National Security & Defense

The ‘Strength’ of Vladimir Putin

(Reuters photo: Maxim Shemetov)
It is not evident when viewed from the east.

Donald Trump’s lamentable habit of batting his eyelashes flirtatiously at frequently shirtless Russian strongman/Buchananite pinup girl Vladimir Putin has produced predictable results, in the form of qualified praise for the Moscow autocrat.

You’ll be familiar with the formulation: “Oh, he’s wicked, to be sure, and no friend of the United States, but he is a strong leader.” Or: “Putin is a bad man, but at least, unlike Barack Obama, he clearly has his country’s national interest at heart.” Or, as our friend Hugh Hewitt put it, finding a model of comparison in Chairman Mao (because that’s what conservatives do now): “Most historians rank him an effective leader.”

Effective at what?

Putin is unlike Trump in many ways: He is an actual ruthless killer and a man of violence, while Trump only fantasizes about being one, boasting about how “tough guys” like Mike Tyson, the famous rapist, are drawn to him. But he is a bit like Trump in that he is more effective at projecting an image of personal toughness than he is at actually pursuing his country’s interests.

Putin became president of the Russian Federation in May 2000, though he had been acting president since New Year’s Eve of 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned. Russia had experienced some strong growth in the post-Soviet era but took a downturn right as Putin was coming to power. Buoyed by petroleum exports, the country would continue to have some good years, though it would never return to the 10 percent growth of 2000. By way of comparison, the U.S. economy under Barack Obama, which has not done well, has grown by an average of 1.5 percent per year (200915), while the Russian economy grew by less than four-tenths of a percent during the same period.

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Russia has an obvious problem in that most of its economic growth during the fat years was driven by oil and gas and, with the United States now producing more oil than any other country in the world and substantially more natural gas than the next biggest producer — thanks, fracking! — petroleum prices have been low. That’s been hard on petro-intensive places like Houston and the Pennsylvania shale fields, but the United States is not a one-horse economy. Putin’s Russia is. Oil and mining account not only for the largest share of Russian exports but for practically all of them, with cereal farming and timbering filling out the chart. If Russia’s largest category of manufactured-goods exports (machines, engines, and pumps) were made by a single company, that firm would be less than one-fifth the size of Hewlett-Packard by revenue.

But, then, Hewlett-Packard has had some strong leaders, Carly Fiorina among them.

Strong leaders do not leave their nations vulnerable to the fluctuations of a single commodity market. The Gulf emirs got that message long ago, and principalities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which was, in a sense, blessed by having oil but not too much of it) have done far more to diversify their economies than has Putin’s Russia, with far less to work with in the way of natural resources, arable land, and human capital.

Russia is a much bigger ship to turn around than is an oil emirate. But China, too, has pursued diversification and reforms that are in many ways more intelligent than what has been managed by Putin — and China is one damned big boat to turn.

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That fact has not been lost on the gentlemen in Beijing, which is why they keep slapping around the Russian strongman like a welterweight who has wandered into the heavyweight tournament, which is what he is. In the matter of the dispute over Yinlong and Heixiazi islands, China seems to have got the better of Russia, and Moscow’s concession of a symbolic two square miles of land to China provoked such an angry reaction among Russian nationalists that Moscow was obliged to claim that no such thing had happened.

But what is truly worrying the Russians is the steady flow of Chinese illegal immigrants — some call them “colonizers” — into the Russian Far East, which has some Russia watchers concluding that Beijing’s asserting effective control over those areas is a question of when rather than if. As Richard Rousseau puts it in Harvard International Review: “China has allocated a definite place for Russia in its policies: It is primarily a source of raw materials and an outlet for goods not suitable for what they consider more discriminating markets.”

It doesn’t seem too much to ask when indulging a strongman that he leave his country stronger.

Putin’s response to China’s slow-motion annexation of its Far East has not been at all what Donald Trump would recommend. There is no question of building a wall and making Beijing pay for it. Instead, the Russian government has offered Chinese interests a 49-year lease on the land, and in China it is suggested (the Russians deny it) that this is a prelude to a loosening of Russian immigration rules in the area. Not that those immigration rules are doing much to stop the Chinese. Rousseau again: “China has deliberately promoted the migration of its citizens to the Russian Far East, fueling concerns that by as soon as 2025, it will be possible to start talking about ‘China’s Siberia.’”

It is easy to fall for the strong man. The American Right was far too indulgent, for instance, of the anti-Communist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and we sometimes talk hopefully about this or that country discovering its Lee Kuan Yew without really considering the fullness of what that means for things dear to the American heart, such as freedom of speech and of the press. Of course we must take account of the reality that Jeffersons, Washingtons, and Hamiltons are hard to come by. But we mustn’t allow ourselves to be blinded by a nice set of pension reforms or a decent tax policy, either.

#related#In any case, it doesn’t seem too much to ask when indulging a strongman that he leave his country stronger. Putin isn’t doing that. His is an ailing and sometimes chaotic but rich and cultured nation, and his gift has been to transform it into something between a second-rate oil emirate and a first-rate crime syndicate, Norway as run by the city fathers of Chicago.

That’s not a model for an American president. It isn’t even a good model for the Russians.

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