hurt Russia. Putin may have anticipated them, betting that he could outmaneuver President Obama, and that Western European countries dependent on Russian energy supplies wouldn’t dare to go too far.

But Putin apparently didn’t expect oil prices to tumble. And if prices stay low for a long time, as many experts predict, it’s going to be very bad for him: Analysts estimate that Russia needs oil to sell for around $100 a barrel to balance its budget; it’s currently trading below $60.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said recently that sanctions were costing Russia about $40 billion a year, and that the drop in oil prices another $90 billion to $100 billion. He estimated capital flight from Russia this year at around $130 billion. That was before massive losses this week, which drove down the value of the ruble. The Russian currency now has lost 60 percent of its value this year.

Russians have lived through much worse. Their recent oil-fueled prosperity is an exception rather than the rule, and in one sense hard times would be a return to normal. Things would have to get a whole lot worse for urbanites, who took to the streets a couple of years ago to protest electoral shenanigans, to cause him serious problems.

He controls the Russian media, and in the past he has cowed a fragmented political opposition and neutralized any potential political challenger.

But it’s also true that in the long term, if anything can weaken Putin’s grip on power, it’s probably the economy. Low oil prices would be a big factor, just as they were when the Soviet Union collapsed. While a popular uprising seems unlikely, insiders who have gotten rich off Russia’s tawdry mix of business and political influence might get antsy.

So what does Putin do? And what do the U.S. and its allies do? 

Putin’s major speech on Dec. 4 didn’t provide any clarity. At the Council on Foreign Relations, senior fellow Stephen Sestanovich found the address “very eclectic, even incoherent,” with no indication of how he would address growing anxiety in Russia over Ukraine and the economy.

The wisest Western response, according to some is the same strategy George Kennan outlined in his famous essay in 1947 that became the basis of U.S. Cold War policy: containment.

That strategy envisions being prepared to offer Putin a way out, if he chooses to take it. If he does, it’s likely to be another tactic – unless he has concluded he really has no other choice.

Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years. He was an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet Union and served until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Scandia.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/17/2014 - 09:38 am.

    The Russian population has a totally underestimated capacity for accepting the unacceptable so it is quite likely that Putin will not receive much pressure from the general population. Perhaps a few more staged crisis’ and the mythic Putin firm hand will be required, but the attitude of most Russians toward Putin is incomprehensible to much of the world.

    The biggest pressure on him will come from the oligarchs who no longer have the same access to foreign banks to roll over the debt that their companies have accumulated. Who knows what will happen when these people start getting irritated by Putins destiny-building at the expense of their billions?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/17/2014 - 11:58 am.

      Tactics

      You hit the nail on the head. Putin won’t care about the little guys, the general Russian populace, as they’ll simply be a detail for security forces to handle. The real problem for Putin will come from his allies, who won’t be happy that they’re losing money. Arrest and kill a few protestors? No big deal. But take money from their pocket and now you’ve become the beneficiary of their ire!

      Oil is currently running at $55/barrel and OPEC wants to drive it down to $40/barrel, at which point it’s not economical to extract from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. If Putin thinks things are tough now, just wait another six months for market pressure to really put the squeeze on budgets. I’m sure Putin’s business partners love it that he’s beefing up their military as that means large contracts for their firms. But once financing dies up it’ll be hard to keep going without seriously eating into domestic production.

      Well, as my mother says, may you live in interesting times.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/17/2014 - 10:51 am.

    unpredictable

    The only thing predictable about Russia is that they are unpredictable. Many want to return to the good old days of the cold war days of the Soviet Union where at least there was law and order and most people got food. Little is mentioned of Russia’s military buildup and what that is costing.

  3. Submitted by chuck holtman on 12/17/2014 - 05:52 pm.

    Hollowing out

    I’ve talked to a few younger Russians with families and ties still in Russia. Not statistically significant of course, but they all report that the younger, more educated and more cosmopolitan folks are exiting as fast as they can. The result is a tremendous brain drain that has the effect of further consolidating Putin’s political base: the older and more provincial. This sounds like a hollow country occupying a great land mass in which a corrupt oligarchic few focus on extracting wealth from natural resources for as long as they can while pacifying the rest with militaristic bravado that grows emptier and hence more aggressive by the day as the economic/logistic capacity of the country declines. I’d be interested in whether this comports with the author’s sense and what that will mean for the future both inside and outside Russia.

  4. Submitted by Mark Donner on 12/17/2014 - 06:51 pm.

    Nothing wrong with Putin. Just Western propaganda

    Putin is a good leader. He’s dedicated to helping Russia’s environment, far more than most world leaders. He’s kept Russia out of illegal Western wars and illegal invasions. He will not let the corporate billionaire criminals rip off his country. He has boosted Russia’s economy and is popular with the Russian people. Western leaders like Bush, Obama, Harper, Abbot, Cameron, Sarkozy are guilty of the worst crimes imaginable that make Putin look like a saint. A clue is that when 97%of Crimea voted to rejoin Russia, western “democratic” political propagandists said the rights of the Crimean people were invalid, and that a western sponsored coup led by right wing Nazis was a valid government for Ukraine, which is along the same foreign policy as in South America when the US supported the most vicious tyrants and dictators installed by Western sponsored coups. It looks like the US and its NATO clones are jealous that they can’t control the resources of Ukraine, and that their plans for global economic slavery are being thwarted. Too bad.

  5. Submitted by George Kafantaris on 12/18/2014 - 03:09 am.

    Gotta first have the cake.

    Gamesmanship and posturing are only icing on the cake. Russia forgot that you still need the cake.

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