What is it that makes Russian President Vladimir Putin such a dangerous man? Is it his meddling in Western elections? Maybe, although it seems unlikely we’ll ever know the extent to which such gambits mattered. Is it his foreign-policy adventurism? Perhaps, but taste for aggression has gotten him mired in expensive and apparently unwinnable conflicts with few repercussions for the West.
In fact, even as Putin is held out as public enemy number one, he is also described as pathologically weak. In a 2016 article, Robert Kaplan wrote of Putin’s “profound sense of insecurity” in the face of foreign foes. And in the Washington Post, Joss Meakins describes Russian power as “brittle” because of the country’s troubled economy, demographic problems, social problems, and more.
Yet therein lies the answer to our question. Putin is dangerous precisely because he has been extremely good at playing a very weak hand. To see how, consider the case of the Russian economy. Headlines about its imminent collapse aside, “today, Russia’s economy has stabilized, inflation is at historic lows, the budget is nearly balanced,” writes Fletcher School of Law’s Chris Miller in Foreign Affairs, “and Putin is coasting toward reelection on March 18, positioning him for a fourth term as president.”
How did he do that, despite facing supposedly crushing sanctions and a crash in oil prices? For one, argues Miller, he focused on keeping debt and inflation low. He also kept unemployment down and pension payouts steady, while allowing some modernization of the private sector. The result, concludes Miller, is that “Russia is a relatively rare kleptocracy that gets high marks from the IMF for its economic management.”
Of course, the real goal was never economic health, and Putin’s policies certainly won’t ensure it. Rather, the point was retaining power at home and creating the ability to project power abroad. And on that score, Putin’s strategy has worked.