His meddling in the war in Syria has plunged the region into a fresh crisis. He manipulated the results of the American presidential vote with a tidal wave of fake news — and may be about to do something similar in France and Germany. His agents of influence are undermining liberal democracy, corrupting the internet, and steadily pushing his power base forward.
To listen to much of the commentary, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become a malign force, intent in re-creating the Soviet Empire — and a menace that has to be faced down.
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But hold on. There is no question that Putin has been a shockingly bad ruler of his own country, and has been throwing money at influencing elections across the world.
And yet, it is important not to exaggerate his power. In fact, his economy remains a basket case, largely on account of his own incompetence. And we have a few hundred years of geopolitical history to teach us that political and military power is ultimately based on economic power — and since Putin doesn’t have much of the latter, he will have less and less of the former with every year that passes.
The re-explosion of the crisis in Syria, with President Bashar Assad’s horrific gas attack on his own people, and President Donald Trump’s immediate response to that, has heightened tensions between Russia and the West once again. There are already discussions of a renewal of sanctions against the country. Putin has refused to meet with the American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Russia has sent warships toward Syria.
It is as if the Cold War had never ended.
In the background, there has been simmering tension for months. During the American presidential election, there were constant reports of Russian meddling, and worries about the country’s ties to Donald Trump. In France, Putin has met with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
There have been allegations that Russia helped fund the Brexit campaign, and Germany has already taken measures to prevent Putin attempting to influence its election later this year — probably wisely, since Chancellor Angela Merkel has been one of the leading champions of tougher sanctions on Russia.
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There can be no question that Putin is intent on expanding his country’s influence in the world. He has already annexed Crimea, interfered in the Ukraine, and now in Syria he is intent on expanding its influence into the Middle East. An old-school autocrat, he is a believer in Russian power, with a fondness for the geopolitical might that disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nor, as a man who started his career in the Soviet KGB, can there be any doubt that he is willing to use whatever dark arts are necessary to achieve his goals. Fake stories, back-channel funding of campaigns, blackmail and deception? None of them are likely to bother Putin.
And yet, it is also important to maintain some perspective. Seventeen years after he first took power, following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian economy remains in a dire state. In the latest quarter, growth just about managed to turn positive, with an expansion of output but only by a meager 0.3%. The ruble
has recovered some of the ground it lost following the Crimean crisis, and the stock market has clawed back some of its losses.
And yet, the recession of the last few years has been a deep one, and has left its finances in terrible shape.
More seriously, if you take the 17 years since Putin came to power, it is clear that he has made virtually no progress on the economy. It remains almost entirely dependent on energy, a declining industry, with massive oversupply, and increasingly under threat from cheap solar power.
Energy still accounts for 68% of its exports, and the money that energy brings in is about the only thing that keeps the country afloat.
Its population is still falling, with only 142 million people, down from 148 million when Communism collapsed. Russia should be a vibrant emerging market by now. If Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic can re-invent themselves from state-controlled heavy industrial economies into fast-growing, Western-oriented hubs — and parts of those countries are now as rich as parts of Italy or France — there was no reason why Russia could not as well.
But there is no sign of any form of industrial development.
Has anyone ever bought a smart phone made in Russia? Or a TV? Or a car? Or anything at all?
Other emerging markets are flooding the world with high-quality manufactured goods, and creating new companies with powerful brands. All Russia has are a couple of huge energy companies controlled by the president and his cronies. It is hard to think of a country that has been dealt such a good deck of cards, and then played it so badly — and that is entirely Putin’s fault.
True, investors have seen a recovery in Russia since the collapse that followed the Crimean crisis. The benchmark Moscow index is back up to close on 2000, after touching lows of less than 1300 back in 2014. But that is just a bounce from very low levels, and there is unlikely to be any genuine growth to power it forward from here. If they are smart, they will get out before Putin manages to engineer another round of sanctions — and yet another collapse.
In the end, political power is based on economic power — that has been true for a few centuries and it is unlikely to change now. Sure, the country can fund populist politicians, and pump out self-regarding propaganda on TV stations that few people watch, or on websites that not many of us read.
In truth, that is only keeping up the façade of a great power, while its real wealth and influence declines with every year that passes. There are lots of threats to the developed world. But while its economy remains completely feeble, Vladimir Putin is not one of them.