By Robert Service
April 6, 2014
Oxford, England — Russian school textbooks praise Peter the Great as an
industrializer and cultural visionary who turned his country into a
European power. Russia became feared but also respected by its
neighbors, and Peter is the official czar-hero of Russian history.
Vladimir V. Putin himself is much more like another czar, Nicholas I,
who stumbled into military conflict with the British and French and
rejected calls for the basic reforms needed to enable Russia to compete
with the world powers of the day. Nicholas had a cramped perspective and
arrogant personality. Always attentive to the armed forces and the secret
services, he overlooked the broader necessity to modernize Russia’s
economy and society. His country paid dearly for this when his army was
humbled in the Crimean War of 1853-56.
Russian foreign policy under Mr. Putin displays an equally gross lack
of foresight. On Ukraine, he made much of the threat to ethnic Russians
from West Ukrainian “fascists” who were influencing political
developments in Kiev. It is true that Ukraine’s right-wing coalition known
as the Right Sector includes some decidedly insalubrious extremists. But
not every partisan who waged the war of independence against the Soviet
Army in the 1950s was a fascist; and by seizing the Crimean peninsula, Mr.
Putin has set up a classic temptation for Russian patriots to extend to the
whole of Ukraine.
One-eighth of the Crimean population, moreover, consists of Tatars,
whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944 and who were
allowed to return to their native peninsula only in the late 1980s. They
largely abstained from voting in the recent referendum on incorporation in
the Russian Federation. Most are Muslims, and some of their young people
could now become recruits for a jihad against Russian imperialism.
By snatching 4.5 percent of Ukrainian territory, Mr. Putin has
performed the unlikely feat of wrecking his own dream of forming a
“Eurasian Union” under Russia’s leadership. He once planned to keep
President Viktor F. Yanukovych as his puppet ruler in Kiev. Now Mr.
Yanukovych is a refugee somewhere in Russia, and Ukraine’s government
is strengthening cooperation with the European Union.
This is a disaster for Mr. Putin’s foreign policy. Although he is
concealing this from the public through his control of TV channels, he will
not be able to fool all the people all of the time.
His biggest miscalculation is about Russia itself. The emergency over
Ukraine has jolted the Russian superrich to ship even more of their wealth
to the West. Up to $70 billion has left the country this year alone.
Mr. Putin prided himself on bringing stability after the tumultuous
years of Boris N. Yeltsin’s rule. Capital flight on this scale tells a different
story. The World Bank is sounding the alarm about a halving of Russia’s
growth rate if Mr. Putin continues with his Ukrainian obsession.
Just as worrisome for the Russian president should be the
phenomenon of human flight. Hundreds of thousands of the brightest
young Russians have packed their bags and left for Silicon Valley, New
York and London. This has been happening since the collapse of
Communism, but Mr. Putin has done nothing to arrest the trend.
Young people leave out of exasperation with bully-boy administrators
and violent entrepreneurs. They want to live in a meritocracy where talent
alone is what counts. Their model is Google’s Sergey Brin, not the seedy
ministers and businessmen of Mr. Putin’s court.
For the expatriates to want to go back to Russia, things have to change
— and this is the true test of Mr. Putin’s effectiveness as a president. First
elected in 2000, he has done little to clean up corruption. He spectacularly
punished a handful of so-called oligarchs, only to redistribute their
fortunes to political cronies. The rule of law is feebly enforced whenever
the men of power see their interests at risk.
Nor has Mr. Putin done enough to diversify and open up Russia’s
economy. For years — indeed, since Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika
period — Russian and foreign economists have highlighted the need for the
country to move beyond its reliance on the petrochemical exports. Prime
Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev has always understood this, but he lacked
the authority to rectify the situation.
Russia needs to pump out high-technology goods, not just oil and gas.
And the rival power it ought to keep in sight is not to the west but to the
south. Since the mid-1970s, China’s rulers have prioritized the
diversification of their economy. This would be the minimal requirement
to ensure Russia’s status as a Eurasian power. Instead, the Chinese are set
to become a superpower while the Russians fall away.
Moscow’s opportunities to compete have always depended on
cooperation with Western states with advanced technology. Mr. Putin’s
impulsive action in tiny Crimea has rendered this a distant prospect. He
has lost his place at the Group of 8 industrialized countries.
There was always skepticism about Mr. Putin’s good intentions in
Eastern Europe; now there is outright hostility. Even Germany’s reliance
on Russian gas imports has not stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel from
rebuking Mr. Putin. The European Union is actively considering how to
wean itself off dependency on Russian fuel.
Mr. Putin started the year with a display of Russian “soft power” at
the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the closing ceremony presented a
country of stylish, inoffensive sport and culture. The very next day, he sent
troops to Crimea. And now the World Bank suggests Russia may suffer
economic recession by the end of the year.
The signs are that Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov
are starting to appreciate the implications of their self-inflicted
geopolitical blunder. Mr. Lavrov has at least begun to talk to Secretary of
State John Kerry.
Western powers are not going to start a second Crimean war, but they
have more opportunities to exert pressure on Russia than Mr. Putin
imagined. He would do well to consider the precedent of Czar Nicholas I.
Robert Service, a professor of Russian history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, is the author, most
recently, of “A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 7, 2014, in The International New York Times