How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The twists and turns of Russia’s development may have never been more tied to the West than they were in 1997. That summer, Moscow’s stock market began to boom as new Western-style grocery stores replaced those of the foul-smelling Soviet variety, even in Moscow’s most remote districts. A growing number of Russians began to believe that the trauma of market reform and democratization had finally started to show at least some small promise of an eventual payoff. It was therefore surprising to hear a young Moscow professional back then declare that the West wants only to make Russia weak. That protestation came not from a die-hard Communist or nationalist politician but rather from a well-spoken 30-something who had traveled abroad. Nothing, it seemed, could bridge what appeared to be an ideological divide between us.
Today, such views are common among young Russians. Western antagonism toward Russia has become a standard trope in Moscow’s official gospel since the 1998 financial crisis that derailed then President Boris Yeltsin’s Westernizing reforms and led to a bitter political battle for succession. Yeltsin’s handpicked heir, Russian President Vladimir Putin, won that struggle by resurrecting the country’s traditional political culture that many Russians hoped had been left behind in their transition. Fifteen years later, the central, centuries-old political practice of hiding reality with bluffs and façades is back in style.
Few would deny that Putin is a master of international bluster. He has rejected years of Western overtures and mocked the United States and Europe, despite their willingness to overlook Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Rather than engage with the West, as Washington and Brussels had hoped, he has redrawn European borders and launched a war in Ukraine that has killed more than 6,000 people. All the while, he has justified his actions by blaming the West. Ukraine’s conflict, he said in February, “emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies . . . to impose their will everywhere.” Putin regularly risks civilian aviation catastrophes by sending bombers with their transponders turned off near—and sometimes into—the airspace of NATO member countries. And he favors a television news host who gleefully warned that Russia is capable of nuking the United States into “radioactive dust.”
Given Moscow’s apprehension toward dealing with the West on practical and reasonable terms, Westerners would be forgiven for asking whether Russia can ever be normal. The answer is crucial for the years and decades ahead, particularly since Putin fits a leadership mold: many Russian leaders have held power by adopting foreign influences and remaking them into more traditionally Russian forms. Catherine the Great left out much of the Enlightenment thought that she claimed her reforms reflected; the tone and practice of Soviet communism would have dumbfounded Marx. Those and other façades have obscured the maneuverings of Russia’s rulers: remember the decades Western scholars of the Soviet Union spent interpreting the lineups of Politburo members atop Lenin’s mausoleum for subtle signals of who was in or out, much the way their successors try to divine the current regime’s players. As long as Putin benefits from such old practices, persuading him to play by Western rules will remain difficult.
Putin sustains his 80 percent public approval rating by presenting himself as a restorer of Russian greatness and sole guarantor of the state’s security. The invasion of Ukraine is only the latest example of a series of actions that he claims have been vital for Russia’s survival, which began by launching a war in Chechnya before his election as president in 2000. His rule over Russia requires the image of a fearless defender of his people because the opposite is true: far from boosting his country’s influence, Putin is acting against Russia’s long-term interests, undermining stability and prosperity by consolidating power to serve a corrupt inner circle of billionaires and don-like officials. Weakening the economy by incurring Western sanctions is but a case in point. Ordinary Russians have seen their savings shrink even as some of the president’s closest friends have reaped huge profits from government contracts and concessions ostensibly aimed at countering the decline.
For those who do not buy into Putin’s demonstration of strength, there is an ongoing crackdown on dissent for both internal and external organizations. In May, Putin enacted a new law enabling prosecutors to declare foreign organizations with offices in Russia as undesirable, presumably to be able to shut them down. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the groups currently under scrutiny. Many foreign organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development have already been forced out. Among the few remaining domestic dissenters, the vitally important human rights group Memorial is under constant threat.
However irrational it may appear in the West, Putin’s method of consolidating power is effective. Although the most optimistic Russian forecasts predict the shrinking economy will improve only by next year at the earliest, the country’s finances have proved more resilient than the West had hoped, despite sanctions that bar Russian companies from raising badly needed credit abroad. Regardless, Russia’s current course of action is probably no more sustainable politically or economically in the long term than the Soviet Union’s, which led to disaster. Although there is no way to predict how long it may take, Putin will last only until Russians realize that.
Western countries must show Russian citizens that Putin, not the West, is responsible for their deepening problems. It must do so by setting a strong example when it comes to sanctions and policy. A European Union summit in May consisting of leaders from Ukraine and other eastern neighbors proved a major disappointment on that front. Despite much fine talk about cooperation and democracy, it provided no promises for countries interested in joining the bloc. Last week, EU governments managed to overcome their differences to agree on extending Russia sanctions for six months, but it was hardly the kind of unambiguous resolve that is required. EU countries should make it clear there will be no change in their policies until Moscow honors the cease-fire agreement in Ukraine.
Deeper and broader measures are also needed. The West must supply Ukraine with defensive weapons to ensure Moscow’s fanning of the conflict becomes more controversial at home. For as long as war continues to fuel Putin’s popularity, opposing the West will remain in his immediate political interests. Constructive engagement with the international community—that is, acting normally by our definition—will come only when his façade is punctured.
For now, escalating conflict may have enabled Putin to tap into a deep current, but by playing on Russian tradition, he has probably set a course for the country to repeat its history. Moscow does not need to succumb to the same fate, however, if it is willing to come back to the table. Russia can become normal even if doing so will take a very long time.