If you’re rich and willing to kneel at Vladimir Putin’s feet, Russia is a good place to live. For the right price, you can do just about anything.
For the less well-off, however, Russia isn’t so great. Afflicted by violent crime, endemic corruption, and rampant alcoholism, many Russians live in hardship. To the detriment of the middle class, Putin’s kleptocracy obstructs the rule of law and entrepreneurial mobility.
And now, as Nat Brown notes, declining oil prices, Western sanctions, and systemic structural weaknesses are strangling Russia’s economy.
On Thursday, President Putin responded to these challenges in his annual address to the Russian Parliament. Aside from offering a “full amnesty” for repatriated capital, Putin was characteristically unwavering. Consider how he described the Ukrainian province of Crimea, successfully seized by Russia:
The peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation. . . . It was in Crimea . . . that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus. . . . All of this allows us to say that Crimea . . . [holds] invaluable civilizational and even sacred importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism. And this is how we will always consider it.
These are not words that suggest he’ll compromise with the West. Instead, they reflect the central role that Eastern Europe plays in Putin’s image of himself as a leader. Crimea is a cornerstone of Putin’s larger project to restore Russian greatness. In his homage to Christianity and his comparison of Crimea to the Temple Mount, Putin is playing to the powerful constituency of the Russian Orthodox Church, while sending a message to the West: I will not yield.
This informs the larger strategic issue. Western leaders believe that their sanctions, which are relatively weak, will pressure Russia to make a geographical compromise. But for Vladimir Putin, the stakes are far higher. He sees Ukraine through the prism of a philosophical identity, as a foundation of Russia’s timeless soul. In this view, Ukraine isn’t only about land; it’s about patriotic prestige. To reinforce this point, Putin offered a dig at post-patriotic Europe: “If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival.” And as his standoff with the West continues and he grapples with economic weakness, Putin is likely to become even more unpredictable.
Yet other domestic concerns will also fuel Putin’s aggression. For a start, as yesterday’s terrorist attack in Grozny, Chechnya, shows, Russia’s internal stability remains under threat. In part, this is because of Putin’s reliance on regional cronies such as Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and Sergey Aksyonov of Crimea. Despots with appalling human-rights records and an affinity for ludicrous opulence, these leaders have failed to reduce simmering ethnic tensions.
Meanwhile, Putin faces populist pressure from an array of other politicians, a mix of aggressive ethno-nationalists and Communists who mourn the Soviet demise. Consider that the fourth-largest party in Russia’s equivalent of the House of Representatives is led by — and I mean this genuinely — a man who is almost certainly a psychopath. Putin has used his United Russia party to bind Russians to his presidency (Russians, as David Greene explains, prefer predictable hardship over chaos), but his aggression is also about posturing in a domestic political environment that favors extremism. As Russia becomes increasingly unstable economically and socially, Putin will probably become even more dangerous. Just as a hungry bear is hyper-aggressive, a pressured Vladimir Putin will be more willing to pursue international brinkmanship.
Still, this doesn’t mean the West should back down. As I’ve argued many times before, Putin makes strategy on bold but rational assessments, and he can be influenced. Correspondingly, by offering Putin a choice between either increased pressure or diplomacy that enables him to save face, Western leaders can make use of Russia’s difficulties in a way that helps both Russia and the West.
Recall the advice to a hiker facing a bear: Respect at all times, distance as prudent, bear spray as necessary, and a rifle as last resort.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.