The Grinch stole the Kremlin this year, as Vladimir Putin cancelled Russia’s traditional Christmas-New Year vacation for his entire cabinet. Plunging oil prices combined with a collapsing ruble have sent Russia’s economy skidding, and Putin wanted solutions from his crack policy team.
None was forthcoming. The New Year started with another sizeable sell-off in the ruble, sending panicky Muscovites into the stores trying to exchange their sinking currency for refrigerators and other hard goods. Emergency measures supporting the ruble -- jacking up interest rates and draining foreign currency reserves – and clobbered Russia’s finances. Reserves are now below $400 billion for the first time since 2009. Moreover, the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 5 percent this year. At the peak of the financial crisis, everyone was in trouble.
Today, Russia is the outlier.
Though the Saudis could intervene and stabilize oil prices (and Russia’s revenue) in a heartbeat, confidence in the Russian economy has been shattered, and rightly so. Putin has for years touted his country’s strength in oil and gas, instead of pushing economic reform and diversification. At the same time, he has flagrantly abused the rule of law, deposing corporate leaders and taking over companies at will, trampling what passes in Moscow for investor rights. The country is profoundly corrupt; it ranks 136th of 174 nations in Transparency International’s 2014 survey -- below Nigeria, Mozambique and Pakistan. The country is in shambles.
Unfortunately, a weakened Russia may be more threatening than ever. Instead of caroling, on December 25 Putin released a new military doctrine – the first since 2010. The new policy identifies NATO and U.S. activities as major foreign threats, and warns of internal efforts to destabilize the country.
Aggression towards the West is Putin’s lifeline. His efforts to blame higher mortgage costs and rampant inflation on the United States and NATO distract Russians from the truth. In a country where information is tightly controlled, he is able to sell a fairy tale of victimhood to a people enamored of his machismo and deeply suspicious of the West.
Backing up his bellicosity, Putin has sent submarines, possibly equipped with nuclear warheads, to stir up mischief and shatter nerves in Europe and across the Atlantic. Recent dodges and feints from Russian military aircraft and continued skirmishes in Ukraine keep everyone on edge. The U.S. recently complained about Russia’s newly-developed cruise missile, and threatened retaliation. According to The Guardian, the U.S. military sent the first of two experimental blimps into the skies over Washington the day after Christmas, designed to detect incoming missiles. You know Putin’s misbehavior is deteriorating when the U.S. calls him out on possible infractions of nuclear arms treaties – infractions that we normally ignore in hopes that he will stay within the dotted lines.
What is the best resolution here for the United States? Is a humbled Russia a more compliant Russia? Doubtful. It is unimaginable that Putin will fess up to his multifold failings – his missteps with the economy and his alienating foreign policy – and seek rapprochement with the West. That is not in his DNA, and would surely sap his personal popularity. Though there are whispers of regime change, any coup would doubtless be squashed by the crafty ex-KGB leader.
Putin will need a graceful climb-down, and that will in turn require a bottoming of oil prices (we may be close) and a diplomatic initiative that could ultimately lead to rebuilding relations with the West. The key could be Syria. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is appalling and costly. Millions of refugees are flooding Europe and Jordan, burdening economies and infrastructure. More than 200,000 people have died, the economy has shrunk by 40 percent, unemployment is above 50 percent and the rape and slaughter continue.
The world watches with horror but has failed to act. Assad’s regime is increasingly isolated; Putin is one of the few world leaders continuing to support Syria’s embattled president. As Syria’s major weapons supplier, Putin has clout. He can play a role in bringing Assad to the table – a role he embraced in 2013 when he brokered a deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
Though the resulting investigation into Assad’s chemical weapons trove has been riddled with obfuscation and cheating, much like the supposed nuclear back-down in Iran, the U.N.-managed effort allowed the U.S. recovery from its humiliating stumble over Obama’s “red line.” Today, it is Putin who needs cover. Were Putin to offer up that meaningful mediation in the Syria conflict, the West could reward his involvement by relaxing the sanctions. Russia’s economy could start to heal, and Europe’s prospects would brighten.
In 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Putin in which he claimed, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” Putin’s affection for international law is questionable, but he has clearly put his country forward as willing to broker peace talks. The Obama administration should call him out on this offer. The rise of ISIS complicates matters, no doubt. But, the effort could begin to rebuild bridges to Russia, defusing dangerous tensions.
Though Americans might enjoy this rare period where it appears that tough measures from the U.S. have battered our old foe, we would be giving up little, in return for an important assist in the Middle East. The U.S. will go back to 3 percent growth, watching the NFL, and badgering our elected officials. Russians will go back to a corrupt society, uncertain prospects and a leader who takes them backwards. Make no mistake -- we still win this round.
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