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

Russia 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.

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

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. 

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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. 

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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.