THOUGHTS ON RUSSIA/VLADIMIR PUTIN
This article was originally printed in THE RISHEL REPORT at the end of December, 2016, when Donald Trump was yet to take office. Now several years later, Vladimir Putin is threatening to invade Ukraine to return it to a Russian empire reborn. I thought that readers might find that Russia’s size and remoteness could make Putin’s current actions more understandable. It will be a bit long but there was much to cover.
The great land mass that is Russia has long been the object of a kind of fearful fascination on the part of the people of Western Europe and of the United States. That remoteness has helped make possible one man authoritarian governments long after they have been discarded elsewhere. Vladimir Putin is but the latest of those authoritarian leaders. Here in the United States there is now a great deal of controversy related to Russia and to Putin because of President Elect Donald Trump’s frequently voiced admiration for him, and because of the apparent attempt of the Russian government to use hacking to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Vladimir Putin’s sense of the world has been affected, like that of all Russians, by Russia’s huge land mass and its isolation from the waves of reform that have affected the more contiguous capitals of Europe. His drive has been, not to really join with the political life of Europe but, to once more create a separate, this time successful, competing centralized system. That effort to recreate the Russia of the past seems, thus far, to be a failure. And, having worked to create a system that concentrates all decision making in his own hands in his best moments Putin must know that he has failed.
Think about London. We all know where London is. If you were to travel to London and begin a trip to Warsaw, Poland overland, that would be almost exactly a thousand miles. You would then have another 781 miles from Warsaw on east to Moscow (roughly the distance between Detroit and the northern border of Florida). Were you to cover those 781 miles by train, which you could do, what you would see would be 781 miles of scrubby woods alternating with huge swamps. At the end of your trip, a skyline would appear on the horizon and you would find yourself approaching Moscow (or Moskva, to Russians), a city with a population of 12.2 million and a metropolitan population of almost 17 million (Because Muscovites live vertically in huge apartment complexes, the city’s land area is not as large as it would need to be in the West to support that huge population.). At the end of World War II, in 1945, Moscow was still a city of log cabins. Under Stalin and his successors, Moscow has been transformed with miles and miles of often badly built apartment complexes.
You might then opt to travel north from Moscow up to St. Petersburg (That city was renamed Petrograd during World War I. St. Petersburg sounded too Germanic. After the Communist revolution in 1917, the city was renamed Leningrad, and after Communism’s fall in 1991, it once again became St. Petersburg.). You might travel a two lane road for roughly 450 miles, again through woods and swamps (I’ve traveled that road in the Russian winter. It was a real adventure!) Now you can also go the 400 plus miles in a new “high speed train”.
If, on the other hand, you were to decide to travel east from Moscow to Vladivostok to the farthest reaches of the Russian Federation, you would travel by train 5592 miles, an enormous distance, roughly twice the width of the whole United States. That is no high speed train. It would take about nine days of continuous travel again a great deal of it through scrubby woods and huge swamps.
Think about what that means if you are Vladimir Putin, a man with humble beginnings who now sits atop the pyramid of power in the Kremlin. You live in a world which is separated from Western Europe and from the Far East by hundreds and by thousands of miles of very thinly populated woods and swamp. The rest of the world must seem distant, almost unreal. Putin can look out at the great palaces of the Tsars and the historic majesty of the Kremlin (Its original wood walls were redone in limestone in1366.). He can see the monuments to the fallen in the dearly won military victory over Hitler in World War II. What he sees seems permanent, solid, real; a world built to last forever. For Vladimir Putin that is the real world!
We think of Russia as a great power and it is, if we are thinking about nuclear weapons. It is also if we are thinking about territory as we’ve noted. Russia is tremendously large, much of its territory unimaginably remote. But, if we think about its actual population, it is a medium sized country. With a population of 142 million it is slightly larger than Mexico (125 million), and considerably smaller than Pakistan (188 million). Economically, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the “sick man of Europe”. It is locked in seemingly unending and unendable recession. Its economy, never efficiently managed, and, as always, crippled by corruption, is contracting. The life expectancy of its citizens has been in long term decline, fueled by rampant alcoholism and primitive or nonexistent healthcare. Among identifiable political units, Russian life expectancy ranks 153rd well below Vietnam (Vietnam is 132nd). About a million of its citizens are reported to have untreated AIDS.
Things are not well behind all those swamps. And, a good part of the reason things are not better has to do with the “leadership” of Vladimir Putin. Putin came to power when Boris Yeltsin resigned in 1999. The economy could have been modernized and diversified but it was not. Because he controlled the intelligence services he could have intervened to keep them from moving enormous amounts of needed capital illegally out of the country. He could have ruthlessly taken the huge industries from the oligarchs who had appropriated them during Yeltsin’s presidency and worked to make a modified capitalism work. He could have. But he did not. Instead, he took away much of the industries from the oligarchs and distributed it among his cronies from his days in the KGB. Russia became a kleptocracy, a government and an economy controlled by wealthy thieves. And, the great opportunity to finally move to a more equitable, more democratic state was squandered. And, even Putin’s vision of Russia reconstituting the Soviet Union and returning as a respected great power seems to be lost. Because the economy was never diversified Russia must rely on the sale of oil and gas (The government gets 51% of its income from the sale of fossil fuels.), the economic future that looked bright when oil hit $140 a barrel, has been as low as $30 and $40 (oil and gas sales now threatened by the world’s reaction to a very possible invasion of Ukraine).
So Vladimir Putin sheltered behind all those swamps, is trapped. Other than oil and gas his economy produces almost nothing that the outside world will buy. And, oil and gas cannot pay his bills. By relying on constant television propaganda and his internal security apparatus’s well earned reputation for ruthlessness, he has been able to keep his population submissive. He can try to enhance his “great power” leadership with costly military adventures in Syria (and now in Ukraine), adventures that his government cannot afford. He can nibble at the effectiveness of more prosperous nations through hacking (hardly something a healthy great power would need to do). Donald Trump and some Republicans may believe that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Vladimir Putin knows what Donald Trump does not. Vladimir Putin now has virtually absolute power in the largest country in the world. He has acquired enormous personal wealth. But, behind those swamps a great opportunity has been lost. His leadership has led to failure. In his moments of clarity, Putin knows!
H.J. Rishel February 14, 2022 (December 30, 2016)