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To understand Putin, you have to understand Russia’s slow downward spiral

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Sputnik/Alexey Nikolskiy/Kremlin via REUTERS
As long as Vladimir Putin is in the background, this will be his Russia, a country in a slow downward spiral.

Vladimir Putin is up to something. What exactly it is, doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that it means he can stay in power as long as he wants – and it won’t be good for Russia. 

Putin surprised nearly everyone this past week by proposing to shake up the government structure, a move that led immediately to the resignation of the prime minister and his entire Cabinet. New Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, previously the head of Russia’s tax service, is as obscure as Putin was when Boris Yeltsin rapidly promoted him 20 years ago.

While Putin’s proposals formally put more power in the hands of parliament and the prime minister, that’s unlikely to matter much. Putin will be termed out of the president’s office (for the second time) in four years. But there are a couple of other spots from which an aging leader can pull however many strings he wants for as long as he wants.

One of them is the State Council, a largely ceremonial body made up of the governors of Russia’s regions, which Putin already leads. Putin says it should have more power in the future. The other is something called the Security Council, which he also leads. 

Mishustin is widely regarded as one of Russia’s most capable technocrats. Appointing him prime minister appears to be a bet that he can make the country more efficient and less corrupt, or at least that he can make it appear so. It’s also more likely he’ll be hung out to dry. 

As long as Putin is in the background, this will be his Russia, a country in a slow downward spiral. It faces daunting demographic, economic and human rights problems. And while it has interfered in U.S. elections and engaged in adventures in countries like Ukraine and Syria, in more important ways it is pulling in on itself. Putin benefited from a relatively brief boom in oil prices and has engaged in some clever tactics, but he hasn’t really changed Russia’s trajectory – and neither will any government that is beholden to him.

It seems a lot of Russians would rather be somewhere else.

Gallup reported last year that a full 20 percent of Russians would emigrate if they could. The most popular destinations are the United States and Germany. Since 2014, the percentage of those between ages 15 and 29 who want to leave permanently has more than tripled to 44 percent, it said. Nearly a quarter of Russia’s college-educated population, 24 percent, would leave permanently. 

That’s part of a bigger demographic problem. Russia has tried to encourage more births and has managed to increase its dismal life expectancy. Even so, its population fell in 2018 for the first time in a decade, and the United Nations expects it to keep falling. In that, Russia isn’t alone, of course. Japan, a number of European countries and China face similar population pressures, either now or in the near future. But unless something is done, Russia’s experience is likely to be among the more extreme. From an estimate of 146.8 million, the U.N. says by 2050 Russia’s population is likely to be down another 9 million people, to 135.8 million. 

It needs immigration, not the least in order to fund its public pension system. The government was forced to push up the retirement age for both men and women by five years in 2018, a highly unpopular move that led to protests and dented Putin’s popularity. But experts say the government has run hot and cold on immigration, and the numbers are nowhere near what Russia needs. 

The economy continues to grow slowly, burdened not only by Western sanctions for Putin’s actions in Ukraine, but his inability to diversify beyond resource extraction – largely oil and gas, which make up roughly 40 percent of government revenues and a majority of Russia’s exports.

Putin’s master plan appears to include greater isolation. 

In one oft-quoted article, a senior adviser to Putin said that Russia’s centuries-long effort to be part of the West was over, and that the country faced “100 years (200? 300?) of geopolitical solitude.” That’s an expression of one side of a longstanding debate about Russia’s place in the world. Some analysts picked up a hint of it in Putin’s speech last week announcing his proposed government changes. 

Some of Putin’s foreign policy moves are plainly opportunistic. But if you look at them this way, many are primarily defensive: A way to create a bulwark against the West and Western values with which he disagrees, or to secure Russia by weakening rivals. 

In the meantime, Russia continues to go its own way. A Russian human rights campaigner told the United Nations last year that his country had twice as many political prisoners at it did in 1976. A new Internet law gives authorities more control over web traffic; they can even disconnect Russia from the rest of the world in case of an emergency.

Such policies are unlikely to make Russians feel really good about their country. Still, the plan probably will work for the time being. You have to wonder, though, whether and when Russians will finally get tired of it all. 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/21/2020 - 11:18 am.

    How can you write an article about the downward spiral of Russia without once mentioning the immense economic sanctions America and Western Europe has placed on Russia?

    The answer: because such actions are an act of regime change and war, and that neoliberal method is meant to be kept from the American public in whose name such actions are taken. And we call ourselves a democracy?

    And lecturing Russia about how it needs immigration? Good gawd, I am so very tired of the paternalistic, imperial leadership of America, ever lecturing the world about what is expected of us, while democracy is used as a cover for eternal war profiteering, Monopoly/oligarchy, epic income inequality and the destruction of the biosphere.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2020 - 12:51 pm.

      Chill out, I read this…burdened not only by Western sanctions for Putin’s actions in Ukraine…

      It also seems to me that people are voting with their feet with respect to Russia and their place in the world. Is that a neo-liberal conspiracy by western war-mongers, or is it a reaction to deeply corrupt oligarchy that has suppressed political diversity and personal liberty?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/21/2020 - 02:06 pm.

        Its all a neoliberal conspiracy.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/21/2020 - 04:23 pm.

        Not sure how I missed that…apologies to Mr Porubcansky.

        However, what is rarely if ever mentioned is the covert CIA/StateDept/NGO regime change actions in 2014, destabilizing Ukraine, and the installation of a partially neo-nazi government inciting violence in the Donbass. Never mentioned either is the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voting to join Russia because of that newly Western installed partially neonazi gov. Nor ever mentioned is the relentless eastern push of NATO to Russia’s border despite promises not to.

