As anyone who has read my blog since its inception will know, I regularly write a column titled as above. Why? Because I have long been interested in Russia – and I have long been interested in the man who long has been its leader. Putin has always struck me as the worst kind of autocrat who, however, interestingly, is constantly being constrained by the context within which he lives.
Most of the world’s markets soared yesterday – especially the American market, where the Dow Jones was up over 225 points. The reason was obvious: the crisis in Ukraine seemed to have ebbed, if only slightly. And Putin seemed to have blinked, if only fleetingly. Nothing is settled, of course. The situation remains volatile and the outcome uncertain. But early evidence suggests that Putin wants to go only so far – and no further.
Let’s look at why this could be the case. Is it President Obama who scares President Putin? Is it the European Union? Is it the United Nations? Not hardly. None of these more traditional actors have the capacity to put the fear of God into anyone, certainly not the Russian leader.
But here’s who does scare him: his own people. What Putin did not anticipate was the instant economic impact of his incursion into Crimea, an impact that immediately affected Russia itself. In no time flat the ruble had dropped precipitously. And in no time flat the Russian stock index had dropped similarly precipitously – over 10% in a day. Moreover Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, which accounts for no less than one quarter of all Russian tax revenues, lost $15 billion in market value, in the same single day. These are big numbers – big enough to sober if not scare President Putin, big enough to remind the rest of how deeply entwined are politics and markets, and of how deeply entwined is one nation’s economy with other nations’ economies.
The Russian people generally strongly support their incumbent president. But there is dissent in Russia. And while Putin typically suppresses dissent, he cannot, especially in the wake of what happened in Kiev, necessarily count on suppressing dissent smoothly and swiftly. And he cannot necessarily count on suppressing dissent without erasing entirely the image he so carefully cultivated at Sochi: that of a man of the world ready to hobnob not only with his own kind, but with movers and shakers the world over.
For all his miserable Machiavellianism, Putin is not Stalin. And for all the echoes of the Cold War, the second decade of the 21st century is strikingly different from the seventh decade of the 20th.