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Commentary: Vladimir Putin has much to celebrate. But not the Russian people

Daniel DePetris, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who plunged Russia into a war that has proved far costlier than he anticipated, is riding high at the moment.

Last week, Putin formally took office for a fifth term after a presidential election that the United States, Europe and international monitors widely regarded as illegitimate. The inauguration ceremony was, shall we say, Putin-esque. The 71-year-old, modern-day Russian czar strolled into the grand hall past the honor guard with a spring in his step, inherently confident in his decisions and even more confident of his stature as the only person in Russia today to keep the country secure.

“You, the citizens of Russia, have confirmed that the country is on the right course,” Putin told the delegates during his inauguration speech. Of course, the dissidents, journalists and anti-war protesters locked up in Russia’s penal system would beg to differ.

It’s not a mystery as to why Putin is feeling pretty good with himself. Compare today with last year, and the difference is rather stark. Last summer, the normally decisive strongman was thrust into the biggest challenge of his nearly quarter century in power when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader of the Wagner Group, ordered thousands of his militiamen to storm back into Russia to depose the Russian defense establishment. The Russian security forces were largely missing in action; Prigozhin’s troops shot down several Russian military helicopters and came within 150 miles of Moscow. Putin, caught unprepared, had to cut a deal with Prigozhin to turn his troops around and stop the mutiny. All of this came as Russian troops in Ukraine were in the beginning stages of defending against a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Now, however, Putin doesn’t have these immediate troubles. Prigozhin, who caused the Kremlin so much grief last year, is dead, the victim of an August plane crash the U.S. intelligence community concluded was orchestrated by Putin’s inner circle. The Wagner Group, which at times competed with the Russian army for men, is now under the control of the Russian state. The war in Ukraine still isn’t a bright spot for Putin, but it’s brighter than it was last year. Over the weekend, Russian forces took nine villages in northern Ukraine, forcing thousands of civilians to flee and prompting Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, Ukraine’s top military commander, to admit that the situation had “ significantly worsened” for Ukrainian forces.

Things aren’t particularly bad for the Russian economy, at least over the short term. Putin’s economic team has managed to adapt to the U.S. and European sanctions enacted after the invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. The ruble, which lost much of its value in the weeks after the invasion, has recouped losses and has been quite stable this year. The Russian oil industry, the lifeblood of the Russian economy, has largely balanced out its losses in Western markets by pumping more to the East, with China and India more than happy to scoop up the discounts Moscow is offering. Russia’s fossil fuel export revenues actually increased in March as sea-born crude rose by 13%.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Russia’s gross domestic product will increase by 3.2% this year, which if true would mean that Russia’s growth rate will exceed America’s.

It all sounds pretty uplifting from Putin’s perspective. But what’s good for Putin isn’t necessarily good for Russia or the Russian people as a whole.

Take the Russian economy, for instance. While it’s true that growth figures are on the upswing and Russian crude is still being exported around the world, there is no such thing as permanence in economics. Indeed, Russia’s economic upswing is a bit deceptive because it’s intricately tied to the price of crude and the war in Ukraine. Crude can be notoriously volatile as any car owner in the summer can attest.

 

For a petro-state like Russia, a few months of low crude prices can translate into tens of billions of dollars in losses, putting added strain on the budget and forcing the government to adopt one of three strategies: lower spending, raise taxes or run a deficit. Over the long term, crude will become less vital to the global economy as countries around the world invest in green energy technology, forcing Putin (or whoever eventually replaces him) to diversify on the fly.

Banking productivity on the war isn’t exactly a winning strategy, either. Sure, it’s paying off at the moment as the Russian military industrial complex is in full swing churning out artillery shells, tanks, planes and armored personnel carriers. But how long can this last, particularly when Russia is losing its workforce in the trenches of Ukraine? Putin is trapped in a paradox of his own making: Continuing the war is a boon to the Russian economy, but over time, the economy suffers because men who in more peaceful times would be working back in Russia are instead dying in Ukraine.

The Russians are in effect sacrificing their future for the present, worsening a three-decadelong demographic crisis in the process. The future is coming quickly. Even as the IMF gave the Russian economy high marks this year, it projected Russian growth to decrease by more than 40% in 2025.

Putin may be loving life right now. But he is digging a big hole for the country he claims to love so much. And his successor will eventually have to find a way to climb out of it.

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Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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