Putin isn’t dangerous because Russia is strong—but because it’s so weak
“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.”
-L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
As a child, I remember being fascinated by the populist allegory The Wizard of Oz. My favourite part of the story—sure to cause me to burst out laughing even when I knew what was coming–came when the supposedly omnipotent Wizard was humiliatingly revealed to be a mere mortal, and a terrified one at that. It was an early lesson for me that things are not always as they seem in terms of power, and that conventional wisdom could (and often was) entirely off base.
Recently I have thought of the unmasked Wizard in the context of the seeming rise and rise of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Having decisively intervened in the Syrian Civil War, ruined for all time through military meddling Ukraine’s efforts to join the West (in the guise of EU and NATO), and being seen as playing a nefarious and important role in President Trump’s shocking victory (though for all the hyperventilation I am still waiting to hear how these dark arts actually determined the election), Putin bestrides the world like a colossus. Or so the gormless global commentariat would have you believe.
In actuality, even at this surface level, the Kremlin sees the world more as the hapless Wizard might do. In the Middle East, it has one war-ravaged ally (Syria); the US has literally a dozen. Ukraine may have been decisively prevented from joining the western bloc, but it is not safely the Russian satellite it used to be. And while the Trump administration is likely to reach out to Russia in search of some sort of geopolitical accommodation over ISIS and radical Islam, it is hard to think of any other major policy areas where the interests of the two powers actually line up. So much for the Kremlin’s Oz-like omnipotence.
But graver, more intractable problems lurk just beneath the surface. Russia’s economy amounts to an ageing petrol station, a one trick pony wherein nearly two-third’s of Russian exports are oil and gas. While oil prices have gotten off the floor, the miracle of America’s shale revolution (a great curse to the Kremlin) provides an enduring new ceiling for oil prices, preventing Russia merely riding out bad times, waiting for the oil price to ride to its rescue.
The lack of economic diversification when times were good is Putin’s original sin, as Russia’s economic woes over time will directly threaten its continued great power status. And if Russia did not manage to fix the roof when the sun shined in terms of the commodities boom, now is the rain. In 2015, Russia’s GDP actually shrunk (hardly the calling card of a great power) by 3.7%.
While Russia has stagnated, others have moved ahead. Calculated on a current dollar basis, Russia’s GDP is puny, less than seven percent of America’s, roughly the size of the state of Texas. Between 1992-2016, the real compound annual growth rate of Russian per capita GDP has been 1.5%; over that period of time it was a healthy 5.1% in India and an eye-catching 8.9% in China. Other rising powers are running rings around the Kremlin.
So let us be crystal clear in a Wizard of Oz type way; Russia is a great power in all kinds of long-terms trouble. However, the peril it poses stems from its weakness, and not its supposed strength. Wounded animals are often dangerous, and the bear did strike out—especially in Ukraine—to secure its primary interests when it felt itself under threat. While this make keep the wolf away from the door now, structural economic decline (there is no movement toward systemic reform) awaits the former superpower.
Yet in the short to medium term, the Kremlin still has some good cards to play, even if it is on course to lose the trick in the end. Putin’s approval rating remains a stratospheric 82%. As such, he remains the undisputed master of the country, capable of acting quickly and decisively and of using an army (compare all this with the neutered, divided EU in the Ukraine crisis) to further his immediate interests. Weakened and wounded, in terms of hard power Russia does remain a force to be reckoned with.
At the end of the Wizard of Oz, the chastened real-world shell of Oz does cause some unwitting mischief, as the balloon designed to send Dorothy home flies off with the Wizard instead. But Dorothy surmounts this obstacle, at last making it back to Kansas. The Wizard, like Russia, is a wrecking power, capable of upsetting aspects of the present order. But in their weakness that is all they are; neither the Wizard nor Russia can create anything like a new order in place of today’s imperilled world.
Published in City AM London, January 30, 2017