By RFE RL
By Vazha Tavberidze
(RFE/RL) — Russia has found itself internationally isolated since President Vladimir Putin ordered a full invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The West has imposed sanctions to punish Russia and impede Moscow’s ability to fund its war machine.
A surge in oil and gas prices — major Russian exports — have buoyed the country’s current account surplus, but the economy is sputtering, and prospects appear bleak.
Russia’s economy will shrink 15 percent this year and 3 percent in 2023, the Institute of International Finance recently predicted.
Western sanctions, an exodus of companies, a Russian brain-drain, and a collapse in exports will wipe out 15 years of economic gains, the global banking industry lobby group added.
That has some questioning whether Putin’s hold on power could become tenuous, including Iver Neumann, the director of Norway’s Fridof Nansen Institute and an expert on Russia.
He boldly predicts that Putin’s refusal to reform the country’s economy, magnified by the current invasion of its neighbor, could be “the beginning of the end” of his regime, although when this will occur is hard to predict.
“So, since Putin’s tenure sort of began 22 years ago, very little, if anything, has really happened to the economy. And I find it stunning that a trained Marxist like Putin simply doesn’t grasp that material factors are of the essence,” Neumann, author of Russia And The Idea Of Europe, recently told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.
“Putin says, ‘The West will have its economy and we will have our volya, or will, and with that we will persevere. But it just doesn’t work that way. So, I think this is the beginning of the end for Putin’s regime,” Neumann predicted, adding that a fixation on his legacy may have pushed the Russian leader to invade Ukraine.
Following in the footsteps of Russian tsars of the past, Putin is now perhaps motivated to “gather the Russian lands,” Neumann explained.
Putin paid tribute on June 9 to Peter the Great on the 350th anniversary of his birth, drawing a parallel between what he portrayed as their twin historic quests to win back Russian lands.
“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s],” Putin said at the time.
“So as with so many old despots, we’ve gotten to a point where Putin is thinking about the history books, and how do Russian tsars get into the history books, in a shining way? Well, they win wars, and they grab territory,” Neumann said.
What comes after Putin is difficult to predict, Neumann said, since the Russian president “and his regime have done a thorough job of rooting out what there was of organized liberal thinking and work in Russia. Bad for the country, good for the Putin regime.”
Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whose Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was labeled extremist and outlawed last year, “is cut from the mold of the typical Russian leader,” Neumann said.
“He is definitely standing up to power and he is speaking his mind. And he is doing it with no filter whatsoever. The man is super Russian in that respect. I’m impressed by Navalny, but I’m not very impressed by his finesse and this is not a refined person in any way. But he has the conviction of his opinions. And he is a good organizer,” said Neumann.
Navalny was arrested in January 2021 upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack in Siberia in 2020 with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.
He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole during his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.
Despite his anti-corruption credentials, Navalny may not be the Western-friendly figure some may believe he is, Neumann cautioned.
“Navalny is in prison, his movement is super interesting. But Navalny’s movement is not a clear-cut Westernizing movement — it started as the Russian nationalist movement. I think of Navalny more as sort of Peter the Great in the making — that one has to Westernize in order to bring Russia up to speed, as it were.”
Even so, given the nature of the Russian system established and nurtured by Putin, the likelihood of someone like Navalny coming to power is minimal at best, suggested Neumann.
“He has consistently talked about corruption being the problem of Russia, and the present regime being a regime of thieves, and he would go about [tackling corruption], which is not easy, because in a corrupt system, any new power will have to sort of consolidate its power by being corrupt itself. So how do you get out of that vicious circle?” Neumann asked.
As Russia’s invasion drags on into a sixth month, and allegations of Russian war crimes and atrocities mount, Neumann advises the West not to close the door on talks with Moscow.
“Well, one thing is for certain: Russia is not going anywhere, either politically with Putin or geographically. The country is where it is — It can take a bit more territory in the Donbas, maybe it will get the land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea, but Russia, in whatever form, will be there. And we will have to speak to it in the future,” he explained.
“And this is the basic idea of diplomacy: that, if you have to speak to people at some point anyway, why not start right away? So, I think it’s very, very important that we maintain some kind of conversation with Russia.”
Written by RFE/RL feature writer Tony Wesolowsky based on an interview by Vazha Tavberidze from RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.
- Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.