Putin Under Pressure But Far from Doomed

Russia’s economy and foreign relations are suffering, but it will take more to threaten Vladimir Putin himself.

Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 21, 2015
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 21, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Alexander J. Motyl, an historian of Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, recently argued in Foreign Affairs magazine that Vladimir Putin’s regime is on the brink of collapse.

He sees three crises in Russia, all brought about by Putin’s rule and exacerbated by foreign-policy misadventures in Ukraine and Syria.


The first is Russia’s economic calamity. A dramatic fall in oil and gas prices has — once again — exposed Russia’s overreliance on hydrocarbon exports. Putin started his presidency with liberal economic reforms, but his regime has come to rely on a crony capitalism that stifles the sort of innovation and diversification Russia needs to move away from an overbearing energy industry.

Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, haven’t helped.

Nor has the embargo on European fruit and vegetable imports Russia imposed in retaliation. Prices rose nearly 30 percent last year, the state statistics agency has said. General inflation is at 15.5 percent.

Political system

Second, argues Motyl, Putin’s political system is disintegrating.

His brand of authoritarian centralization was supposed to create a strong “power vertical” that would bring order to the administrative apparatus, rid it of corruption and subordinate regional Russian and non-Russian elites to Moscow’s will.

The system isn’t quite collapsing, but events have revealed it to be far weaker than many perhaps imagined.

András Tóth-Czifra, a political analyst of post-Soviet Europe, reported last year that people were getting frustrated on different levels of the power vertical.

Uneasy decisions on scarce money costing key people their jobs. Corruption scandals getting to the higher echelons of the Russian elite. Power struggles slipping out of control.

He also pointed out that Russian allies in Armenia and Belarus, Serzh Sargsyan and Alexander Lukashenko, were more brazenly blackmailing Moscow.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore recently reported that not only Belarus but Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous republic within Russia, has been “defying the Kremlin with stunning regularity — and getting away with it.”

The region has ignored a federal law mandating that it stop calling its chief executive, Rustam Minnikhanov, “president.” And it has flouted Kremlin orders to cut ties with Turkey in the wake of the NATO country’s downing of a Russian jet on the border with Syria.

Still, said Tóth-Czifra, Putin is “the only politician” in Russia — just look at the polls — and that’s where Motyl’s argument gets weaker.

Putin the man

The third crisis Motyl sees is Putin himself.

Since his attempts to stop Ukraine entering into an association treaty with the European Union in 2013 failed, “he has committed strategic blunder after strategic blunder,” according to Motyl.

His formerly attractive macho image is wearing thin and his recent attempts to promote his cult of personality by publishing a book of his quotes and a Putin calendar look laughable and desperate.

To us, perhaps. But Putin still enjoys high approval ratings, bolstered by a propaganda machine that portrays Russia as under constant threat from a devious America. And — perhaps more importantly — he remains the pivot around which the whole Russian regime revolves.

Putin has carefully divided the elite into factions. The military men seldom meet the oligarchs who seldom interact with cabinet members. This makes Putin indispensable to the workings of the regime and should prevent groups from being able to team up and remove him.

So while Russia’s economy and foreign relations may be going down the drain, it doesn’t look like Putin will be going anywhere.

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