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Putin’s Smoke and Mirrors

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. As a tactical politician, he has few if any equals in the world today; Barack Obama is a naïf by comparison. Just look at what Putin has accomplished this fall. He began by wrong-footing the U.S. in Syria, cobbling together a deal that keeps his ally Bashar Assad in power with de facto connivance from the U.S., all at the small price of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. More recently he has wrested Ukraine away from the European Union with a generous bribe–er, loan–of $15 billion and a price reduction in the natural gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. And now, to complete his tour de force, he is magnanimously freeing from jails a few of the political dissidents he had earlier locked up.

On Wednesday, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill that will likely offer amnesty to two members of Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists who are currently in the slammer. Today, Putin suggested out of nowhere that he would release Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was arrested in 2003 on charges that were widely seen to be politically inspired, his crime being in essence to oppose Putin. Now that Khodorkovksy has lost control of Yukos Oil, and been subjected to a grueling confinement, Putin, in the manner of a medieval czar, will show his generosity of spirit by releasing him. Of course there is an obvious political payoff to Putin: he no doubt hopes that these prisoner releases will decrease the amount of controversy at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.

But while Putin is a skilled tactician, his larger vision is lacking. Russia has done relatively well on his watch because of its mineral wealth–it is Saudi Arabia with snow. But now the economy has slowed (growth next year is expected to be a paltry 1.4 percent) and even Putin’s own economy minister predicts that “stagnation will continue.” Indeed it will, for Russia is a ticking demographic time bomb.

Its population has been in freefall, as Reuters notes: “The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce. The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.”

Even if Russia’s birth rate has now risen above its death rate, this is not a country with a healthy future. And while much of that is due to the legacy of 70 years of Communist failures, Putin has not done a good job of recovering from the baleful legacy he inherited. Instead he has focused on building up and milking the big oil companies, buying off or jailing opposition, and accumulating all power in his own hands. Putin may fool himself and some of his people that Russia remains a great power, but in fact it’s largely a matter of smoke and mirrors.

Putin deserves credit, I suppose, for his Machiavellian machinations. But no number of tactical victories in the realm of geopolitical maneuvering will improve life for average Russians (whose per capita GDP is lower than East Timor’s)–or Russia’s long-term prospects as a country, which would be better served by cooperation with, rather than animosity against, the West.



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