Why IR Theory Gets Russia Wrong

Moscow’s Predictably Unpredictable Politics

A part of the monument of the Gratitude for the Soviet Army Soldiers is pictured in Warsaw, Poland, May 23, 2016. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

With Russia’s economy sagging, support for the government falling, and even President Vladimir Putin’s sky-high approval ratings beginning to come down to earth, there has been no shortage of speculation about Russia’s political stability. Some argue that a collapse of the Putin regime is imminent, whereas others are more cautious. A recent Foreign Affairs survey of experts found that most believed that political change in Russia was not on the immediate horizon, but there were plenty of dissenters—and, at any rate, our ability to predict political events in Russia has never been great.

Why has divining Russia’s political future been so hard? It is a challenge not because of the supposedly inscrutable Putin, the opacity of the political system, or the vagaries of the “Russian soul,” but because our two most prominent arguments about political change make precisely opposite predictions about Russia.

First, the bad

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