Now that Russia’s sputtering, yet brutal, war on Ukraine has entered its second month, there are some big questions to ask. The answers will affect our economy and our security — which are joined at the hip — in the years ahead.
First, what happens if Vladimir Putin’s regime collapses? The second question derives from the first: What would new leadership in the Kremlin mean for the U.S.? Finally, could Russia eventually be plugged in again to the global economy?
On the first question, U.S. intelligence — whose forecast in the runup to the war was spot on — has deliberately been leaking information purporting to show various degrees of Kremlin anger, disarray and finger pointing. Putin’s iron grip on power, it is believed, might not be as firm today as it was a month ago.
Who might replace him? I don’t think we should delude ourselves into thinking that a change at the top in Moscow would mean very much. A new leader would likely be cut from the same cloth: instinctively repressive in nature and philosophically hostile to the West.
Why do I think this? Because power in Russia today comes from three powerful institutions: Putin’s United Russia Party, the Army and the FSB (essentially the renamed KGB, or spy agency). This is no different than the Soviet era, when the three power centers were the Communist Party, the Army and the KGB. There’s no serious reformer like Mikhail Gorbachev in the upper ranks in any of these organizations. There is no system by which a freely elected leader would serve with the consent of the governed.
You might remember Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who tried to open up things, introduced the West to terms like “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness). He was, as then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, a man “we can do business with.” He allowed the Berlin Wall to come down, ended the war in Afghanistan, was named Time magazine’s “Man of the 1980s.” Two years later he was out of power when the USSR itself collapsed.
Even if a Gorbachev-like figure were to emerge today, that’s only one person in a country whose culture, as I’ve mentioned, is instinctively repressive and steeped in vast corruption. Not to go too deep on the history lesson here, but these “qualities” go back centuries in Russia, which missed out on Western influences like the Renaissance and Reformation. Things we take for granted — political pluralism, a robust free press, genuine property rights backed up by contract enforcement and a truly independent legal system — simply do not exist in Russia today. They simply aren’t in the DNA of that sad, gloomy country.
So let’s not hold our breath waiting for someone new who’s going to wave a magic wand and make it all better.
The second question: What might a new leader mean for us? Western distrust of Russia will endure for decades. The Russians had 30 years to integrate with the West. We welcomed them into the G-7. We normalized trade relations. Multinationals invested billions. In return we got years of cyber attacks, election interference, assassinations on Western soil and nuclear threats. Enough.
This brings us to the last question: Could the Russian economy ever be integrated with the West again? Any new Kremlin boss would be received with great skepticism and must prove through words — and more importantly deeds — that Russia can be a responsible, benign player on the world stage. At some point, perhaps years down the road, the western cohesion that we now see could erode, and some countries might begin to re-engage, a process that perhaps could be accelerated given the need for energy and food. (The Russians are major producers of wheat, corn and fertilizer.)
That being said, the Russians should understand that their energy leverage may have peaked, as the rest of the world, including China, moves away from fossil fuels. As decarbonization accelerates, Russian influence will wane. This, incidentally, is a long-term problem for Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, economies all built on petrodollars.
Food, though, is a different matter. Squeezing the Russian economy, unplugging it from the global financial system, making trade more difficult, is already driving up food prices worldwide. Remember the “Arab Spring” revolts of a decade ago? Soaring food prices was a factor.
Egypt, fearing a rerun, froze the price of bread and cooking oil last week. And wheat prices just hit an all-time high in China, which has 1.4 billion mouths to feed. The world can move away from fossil fuels, but we’ll always need bread. Here, western punishment of Russia could produce some nasty and unintended consequences elsewhere.