Biden plays on Putin’s vanity, but he’s just a cheap basement Brezhnev
The only model of Russian-American relations remains, it seems, the Cold War. Much of the coverage of the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva has described their meeting through this prism. So many comparisons have been made with personalities and anecdotes from past Soviet-American summits that there is a real danger of overlooking the most important fact about current Kremlin-White House relations. That’s it: the United States is still a superpower. Russia is not. It’s not even close.
It flatters Vladimir Putin’s vanity that Joe Biden treats him as if he still represents one of the great powers. But Russia has long since fallen well below G7 level. Its GDP stagnated under Putin, whose record in power is appalling. Even before the pandemic, Russia’s economy was twice as small as India’s and significantly smaller than Italy’s. Poland’s economy will soon be half the size of Russia’s.
After the devastation caused by the Covid, Russia is even poorer. His authorities lied about the death toll, but some estimates put the figure at half a million. Russia’s demographics are among the worst in Europe, if not the world. The regime’s notorious corruption and excessive spending on defense have kept disposable income well below Western standards. The benefits of a good education system inherited from the Soviet Union were largely wasted: the high-tech boom that could have created a Silicon Valley on the Volga instead occurred in Israel, where more than a million Russian Jews emigrated after 1991.
Much of this decline is Putin’s fault. The oppressive political system he created had a crippling effect on the economy. Russia does not have a civil society as such. This diminishes its political weight, because in the 21st century, soft power matters more than military equipment. On the diplomatic front, Russia’s allies are mostly outcasts, like Belarus and Syria. It is true that Putin modernized the Russian army, including his nuclear arsenal. But it is one of his rare currencies in negotiations with Biden. Aside from the threat of selling military technology to rogue states – Iran being the latest example – Putin cannot compete with the United States. Unless it can revive its civilian economy, Russia risks degenerating into a glorified North Korea.
The truth is, Russia is a post-imperial country that has yet to accept its new role, as Britain and France did half a century ago. Psychologically, the Russians of Putin’s generation never recovered from the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is as if the United States has lost its entire southern periphery, from Arizona to Texas to Florida. Putin will never rest until âlostâ cities such as Kiev, Odessa and Riga are once again under Russian sovereignty, or at least under hegemony. It seized Crimea, destabilized Ukraine and Georgia, practically absorbed Belarus and launched cyber attacks against the Baltic states. From the Arctic to the Caucasus, from the Baltic to the Pacific, the Eurasian empire of the tsars still dominates the strategic thinking of the Kremlin. In his squalid palace by the Black Sea, Putin undoubtedly dreams of a place in history to compare with Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine the Great, Lenin and Stalin. In fact, he will be remembered, if at all, as a colorless dictator who presided over catastrophic decline: a basement of Brezhnev windfall.
One of the few hard facts to emerge from the chaotic press conferences that followed the Geneva stopover (it was hardly a summit) is that President Biden touched on the fate of Alexei Navalny. Putin seemed touchy and defensive on this matter, as well as he could. Biden warned him that if Navalny dies in the penal colony where his life is now hanging by a thread, Putin will suffer “devastating consequences.” If Putin is ever tempted to order his myrmidons to finish off Navalny, he (and they) will know that the United States will retaliate: not just with diplomatic measures, but with sanctions that will hurt.
This is the first time since the days of Reagan and Gorbachev that an American president has questioned the survival of a prominent Russian dissident. Navalny is the Sakharov of our time and Putin knows the West will not turn a blind eye to his assassination. He also knows that Navalny is the first real threat to his own dictatorship. Even if the legislative elections scheduled for this fall will be rigged, as all Russian elections are rigged, the unpopularity of the regime is undeniable. If he was ever allowed to run in a truly free election, Navalny would beat Putin in a fur hat. Now Biden has announced that he will personally target Putin if Navalny is liquidated. A dead Navalny could be even more dangerous than a living one. No one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it happened with terrifying speed. Last summer, Putin saved Alexander Lukashenko, his Belarusian ally, from peaceful mass protests in Minsk after rigged elections. In the event, which is no longer unthinkable, of such an uprising of popular power in Moscow, who would save Vladimir Putin?
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