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Putin is here to stay, whether the West likes it or not

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many analysts, Russia’s economy has not collapsed and its leader is stronger than ever

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Vladimir Putin is interviewed by Russian TV presenter and propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov in the Kremlin in March 2024. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

As elections go, the presidential contest that took place in Russia last week must rank as among the most unexciting of recent history. Not only was the result never in doubt, but there was not even much by way of campaigning, either by President (and now President-reelect) Vladimir Putin or by those standing against him. The only issues were exactly how many people would turn out and vote and by how much Putin would be said to have won. As it was, the official turnout was 77 percent, while according to the Central Election Commission Putin won 88 percent of the vote, a massive 84 percent ahead of his nearest rival, Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), who won 4.4 percent. Two other candidates, Vladislav Davankov of the liberal-ish New People party and Leonid Slutsky of the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), formerly led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, won 3.9 and 3.2 percent respectively.

The results have induced almost universal condemnation from Western politicians and political pundits. The elections were “neither free nor fair,” according to the White House, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. They were a “farce and parody,” according to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky. It was a “pseudo-election,” proclaimed the German foreign ministry. And so on.

These complaints are somewhat beside the point. Regardless of whether the collective West likes it, barring some unexpected illness and death, Putin is set to govern Russia for another six years. It may not be the case that Putin enjoys the levels of support indicated by the official figures, but there is no indication that Russians view anybody else as any better. Insofar as there was a protest vote last week, it appears to have gone to Davankov, as shown by the fact that he actually beat Putin in polling at several Russian embassies abroad. But émigrés voting at their local embassies are hardly representative of the much larger population at home, and overall the numbers of Russians willing to protest by voting for someone other than Putin appear to be very low.

This can be seen in the abysmal results for the candidates from Russia’s two oldest political parties, the CPRF and LDPR. Even taking possible electoral fraud into account, their showing leaves them somewhere close to political extinction. This isn’t primarily the product of government repression. The Russian authorities have by and large left the CPRF and LDPR alone. Rather, it owes a lot to the fact that they have long since ceased to offer an obvious alternative to Putin and the pro-Putin United Russia party. This in turn is in large part because Putin has co-opted their agendas and made them his own.

One can see this in foreign policy. For many years, the Communists and LDPR were far more belligerent and anti-Western than Putin and United Russia, demanding much firmer policies against both the West and Ukraine. Compared to Zhirinovsky and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Putin was very moderate, a fact not much appreciated in the West. The pressure of events, however, has now driven Putin into a position where he sounds very much like Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky from 20 years ago. Russians are now, therefore, presented with three variations of the same thing, given which there’s no particular reason to vote for Kharitonov or Slutsky rather than Putin.

A somewhat similar logic applies to domestic policies. Zyuganov, for instance, has long demanded that Russia wean itself from its economic dependency on the West and that it adopt a more autarkic, state-directed mode of development. For years, Putin resisted this. Now, however, Western economic sanctions have forced him to become a sort of Zyuganov-lite. Again, this has had the effect of taking the ground away from under the Communists’ feet.

What remains to be seen is whether the new economic direction pursued by Putin can succeed in delivering the goods. So far, it has confounded critics and seems to be doing surprisingly well. There is a tendency to write off Putin’s government as a stagnant dictatorship, devoid of ideas and initiative, a tendency that leads to comparisons between late Putinism and the late Soviet Union.

The comparison is not an accurate one, as modern Russia is a far wealthier and more dynamic place than Brezhnev’s USSR. Moreover, Putin has shown a remarkable ability to surround himself with supremely competent technocrats such as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and the head of the Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina. At present, they are proving highly successful at keeping the Russian economy afloat. Western hopes that sanctions would cripple Russia have proven unfounded. Indeed, over the past few months, criticisms of Russia’s performance have tended to consist of suggestions that the Russian economy was growing so fast that it was “overheating” and in danger of marching into an inflationary spiral. Now, however, even The Economist magazine, not noted for boosting things Russian, admits that this is not the case, and that Russia “looks to have inflation under control.” “Russia’s economy once again defies the doomsayers,” it concludes.

This does much to explain the Russian people’s reluctance to turn against their president. Putin has responded to the war in Ukraine by throwing money at the problem. This he can do because years of financial conservatism have left Russia with almost no debt, a balanced budget (until recently), and billions of dollars in the bank. The push to increase military production has led to labour shortages as factories seek additional workers. This in turn has led to a significant increase in salaries, which so far has more than offset the resultant inflation. Economically speaking, for many Russians these are good times.

The question that arises is whether this is sustainable. Theoretically speaking, it isn’t. Import substitution, for instance, is economically sub-optimal, as it requires one to develop for oneself things that one could buy more cheaply from elsewhere. The result should be more expensive goods of inferior quality. Military Keynesianism also doesn’t have a particularly good track record. Military spending doesn’t produce goods that generate wealth, whereas there are many other things one could invest in that do, and that consequently represent a much more profitable target of government funds. Given this, Russia’s current policy should be a road to nowhere.

That said, if any country can pull it off, it is Russia. Contrary to common complaints, it is not a “gas station masquerading as a country.” It has retained a much larger industrial base than most other advanced nations, and produces almost everything one could imagine from shoes to spacecraft. It is not likely to suddenly suffer Soviet-style shortages. What is more likely is that the new economic model will prove inefficient in the long term, creating a situation in which Russia is never able to catch up economically with the West and if anything falls further behind.

That, though, is for the long term. We will see its effects in 10, 20, or 30 years time. But in the short term, Russia looks more than able to withstand the pressures of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Putin is here to stay. These are realities that policy makers in the West are sooner or later going to have to face.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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