On May 9, 2022, a column of tanks and artillery paraded through Moscow’s Red Square.
Over 10,000 soldiers marched through the streets of the city. It was Victory Day, on which Russia commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. President Vladimir Putin gave a speech praising the army and the strength of his country: “Defending our homeland when it was in danger has always been a sacred mission. We will never give up!”. Putin was speaking of the past, but also of the present, with a clear message to the rest of the world: Russia is determined to continue its war against Ukraine.
The war looks very different in Putin’s narrative than it does to the West. According to him, she is fair, courageous, and successful. In reality, Russian troops have faced stiff resistance from Ukrainians, and they have failed to capture Kiev and overthrow the Ukrainian government.
But for Putin, victory may be the only publicly acceptable result. No alternative outcome is openly discussed in Russia. But the latter are discussed in the West, which has been almost ecstatic about Ukraine’s success. Russia’s military failures have reinvigorated the transatlantic alliance.
At one point they even made Moscow look like a third-rate kleptocratic power. Many policymakers and analysts are now dreaming that the conflict will end not only with a Ukrainian victory. They hope that Putin’s regime will suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union: collapse.
This hope is evident in the many articles and speeches that draw comparisons between the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war, they say, will erode Russian support for the Kremlin, as losses mount and sanctions that are crushing the Russian economy.
Cut off from access to Western goods, markets and culture, both elites and ordinary Russians will become increasingly irritated with Putin, perhaps taking to the streets to demand a better future. In the end, Putin and his regime could fall in a coup or a wave of mass protests.
But this opinion is based on a misreading of history. The Soviet Union did not collapse for the reasons Westerners point out: a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, military pressure from the United States and Europe, nationalist tensions in its constituent republics, and the advent of democracy.
In reality, it was faulty Soviet economic policies and a series of political mistakes by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that brought about the country’s self-destruction. And Putin has learned a lot from the Soviet collapse, managing to avoid the financial chaos that plagued the Soviet state despite heavy sanctions.
Russia today has a very different combination of resilience and vulnerability than that which characterized the late-era Soviet Union. This story matters because in thinking about the war in Ukraine and its aftermath, the West must avoid projecting its own misconceptions about the Soviet collapse onto today’s Russia.
However, this does not mean that the West is powerless in shaping Russia’s future. Putin’s regime is more stable than Gorbachev’s. But if the West manages to stay united, it may still be able to slowly undermine the power of the Russian president.
With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has made a big mistake, which has exposed the weaknesses of the regime. A Russian economy far more interdependent on Western economies than its Soviet predecessor, and a highly centralized political system that lacks the tools for political and military mobilization that the Communist Party once possessed. If the war in Ukraine continues, Russia will become a less powerful international actor. A prolonged invasion could even lead to the kind of chaos that once brought down the Soviet Union. But Western leaders cannot hope for such a quick and decisive victory. Even for the foreseeable future, they will have to contend with an authoritarian Russia, however weakened it may be.
In the US and Europe, many experts assumed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. According to this narrative, the Soviet Union had long been fossilized both economically and ideologically. Gorbachev’s attempts at liberalization were well-intentioned, but they could not save a dying system.
There is some truth to this story. The Soviet Union could never successfully compete militarily or technologically with the United States and its allies. Soviet leaders tried hard to catch up with the West, but their country always lagged behind.
In the battlefield of ideas and images, Western freedom and prosperity helped accelerate the decline of communist ideology, as the new Soviet elites lost faith in communism, and gained a keen interest in foreign goods, travel, and Western popular culture. And the Soviet imperial project was met with resentment and contempt by internal ethnic minorities.
Putin knows this well. The current Russian president once declared that “the destruction of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. So he has structured his regime in such a way as to avoid the same fate. He realized that Marx and Lenin were wrong about economics, and tried to understand how Russia could survive, and at the same time thrive, under global capitalism.
He brought skilled economists into government, and made macroeconomic stability and a balanced budget among his top priorities. During the first decade of his rule, rising oil prices filled Russia’s coffers, and Putin quickly paid off the $130 billion in debt Russia owed to Western banks.
He kept future debt levels to a minimum, and his government began to accumulate foreign exchange and gold reserves. When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian oil and other industries, and oil prices fell as much as under Gorbachev.
But the Russian government reacted skillfully. Under the leadership of Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, the Russian government allowed the ruble to depreciate, restoring macroeconomic stability. After a brief downturn, the Russian economy revived. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the country maintained strict fiscal discipline. While Western countries printed trillions of dollars to subsidize their economies, Russia increased its budget surplus. Russian government economists “are holier than the pope in implementing” the approach supported by the International Monetary Fund, says Dmitry Nekrasov, a former economist who worked in the Russian government.
By the beginning of this year, Putin’s state had amassed more than $600 billion in financial reserves, one of the largest in the world. He believed they would allow the country to diminish the role of Western sanctions. But the West’s financial response was much harsher than he expected.
Experts predicted the collapse of the Russian currency and the outbreak of massive protests that could bring down Putin. But none of these scenarios came to pass. At first the ruble weakened, but Nabiullina and Siluanov moved quickly to save it. If Gorbachev had been assisted by such experts, the Soviet Union might have survived.
But the West seems prepared to continue its approach, while maintaining unity remains a challenge. In the long term, it is conceivable that they will seriously weaken the Russian state. Separatism could grow or return in some regions, such as Chechnya, if the Kremlin stops lavish payments to their residents.
But even a much weaker Russia is not destined to undergo a Soviet Union-style disintegration. National separatism is not as much of a threat to today’s Russia, where roughly 80 percent of the country’s citizens consider themselves ethnic Russians, as it once was for the Soviet Union.
However, the West must stay on the path it has started, after all, this will be a period in which Ukraine and the West must coexist with a weakened and humiliated Russian state, but which still remains autocratic./ (From Vladislav Zubok – Taken with abbreviations from Foreign Affairs – bota.al)
Note: Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, and author of The Fall of the Soviet Union.
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