Russia, writes German academic Stuermer (History/Univ. of Erlangen-Nurnberg), is weak—but nowhere near as weak as it looks.
Many things keep Russia from regaining its superpower status. One, by the author’s account, is that the government of Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, peg much of the planned part of its economy—including the government’s budget—on the projected price of oil. Though Russia is a major producer, when plans are made based on a price per barrel of $71 and that price goes down to $40 on the world market, trouble is bound to ensue. In the flush days, Putin kept something of the old Soviet bargain: “The people accepted an increasingly autocratic regime while the Kremlin delivered rising living standards—as never before.” Now that oil prices have fallen so precipitously, the rise is reversed, and the Russian GDP is projected to shrink by six percent or more. For good or ill, depending on where you’re sitting, the Russians don’t seem to know that they’re weak, however, which complicates the geopolitical scene. There is a certain surrealism in an economy that is at once closed and open, just as modern Russia seems to abound in strange ironies—not least a billboard of famed dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn welcoming visitors outside the Moscow airport. Stuermer’s searching view of Putin’s government, which stretches into the Medvedev administration, has some points of immediate interest. Foremost among them is his view that the West should not rule out all hopes for democracy in Russia, despite Putin’s autocratic ways. Even if the near term holds the likelihood of “an enlightened authoritarianism, free of contradictions and in control of its own destiny,” Medvedev has ambitions to “go down in history as a great reformer.” The best move for the West is therefore to continue to seek shared interests—and keep the peace.
Dry, but useful for the foreign-policy crowd.