The Russian autocrat will be able to draw on his favorite fuel: xenophobia.
FROM POLITICO | DECEMBER 1, 2014
The ruble is crashing, but the Russian government isn’t going to any time soon. Ironically, Russia's economic distress might even make Vladimir Putin stronger.
The reasons for the ruble’s rapid decline – it’s dropped by nearly 13 percent against the dollar in November alone, and this week has seen more of the same—are neither obscure or surprising. Between sanctions imposed on Russia by the states of the West in response to a barely-disguised invasion of Ukraine and the plunging price of oil, the Russian economy has been severely and negatively impacted. According to Russia’s finance minister, in fact, the total damage will be about $140 billion this year, $40 billion from sanctions and $90-100 billion from oil prices that have slid thirty percent from their multi-year average at around $100 a barrel.
A seven percent hit to any economy (and that is about what $140 billion is) would be cause for concern. Imagine if Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that the U.S. economy was going to shrink $1.2 trillion dollars; that news would hardly receive a sanguine reaction. Yet Russia, for all the pain that the drop in the ruble and the decline in oil is causing, does not seem in any immediate or even near-term danger of political chaos or collapse. That says much about Putin and the alternatives, or lack thereof.
First, Putin has consolidated power to a remarkable degree over the past several years. There may be credible opponents but if so, they are not evident and they must, perforce, keep a low and guarded profile. The way that Putin has marginalized opponents and maintained his control is itself a story, and it speaks to why Russia today is not on the precipice of an economic collapse the way Russia was the last time the ruble plummeted in 1998.
Second, there are the Russian foreign reserves. While the size of the reserves and the way they are accounted for is the subject of considerable debate, they are certainly at least several hundred billion dollars and possible as much as the official figure of more than four hundred billion. That may not be enough to float the economy if oil prices stay depressed for years, but it is sufficient to given Putin and finance officials some room to maneuver.
That alone makes Russia today different from an indebted and imploding Russia of 1998. The other is that Russia then was seeing the break down of the state and its authority, whereas Russia now is seeing the extension of the state and its authority, namely in the personal sphere of Putin.
It is hardly breaking news requiring expert analysis that Putin has consolidated power, nor that he remains quite popular in Russia, with August polls registering approval ratings in the mid-80s. He astutely mixes Russian nationalism and aggrieved pride at various humiliations at the hands of the United States and western powers since the fall of the Soviet Union. The annexation of Crimea earlier this year and the repeated semi-covert incursions in eastern Ukraine are part of that mix, along with closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and a media that often acts as public relations arm of the government.
No, Russia cannot sustain itself endlessly in the face of plummeting energy prices and the attendant sag in commodity prices worldwide. It has currency reserves, but those cannot bridge the gap between what the economic generates and what it requires if prices do not rise in the future. Putin can stoke nationalism, but as billionaires flee the country and the urban middle class grow disenchanted, that will erode the very Russian power he so ardently seeks to revive.
That said, the rush to hyperbolic commentary about the dire effects of a crashing ruble is just that. It is Ukraine that is in danger of defaulting on its debts, not Russia. Venezuela is truly a society on the verge of societal breakdown (if not de facto there already). Russia seems very far from a danger zone, let alone a political and social upheaval brought on by low oil prices. In fact, you could name a dozen other countries in greater peril from this shifting landscape, ranging from Iran to Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria.
Russia is an economy tethered to oil and commodity exports, yes, but it is a society that has withstood much worse in the past century plus. Unlike the United States, it is also a society that on the whole has lower expectations for material affluence, and in times such as these, that constitutes a strength. It is easier to tighten belts, as the Russian foreign minister recently suggested, when the belts were never particularly loose or generous to begin with.
The not-so-veiled chortling in the United States and elsewhere that lower prices will force changes in Russia is, therefore, premature at best. If anything, lower prices could lead to more xenophobia and nationalism, and more Russian aggression over Ukraine and natural gas to Europe as Putin finds other ways to maintain power and prestige at home. It also is leading Russia to attempt to build stronger ties with China, as a way to inoculate itself from vulnerability to Western markets and finance. And Putin surely realizes that commodities are a risky foundation. No one country can control prices and being dependent on commodities means that you are never in control of your own destiny. This recent shock is one more spur for Russia to make more of what it needs itself, if it can.
Finally, as we see in much of the world, it takes a lot to plunge a society into chaos, and it takes a long day for states to decay. Many of the world’s most lawless states never had a strong state to begin with, especially throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Few of the truly chaotic zones had a strong government, save for Iraq, whose governing structures were destroyed by war and occupation.
So while a weak ruble and a weaker economy may spell pain and trouble for Russia, that may mean little in terms of the government, international relations, and the near future of Putin and Putinism. Long term, maybe, but long term who knows about any country?
Things could even get a lot worse for those who fear Putin before they get better. The weak ruble, domestic Russian inflation, Putin policies, all force Russia ever inward, which is where many in Russia may want it to be. These international currency and commodities moves confirm trends already in place rather than shifting the trajectory of Russia and its relations with the world. Relations have been cool for some time; now they are a bit cooler. But this isn’t a new Cold War, nor the brink of World War III, not yet at any rate.
All it is is a very weak currency of an economy the size of Italy encompassing a country fifty times larger, inhabited by a hundred and forty million people with one man dominating the government. The ruble is one variable, and only one. Things are bad; they would need to get much worse to force any real change.