Putin’s Collapsing Russia

Vladimir Putin, who worked for the Soviet Union’s KGB from the time he graduated from college through the Soviet Union’s dissolution, obviously is nostalgic for the days in which the Soviet Union was regarded as one of the world’s two superpowers, as it was when Putin joined the KGB in 1975.

When Putin first became Russia’s president in 2000, the country appeared to be moving increasingly toward a western-style democratic government, but now Putin appears to be as permanently ensconced as Russia’s head of state as the Soviet premiers that ran the country from 1917 through 1991. Even during the four years when Dmitry Medvedev held the office of president, Putin was obviously the man in charge. Russia’s democracy has, for practical purposes, evolved into dictatorship.

Russia’s economy, which showed capitalist promise in the 1990s, remains heavily dependent on natural resources, and the recent decline in oil prices shows the degree of dependence. Meanwhile, Putin’s government threatens any economically powerful Russians who dare speak out against him (perhaps justified because the wealth of Russian oligarchs tends to come from cronyism). Strong elements of the old Soviet command economy mingle with Putin’s political dictatorship.

Then there is Russia’s foreign adventurism, from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 (parts of Georgia are still occupied by Russian troops) to the Ukrainian invasion in 2014. Little by little, Putin is trying to reconstruct the old Soviet empire, and one has to wonder which former Soviet Republic might next be targeted.

Putin’s attempt to re-create the old Soviet Union’s glory days is seemingly oblivious to the factors that led to its ultimate collapse. The political system produced cronyism and economic hardship for most Russians, the economic system caused the Soviet Union to fall increasingly behind the capitalist West, and one of the justifications for dissolving the Soviet Union was that it was too costly for Russia to support the other Republics.

From all appearances, Putin is trying to transform the Russia of 2000, with all of its promise to take its place among European democratic market economies, into the old Soviet Union, by implementing all of the characteristics of the old Soviet Union that led to its collapse.

In the short run, there is good reason to be wary of Putin’s collapsing Russia because of the damage it can do to others, but in the long run, Putin appears to be intent on designing a country based on a model that has already been demonstrated to become weaker, and therefore less threatening, over time.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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