Commentary Magazine


The Corrosive Impact of Putin’s Misrule

Some observers may be puzzled as to why United Russia–Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin Village of a political party–failed to clear 50 percent of the vote in Russia’s parliamentary elections, notwithstanding Putin’s nearly complete control of the mass media and his supporters’ apparent willingness to engage in election fraud.

Part of the answer may come from this eye-opening Wall Street Journal article on Russia’s “air safety crisis.”

Nine Russian airliners have crashed this year; in one of those crashes an entire professional hockey team was killed. The Journal notes: “Russian fatalities and crashes, adjusted for air-traffic volumes, this year exceed those in less developed countries with longstanding safety problems, including Congo and Indonesia, according to aviation consultants Ascend in London.”

The problem isn’t the airplanes. It’s how they are maintained and operated. As the Journal notes:

In heartland Russia, for example, many pilots and airplane mechanics show little concern for basic safety rules that have become second nature elsewhere. Domestic carriers operate under national regulations that are much weaker than global rules that Russia’s international carriers face. Falsification is common, down to widespread use of counterfeit spare parts, Russian officials say.

In other words, the very tools used by Putin to gain control of Russia–which includes tolerating corruption by his allies, favoring those who toe his line rather than exhibit great skill or dedication in doing their jobs, and eviscerating any independent checks on his power–are now coming back to haunt Russian airliner passengers. And not only passengers, of course. The Putin style, which builds on centuries of misgovernance, now permeates all aspects of Russian life, thereby ensuring that, for all its oil wealth and other natural resources, Russia will fall further and further behind the West–that it will not become a “normal” (meaning a liberal, democratic) state as it appeared to be on the verge of doing in the 1990s. But, given that Russian citizens have greater access than ever before (though still limited) to foreign travel and foreign media, it is harder than ever to conceal from them the corrosive impact of Putin’s misrule. Hence, one suspects, the less-than-enthusiastic returns for Putin’s handpicked candidates in the latest election.

The U.S. should not decorously look away from the troubles at home besetting our supposed negotiating partner in the Kremlin. Instead, we should exacerbate those difficulties by penalizing Putin & Co. for running roughshod over civilized norms. We should also help Russia’s civil society to assert itself after a decade under siege. The Foreign Policy Initiative has some useful policy suggestions here.