On October 12, the U.S. Senate held a hearing to confirm National Security Council official Michael McFaul to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. McFaul used his testimony to defend the Obama administration’s “reset” policy, even though the policy has neither reversed the antagonism which marks the U.S.-Russian relationship nor improved U.S. national security. America’s Russia policy needs a reset, but not in public diplomacy. Rather, the White House, State Department, and the able McFaul should reset Washington’s willingness to accept Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a force for stability rather than seek true reform.
Putin’s announcement last month that he would seek a third presidential term surprised few analysts, but was nonetheless depressing. While Foggy Bottom craves stability and the Russians seek security and strength, Putin will deliver neither. Absent meaningful reform, the corruption and cronyism which marks Putinism will likely destabilize Russia.
The economic turmoil of the 1990s disillusioned Russians who embraced Putin as he sought to restore the order they craved. But, over more than a decade of rule, Putin failed to diversify the Russian economy. He delivered short-term growth but only by cashing in on high oil prices. What goes up often comes crashing down. According to former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who stepped down last month under pressure, a drop in oil prices below $60 per barrel could cripple the Russian economy given that the Russian government bases its spending on an income of slightly over $100 per barrel.
In addition, Russia faces a demographic problem. Low birth rates and an aging population will exacerbate budget problems. Putin will have trouble making pension payments as the work force declines. Compounding the problem, Russian productivity is at most 10 percent of that of the United States, according to Mikhail Prokhorov, the former leader of Russia’s increasingly pro-Putin Right Cause party.
While Putin still enjoys high popularity among Russians for his economic stewardship up to and through the 2008 economic crisis, the future already looks uncertain. Recent travelers to Moscow and many observers in the West have compared Putin to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and say the mood in Russia is reminiscent of that time. Russians equate Brezhnev with stagnation. His policies resulted in slow growth, poverty, and severe shortages of food and basic goods, all of which contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Kudrin’s departure only adds to the pessimistic picture. Kudrin was a fiscal conservative and a liberal economist who, despite his close relationship with Putin, nevertheless aspired to real reforms and helped guide Russia through the world’s recent financial storms. Anton Siluanov, his temporary replacement, already has endorsed boosts in military spending which Kudrin had opposed on economic grounds.
The young, talented, and educated are already considering leaving Russia. A recent Levada Centre survey found that 22 percent of Russian adults would like to leave Russia permanently, the highest figure since the collapse of the Soviet Union and more than a threefold increase from four years ago. Their desire to leave has less to do with ideology, than with frustration about Russia’s direction, and a lack of a future for them and their children. It is no coincidence that Russian oligarchs send their children to study in the West, and in recent years, prefer that they stay there.
Russians traditionally weather misery, but there is a limit even to their patience with corruption, poverty, high unemployment, and cuts to basic commodities. If there is no proactive reform — and there will not be without sustained American pressure — Russians may yet undergo a process akin to the protests which swept Arab countries this year. And as in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, such instability might bring good, but could also unleash more brutal, xenophobic, and nationalist forces which would be detrimental to American national security interests.
The Senate should confirm McFaul, a man whose commitment to human rights is unquestioned. However, if American national security is to weather Putin’s return, neither the White House nor State Department should constrain McFaul should he seek to push true reform in Russia.
— Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at Atlantic Council.