It’s tempting to think about Vladimir Putin as a politician enjoying a carte blanche of infinite proportions. He can annex territories, send troops to far-away places, cut spending on his people’s healthcare, and still get stellar approval ratings. But this is the reality of today’s Russia: being expansionist is easier for him than being focused on domestic policy issues.
Domestically, it’s easier for Moscow to push for mobilization than to nurture economic competition. Tension comes more naturally than de-escalation. Russia’s hard power is growing, while its soft power is scarce. Whereas the process of going deeper into conflicts is self-supporting, the task of getting back to caring for peaceful wellbeing requires time and effort, including on the part of the international community.
In February 2014, by making his move to annex Crimea, the Russian president broke free from the kind of formal and informal obligations he had to his Western counterparts as a member of the G-8 club. In September 2015, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, granted President Putin permission to use military force anytime, anywhere on the planet.
Whereas the process of going deeper into conflicts is self-supporting, the task of getting back to caring for peaceful wellbeing requires time and effort, including on the part of the international community.
Putin feels he can afford to make a U-turn in Russia’s relations with any organization or country, the latest example being Turkey. Moscow introduced punitive sanctions against Ankara after the Turkish military shot down a Russian jet for allegedly infringing the Turkish aerospace. Since Sunday, unspecified Turkish imports to Russia are banned and charter flights to and from Turkey were stopped. Starting next January, Russia will suspend its “visa-free regime” with Turkey, a tourist destination for more than 3 million Russians a year. Up to 36,000 Turkish citizens, or people of Turkish descent, are living and working in Russia. A campaign aimed at detaining and deporting some of them is already underway.
The main items that Turkey exports to Russia are fresh fruit and vegetables, textile products, and equipment. More than a thousand Turkish companies are represented in Russia. The two countries’ mutual trade, including energy, tourism and grey imports to Russia, may reach $65 billion a year according to some estimates. Russian sanctions against Turkey are bound to be mutually detrimental and no domestic backlash is expected.
But here is something to think about. The fact that Moscow introduced sanctions against Turkey is bad enough. But Moscow has decided to retaliate economically rather than militarily: the Kremlin is making an effort to refrain from using hard power. The downside of this is, of course, that the interests of Russia’s domestic economy are clearly seen by the Kremlin as subordinate to high politics.
Economics Is Hard, Politics Is Easy
The ease with which the Kremlin manipulates domestic politics is offset by its severely restricted ability to influence Russia’s economic performance. This, arguably, is the most significant limitation for anybody running the world’s largest energy-exporting economy. In Russia, the commodities price cycle is a much more powerful regulator than the Ministry of Economic Development or its Central Bank. Each 10-dollar decline in the price of Brent oil subtracts 0.8 percent from Russia’s annual GDP, calculated Ivan Tchakarov, Citigroup chief economist for Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. According to the same estimates, 90 percent of the decline in the Russian GDP is attributed to oil price reduction and only 10 percent to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Russian GDP is forecast to shrink by 3.6 to 4.2 percent this year.
The inherent uncertainties of a petro-state could have been compensated for by improving conditions for investment and entrepreneurship in Russia. But the Kremlin seems to have given up on economic policymaking. “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” the economist Konstantin Sonin said in a comment earlier this year. This is becoming more valid by the day. Putin might even see economic deterioration as some sort of an asset. Food prices will inevitably grow faster as the effect of the sanctions against Turkey sets in. But state-run television will surely explain it as Turkey’s hostile intent and use the deteriorating economic conditions for even greater mobilization.
The downside of this is, of course, that the interests of Russia’s domestic economy are clearly seen by the Kremlin as subordinate to high politics.
Soft Power Is Hard, Hard Power Is Easy
The Kremlin’s “new deal” in foreign policy that started with the annexation of Crimea has been a resounding success domestically. But it also created new limitations. As long as Russia’s appetite for military force has been growing, Russia’s ability to use soft power, never large in the first place, has been diminishing. “From the Second Chechen War, to the Russia-Georgia War, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Moscow has relied heavily the use of military force to secure political objectives,” writes Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute and an analyst at CNA Corporation. “This is a reflection of the limited repertoire of Russia’s national power toolkit. Wanting in allies, economic leverage, and position in the international system, Russia will grow only more dependent on the use of force to change facts on the ground in its favor, with Syria being the latest example.”
While the West, especially the U.S., has been growing weary of using hard power in international affairs, Russia has “discovered” it. Russia and the West are working at cross-purposes in this respect, as in many others. Nothing remains of the war fatigue that Russian society experienced in the 1980s and the 1990s during and after the Afghan war.
Years of fueling war mentality through media and education have not been in vain. Russian society now accepts conflict and economic deterioration as byproducts of Russia’s growing strength. In today’s Russia, the sociologist Boris Dubin observed, symbolic acts of defiance to the West and even military action sound more compelling than economic considerations. Indeed, complaints about falling incomes and poor public services fade away against the displays of unqualified support for the government.
Russia’s (and the world’s) only hope of reversing the trend of escalation is to continue a mutual learning process, finding ways to refrain from hard power, to work together on security issues, and to focus on economic development.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.