        My point is, we Americans are propagandized by our government and media to never ask ourselves, maybe the relentless destabilizing pressure we put on Russia, our meddling in their affairs, CAUSES them to vote for Putin and perpetuate oligarchy, and separate themselves from us, and attempt to meddle here?

        It is like we think our gov is as pure as pure can be when it comes to foreign policy. Never mind, it is all about Manifest Destiny, our corporations, banks and billionaire oligarchs trying to take over the world.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/22/2020 - 08:20 am.

          Sorry, but the world comes in shades of grey–and the shade of grey varies by incident, leaders and policies.

          And by the way, kleptocracy is promoted from the top, not inspired by support from below. What public support engendered the theft of Soviet state enterprises by the Russian mob ?

    • Submitted by Alina Trukhina on 01/21/2020 - 04:39 pm.

      Considering Mark’s last name, I’m going to venture a guess that he’s a 2nd generation Russian immigrant. He is not “lecturing Russia”. He is more connected to Russia than most Americans and has a much better understanding of where the country is.

      As a Russian immigrant myself, I can assure you: Russia has been in a downward spiral. Things are getting worse. The economy is in the toilet because of incredibly rampant corruption, not because of economic sanctions, though the sanctions do not help. Putin is leading an increasingly repressive government and promoting nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism. He intends to restrict internet and information availability.
      American is not coming into play there.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/22/2020 - 09:57 am.

        To Alina and Neal,

        Yes, Indeed, Putin is an autocrat who has facilitated corruption in Russia. No question about it.

        My point is, that does not imply that the leadership of America is anti-corruption. Saying American leadership would facilitate democracy, freedom and egalitarianism in Russia is like saying we have done that for Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Brazil, etc etc etc. American leadership merely wants to replace Putin and Mafia rule with American style Monopoly/Oligarchy. But usually we just end up destroying the country and making it a more violent place than it was.

        The difference of course too, is this is Nuclear Russia. Provoking the Great Bear is hubris in the extreme, so far beyond hubris there is no category for that kind of arrogance/stupidity.

        And of course, my point is, what are we doing about American style corruption, Monopoly and oligarchy, right here in America? Facilitating it, both parties, every advantage for the few, increasing austerity for the many.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/21/2020 - 08:19 pm.

    Wonder if anyone else sees some reflections of what could happen here?
    “Putin’s master plan appears to include greater isolation.” Sounds exactly like Trump’s “MAGA” execution.
    “Even so, its population fell in 2018 for the first time in a decade, and the United Nations expects it to keep falling” Us is growing at ~ .7% 2017, with Trumps basic dead stop to immigration, we aren’t far behind.
    And they are both surrounded by lots of yes people, and control the party in power. .

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 01/22/2020 - 09:46 am.

    A crumbling economy, with an elite few at the top trying to hold a broken system together, is the dying breaths of Socialism. The system of Socialism will breakdown, it is just a matter of when. You are seeing it now in Russia, very few should be surprised.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/22/2020 - 10:45 am.

      My bad. I thought at first you were talking about America.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/22/2020 - 04:06 pm.

        Lets see elite few? Actually I think you were spot on, it would be interesting if we had a comparative to Russia, the total $/rubles may be different but suspect the % might be reasonably close together.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 01/23/2020 - 10:48 am.

          Try again. Middle class incomes have grown 5k in Trump’s 3 years. Grew 1k in Bush and Obama’s 8 years. You think all the pension plans are enjoying the stock market growth?

          • Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/24/2020 - 11:29 am.

            Let’s hope pension funds are enjoying it, given how massively underfunded most of them are! If they are smart they will start taking some profits now.

            As for your 5k claim, that is almost certainly the product of Trumpian exaggeration and wishful thinking. That number is based on a conservative “think tank” study, and not on the US Census Bureau’s income surveys, which indicate an increase in median income of (maybe) $1600 since the conman’s inauguration in Jan 2017.

            This is an increase from the Obama numbers, but irresponsible fiscal policies and colossal budget deficits will indeed goose an economy for a time–and at least the nation’s plutocrats are being forced to hand over a small amount of their enormous Trumpian gains and profits to the working class. All in all, the economy has been in expansion since around 2010 and that has continued under (or despite) Trump.

            The question is what an economic illiterate like Trump will do when the (predictable) downturn occurs, since he has mostly surrounded himself with charlatans and fools like Kudlow.

  4. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/24/2020 - 11:55 am.

    Thanks for this interesting article. It is indeed quite curious what Putin thinks he is accomplishing for the Russian people and how he can look at the situation existing in Russia with equanimity, given the data you cite. On the other hand, the condition of ordinary Russians never bothered the Czars overmuch…

    Putin’s focus seems entirely upon attempting to re-project Russia power abroad, despite not having nearly the assets available to it that the Soviet Union did. He lives in a mindset of “Russia First”, just as our (far less intelligent) president exhorts his minions with dreams of “America First”. Putin’s Russian nativism and disdain for immigration also coincides with Trump’s toxic nativism, but one has to concede that this is probably the most important “issue” motivating the supporters of both autocrats.

    Ultimately one has to say that all this comes uncomfortably close to the greatest exponent of such jingoist ideology, Der Fuhrer and his “Germany First” Third Reich, which ended rather catastrophically for Deutschland. But apparently this history holds no concerns for Putin or Trump.

    And given that Putin has rather comprehensively insulated the Russian government from the Russian people and thoroughly wrecked any hope of an effective Russian democracy (just as Trump is doing to American democracy), I’m sure Putin does reflect on the doings in Russia in 1917. Unlike the colossal ignoramus Trump, Putin at least knows his nation’s history…

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