In 2018, Russia increased its power but found itself even more isolated. Its people are paying a high price.
Nowadays, the double-headed eagle is an even better symbol of Russia than before. On the one hand, it has been victorious in Syria, its influence in Europe and the Middle East is spreading, and it is destabilizing and dividing democracies. On the other hand, it remains cursed by autocratic government, by a windfall economy, and by the absolute primacy of the State over individuals.
2018 saw the big comeback of Russian power. On 18th March, Vladimir Putin was re-elected with a 77% majority for a fourth term of office as president. The macro-economic situation is stable: inflation is under control (4% per year), the unemployment level is down to 4.8% and public debt is at 15% of GDP. Furthermore, Russian “soft power”, shown in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, was once again illustrated in its faultless organization of the football World Cup. Above all, Russia has made spectacular inroads into the international stage, exemplified by the Helsinki summit on 16th July 2018 when Donald Trump stated his confidence in Vladimir Putin and launched a broadside against the US intelligence services.
The military modernization program that began a decade ago has produced an impressive arsenal of missiles and spectacular operational performances as shown in the army’s mastery of hybrid wars like the annexation of Crimea.
From being marginalized at the beginning of the 21st century, Russia has put itself back at center stage on the diplomatic front. Its decisive intervention in Syria ensured victory for Bashar el-Assad, and the withdrawal of the USA has given it the keys to the Middle East. It is increasing its pressure on Europe by its support of populist forces and with the emergence of pro-Russian leaders in its former satellites. Lastly, it is giving substance to its plan for a post-Western world through its rapprochement with China – which has become its main trading partner – and with Turkey under Erdogan, who is indebted to Russia for having foiled the military coup d’état.
In spite of these strategic successes, Putin seems to be increasingly isolated. The exaltation of national pride and denunciation of the West are not enough to win over a population that is impoverished, over-indebted ($210 billion) and infuriated by corruption. Because of the failure of diversification, the Russian economy has been consistently declining, and is now down to 12th place in the world ranking. The rise of Made in Russia in response to Western sanctions has been accompanied by a fall in the quality of foodstuffs and medicines. More than 20 million people live at poverty level and inequalities have skyrocketed. Furthermore, there is a massive outflow of Russian capital and international investment.
Nationalist propaganda is no longer sufficient to keep down social movements, even in Crimea. Austerity measures announced in June 2018 – like the sales tax increase from 18% to 20% and the rise in gasoline prices – triggered a wave of protest. This has continued with mobilization against the way garbage disposal is managed in the Moscow area, and this reached the far north when the population of Urdoma in the Archangel province rose up against the plan to unload Moscow’s garbage on them. And Russian demography continues to be suicidal – the working population has fallen by 7 million in a decade.
Russia is emerging as the winner of the new Cold War because of the USA’s disengagement and Donald Trump’s destabilization of NATO, which have opened the doors to Europe and the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has restored Russian governmental authority and power, notably thanks to the huge potential offered by the cyber-world and social media in terms of control and manipulation. There is no doubt that he will be his own successor in 2024, either by changing the Constitution or by raising himself to the status of supreme leader above the president. But his absolute power is a new and tragic manifestation of the failure of Russian modernization. Vladimir Putin proves that Tocqueville was right when he wrote: “[The American] combats the wilderness and barbarism; [the Russian] civilization clothed in all its arms […]. [The second] in a way concentrates all the power of society in one man. The former has freedom as his main means of action; the latter, servitude.” In the 21st century, everything is still possible in Russia, except freedom.
(Column published in Le Point, 21st March 2019)