While Vladimir Putin is busy challenging America’s role as leader of the free peoples, the Russian dictator is also refiguring his domestic scene in the Soviet image. In fact, one could make the argument that in many ways he has already accomplished that and to a degree even the old Soviets hands would have been envious. What Putin and his small band of supporters have done at home may in the long run be more important than his aggression against Ukraine, his support f the crumbling the al Bashar regime in Syria, and his feints at the Baltic states.
There are, of course, important historical differences to Soviet times. There is no Communist Party with its monopoly of power and its tentacles throughout the world. But Putin has eliminated, in all but name, any organized political opposition to his one-man coterie of hangers-on, some his old colleagues in the secret police and others profiteers from Russia’s new state capitalism. That too, is a difference: Russia no longer pretends to an oligarchic Soviet economy.
In fact, with 40% of its economy now dependent on oil and gas exports to Europe, Putin’s No. 1 problem is Western sanctions and the dynamite that American shale gas and oil technology has thrown under world energy prices. Supplying one third of the European Union’s energy imports, Putin despite the fall in world energy prices and the sanctions slapped on some of his buddies as a riposte to his efforts to take over Ukraine and Byelorussia, is desperatelyl trying to hang on to those ties.Gasprom, the world’s largest gas distribution network, is trying to expand its Nordstrom line down through the Baltic Sea. A state-controlled company, having squeezed out competitors and grabbed stakes of foreign oil companies in new fields in Sakhalin in the Far East, it is trying to dominate European distribution networks as well..
But Putin’s reversion to and dependence on a government elite which leeches off the economy as did the so-called nomenclatura, the Soviet leadership and bureaucracy, is all too familiar. In fact, Gennady Gudkov claims “there are now five to six times more bureaucrats in a Russia with 140 million population than there were in the entire USSR with its 286 million residents.” Gudkov, himself, one of the vanishing band of Putin’s critics. is a businessman and former member of the Duma [parliament] who has seen his business wither as he has become a victim of Putin’s persecution
Furthermore, the bureaucracy led by the chief bureaucrat, Putin himself, is acquiring more and more power. Even claptrap trimmings of the Soviet system have been abandoned – such as the largely fraudulent elections for regional governors. Even the billionaires who profit from their relationship within this highly personalized rule are vulnerable and can be – as several have in the recent past – fallen into disfavor and purgatory if not exile or jail.
Putin’s rule resembles, more than anything else, the style of a banana republic, with little or no hint of ideology. He does try – and gets cooperation – from the Russian Orthodox Church just as the tsarist regime did for centuries. But he continues to cultivate old Communist talisman, including the reenshrinement of Feliz Dzerzhinsky, the archleader of Soviet internal repression. It was Putin, after all, who said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.
What characterizes Putin’s strategy, however, is the old role of a bully on the international stage. It was inevitable that U.S. policy, which under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tried to find a “reset” button for American-Russian relations would fail. Reinstituting Moscow’s former glory is Putin’s only strategy to retain what is, alas!, his vast popularity at home and that requires an American enemy. Washington has no options in this situation: it must maintain a quiet, non-bellicose opposition to the Russian leader. Just as with the Soviet Union, the economic soft underbelly of the Putin regime is extremely vulnerable. Nothing would make more sense now than to reverse the Obama Administration’s policy and permit market forces to export American gas, and perhaps even oil, now in overabundance, to continue the disintegration of Russian markets and Europe’s dependence on that supply.