Exactly 10 years ago, Vladimir Putin spoke in Munich, Germany and put his Western partners on notice that strong Russia is back. It is worth asking whether the threat implied in his Munich speech has been fulfilled.
Putin’s stature has grown lately. He is still regarded in an unfavorable light by most people – with the exception of radical right-wingers in Europe and the Donald Trump Koolaid crowd in the United States – but he’s also seen as some kind of brilliant KGB-trained strategist and a puppet master changing world history from the shadows behind the Kremlin wall.
He has been credited with swaying the Brexit vote in Britain and throwing the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump. He is universally believed to have outsmarted President Obama in Syria and turned NATO member Turkey into a Russian ally. He is now expected to undermine the European Union further by helping Marine Le Pen win in France and boosting ultranationalist parties elsewhere in Europe.
Blaming Putin for all of this obscures the genuine problems Western democracies face in the post-industrial age. After all, Putin didn’t make millions of people in Britain choose a self-destructive course or millions of Americans cast their ballots for a greedy, childish real estate developer unfit to be president.
Nevertheless, Putin, while certainly no paper tiger, is no universal threat, either. For all his apparent victories on the international arena, he is merely following in Leonid Brezhnev’s footsteps which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire.
Back in 2002, I wrote a piece for the Russian business paper Vedomosti, where I was a columnist at the time, suggesting that Putin was laying ground for a new stagnation. I argued that he would not be able to transfer power peacefully and would be forced to rule like Leonid Brezhnev, way past what was reasonable. Since Brezhnev had been Soviet party leader for eighteen years, that was the term I predicted for Putin, as well.
The column was never published because my editor believed my premise to be too far-fetched. Yet, come this August, Putin will be completing his 18th year in power. Or, if you want to be technical, it will happen next March, when he won the early presidential election.
Since then, parallels between Putin and Brezhnev have multiplied. Both leaders embarked on a foreign adventure around their 15th anniversary of coming to power. Both did so from the position of strength, at a point when the country was on the ascendency, only to see their grandiose plans come a cropper.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan capped a decade of major foreign policy successes. Everywhere you looked American power and influence were in retreat. Soviet allies and America’s enemies were ruling a growing number of countries in Asia and Africa, victories were scored in Washington’s backyard in Central America and even in Western Europe Eurocommunist parties were poised to enter national governments.
Brezhnev and his entourage no doubt reasoned that Afghanistan could become a Soviet beachhead for expansion into Pakistan and India on the one hand, and into the oil-rich Middle East on the other.
The USSR was feeling well-heeled thanks to its oil exports, which were earning plentiful petrodollars after two major oil crises of the 1970s. But in reality the Soviet economy was a stagnant mess and international adventures were bleeding it white. Meanwhile, the country was governed by increasingly senile gerontocrats who didn’t understand the modern world.
The 2014 Russia was far less powerful than the Soviet Union used to be, but it too was flush with oil cash after four years of record oil prices averaging more than $100 per barrel. It had staged a successful Winter Olympiad which it also won. It seemed to be gaining power and influence in world affairs. After the humiliation of the 1990s, Putin felt it was time for Russia to start throwing its weight around and rejoin the ranks of Great Powers. He also wanted to reconquer majority Russian-speaking regions which went to other countries in the collapse of the Soviet Union and regain complete dominance over the ex-Soviet area.
But the Russian economy and its state were even weaker than they were during the Soviet period. De-industrialization, occurring as a result of high oil prices and the overvalued ruble, killed Russia’s ability to provide consumer goods, machinery and food for itself – even if such Soviet-era products were scarce and of inferior quality. Pervasive corruption destroyed its institutions. The political life in today’s Russia is as barren and stagnant as anything seen in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. As someone noted recently, kids reaching the voting age for next year’s presidential elections will be choosing from the same list of candidates their parent saw when they voted for the first time.
Just as in the final years of the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign military adventurism is not really helping. Actually, Putin’s victories are either incomplete or useless. In Syria, the butcher regime has been precariously propped up but the civil war rages on. It is certainly not the end of the story. In Europe, whether or not his strategy of weakening the EU succeeds is an open question, and even if he does help some right-wingers to power in Western Europe they may prove to be far less friendly toward Russia once they have to govern.
And then there is Ukraine. Much like Brezhnev in Afghanistan, Putin has had to scale back his ambitions. Gone is the grand idea of Novorossiya and a land link to the annexed Crimea. All that’s left is to sustain the two gangster statelets in Eastern Ukraine and periodically get the war there to flare up – at a mounting cost to the indigenous rabble and regular Russian troops as the Ukrainian Army gets more professional and better armed.
Meanwhile, hopes to stir up trouble in the Baltics had to go far to the back burner, given the presence of NATO forces – and time is working against Putin since his pro-Soviet cadres of ethnic Russian retirees are dying out.
Putin has been reduced to waiting on Trump to lift sanctions as Russia’s savings dwindle. With so much publicity surrounding Trump’s involvement with Russia, even the all-powerful US President can’t do anything for now that appears to be dictated from Moscow. Now it has been leaked that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, discussed lifting sanctions with Russian officials, effectively committing treason. No sanction relief is possible in this climate and in fact Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have to get tougher on Putin at least in the near term.
The worst thing, however, is that even if sanctions are lifted, Russia’s moribund economy won’t benefit much. Trump’s policies favoring America’s oil industry will add to the oil glut in international markets and lead to another round of oil price declines. Even more than the Soviet Union, Russia is dependent on oil and gas for its survival.
In the meantime, as Trump and the Republicans in Congress implement their retrograde agenda, they’re awakening and strengthening the resistance movement, especially among the younger generation of Americans. The backlash that will inevitably follow will not only sweep the Republicans from power but will poison Washington against Russia for decades to come.