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Putin, Checkmated?

Have you been following the collapse of the ruble? Matt O’Brien says Putin’s goose is well and truly cooked. Excerpt:

Russia has opted for the financial shock-and-awe of raising rates from 10.5 to 17 percent in one fell swoop. Rates that high will send Russia’s moribund economy into a deep recession—its central bank already estimates its economy will contract 4.5 to 4.7 percent if oil stays at $60-a-barrel—but they haven’t been enough to stop the ruble’s free fall. Russia might have to resort to capital controls to prop up the value of the ruble now, and might even have to ask the IMF for a bailout, too.

Putin’s Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan meant we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR’s economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody—none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets—after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxism-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they’re half that. Russia can’t afford anything then.

Noah Millman has some thoughts about Putin and Russia at this crossroads:

What should already be buried, though, is the idea that there is a thing called “Putinism” that represents some kind of alternative to the Western way of organizing society. Nationalism is very much on the rise worldwide, but Putin only gets cited as a leader of this “movement” because he wants to be – it’s very much in his personal interest and the interests of his regime to be seen that way. But in fact he represents nothing more than the self-interest of the regime he heads. And to the extent that he represents more than that, it’s something very specifically Russian: a reaction to the chaos and vulnerability of the Yeltsin years.

Even while Putin was riding high, nobody of consequence in China or India, or Japan or Germany, was saying: I hope we can make our country more like Putin’s Russia. They certainly won’t be saying it now.

To me, the most striking thing about Russia’s current crisis is not that it was provoked by falling oil prices or Western sanctions (though each played a role), but by corruption:

According to analysts, the ruble’s fall on Monday was sparked by word of an opaque deal involving the central bank and the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft. The well-connected business executive running the company, Igor I. Sechin, a longtime associate of Mr. Putin, had apparently persuaded the central bank to effectively issue billions of new rubles to his company to help cover debts.

The governor of the central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, speaking on Russian television, said the interest rate decision had been made to stanch the fall of the ruble. In its moves, the Russian central bank also increased allotments of dollars to the Russian banking system to finance the purchase of rubles as part of the effort to stabilize the currency.

“We have to learn to live in a different zone, to orient ourselves more toward our own sources of financing,” she said. In her televised remarks, Ms. Nabiullina said Russia would not resort to capital controls to stem the ruble’s fall.

But traders have long fretted that Ms. Nabiullina, a former economy minister, lacked the political spine to stand up to Mr. Putin or his longtime allies like Mr. Sechin. And yet, though the absence of any credible independence by the central bank is at the heart of the ruble crisis today, it is unclear any figure in Russia could provide it given the ever more authoritarian nature of Mr. Putin’s rule.

Aleksei L. Kudrin, a former finance minister, wrote on Twitter that “the fall of the ruble and the stock market is not just a reaction to the low price of oil and to sanctions, but also due to a lack of confidence in the government’s economic policy.”

McArdle indicates that the corruption aspect of this crisis is perhaps the worst thing about it for Russia, because it indicates weakness, and a perhaps fatal flaw, in the regime. If oil prices rebound, Russia’s crisis won’t be over:

This tells us many things, all bad: that the central bank is not strong enough to resist President Vladimir Putin; that Putin is desperate enough to print money to cover Rosneft’s problems; that capital controls may well be in the offing (so oligarchs and traders are eager to get their money out of the country); that Russia’s financial situation is spinning out of control.

Larison says that Obama would be a fool to sign the new Russian sanctions bill, in part because it will only make a situation that is grave and highly volatile in Russia even worse.

Walter Russell Mead says Putin is cornered:

One hopes for the sake of the long-suffering people of Russia that Putin somehow finds it in himself to turn away from the very dark path that now lies before him. But it won’t be an easy thing to do. He’s gone out on such a limb in Ukraine, introduced such a poisonously chauvinistic public mood in Russia, and alienated so many potential partners and interlocutors in the West that it will be extremely difficult for him to defuse the crisis while remaining in power.

The path of least resistance for Putin is the path of greatest danger for Russia; we shall see what choices he now makes—and we shall see if he has so thoroughly mastered Russia’s oligarchs and institutions that no effective opposition to him is possible even if he pushes the country further down the road to isolation and ruin.

I can’t think of another country that is as culturally great as Russia, and that has suffered more from bad government. Putin has made his own bed, and now he’s lying in it. Whether or not he survives this crisis, the most worrying thing is who comes after Putin. I don’t think we in the West are going to like him.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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