When Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine two months ago, Western observers were aghast at what appeared to be a resurgence of Russian expansionism (often dubbed revanchism).
Eight weeks in, the landscape looks different. Moscow’s plans for a quick occupation have collapsed, to be replaced by a grinding war of attrition that is beginning to resemble a quagmire.
Those of us who thought Putin would be too smart to undertake such a campaign were obviously wrong, even though our predictions of what would go wrong have been largely validated.
So maybe the time has come for a broader reassessment of where Putin’s Russia stands today, and to consider the possibility that rather than being resurgent, it is in an advanced state of decay—the kind of decay causing its leaders to lash out in the way Lenin predicted capitalism would in its death throes.
In other words, the Ukraine campaign may signal the last gasp of the Putin era, as reality closes in on the pretensions of an isolated dictator.
If we stop viewing Russia as a “near-peer” competitor and look closely at conditions there, what comes into view is a weak and corrupted country that has no real claim to superpower status beyond the nuclear arsenal inherited from its Soviet past.
Here are five signs that what we may be witnessing is not a new chapter in Putin’s reign, but the last chapter.
Russian military performance has been abysmally bad. Every facet of Russia’s military performance in Ukraine has belied the notion that it is a near-peer of the United States. Its troops are poorly trained and lack initiative. Its intelligence is flawed. Its equipment is fragile and poorly maintained. Its military leaders lack the agility to adapt to changing conditions.
It seems that the corruption pervading Russian society has infected its military, leading to the erosion of standards and morale. This kind of decay is commonplace in authoritarian states where loyalty is valued over initiative and any kind of dissension is discouraged. It fosters a culture of mediocrity among warfighters.
Russia’s economy was struggling even before sanctions. Russia’s economy performed well during the early years of Putin’s rule as it recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recently it has faltered badly. Since Putin resumed his role as president in 2012, its annual growth rate has averaged only 1.35%, so the country remains firmly anchored among the ranks of middle-income nations.
The country’s exports are heavily concentrated in fossil fuels at a time when the world is switching to renewables. Despite efforts to foster an indigenous tech industry, Russia is not competitive in advanced technology outside the aerospace sector, and must import many items such as microchips. The country’s per capita GDP ranks only 55th globally in purchasing power parity and that will likely fall as economic sanctions take their toll.
Russia has some of the worst demographic trends in the industrialized world. If Russia’s per capita GDP is sub-par, its life expectancy is far worse. The CIA’s World Factbook ranks it 156 out of 226 countries at an average of 72.4 years (just below Moldova). Most industrialized countries, including the U.S., average in the low-to-mid 80s in terms of longevity.
Russia’s population is shrinking in part due to a fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman, well below the level of 2.1 required to stabilize the population. While many European countries have lower fertility rates, they typically are more developed than Russia is. Like the U.S., Russia had been benefiting from immigration to maintain its population levels, but that has fallen off due to a lack of economic opportunities.
Russia’s younger generation is alienated and increasingly inclined to emigrate. Vladimir Putin is a man of the past. He apparently doesn’t use the internet or own a smart phone. This predictably puts him out of touch with the youngest elements of the Russian population, which rely heavily on social media. Young people have been disproportionately engaged in protesting against the Ukraine war, and the state is actively engaged in trying to suppress dissension among youth.
War in Ukraine has greatly increased the pace at which Russians are leaving their country. The German news agency DW reports that hundreds of thousands of Russians have emigrated since the war began, constituting “the largest exodus since the October Revolution.” The emigrants tend to be drawn from academic, tech and other knowledge fields, meaning the ongoing exodus is a significant brain drain. Many are young.
Russia’s motley collection of client states is a drag on government resources. Moscow’s approach to its security is akin to colonialism. It sustains a menagerie of client states that fall into one of two categories: adjacent dictatorships once part of the Soviet Union, and more distant authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and Syria. All of these relations cost Russia money, particularly in terms of propping up their shaky leaders.
For instance, shortly before the Ukraine invasion, Moscow dispatched troops to Kazakhstan to help the local dictator put down popular demonstrations. Kazakhstan has epic levels of corruption and a long history of unfair elections. The same is true of Belarus, which Russia must periodically reinforce to keep President Alexander Lukashenko in power. Whatever the security benefits of these relations might be, they contribute little or nothing to Russia’s economy.
Such ties lave little resemblance to alliances such as NATO, where participation is voluntary and leaders are democratically elected. They are emblematic of the weakness that pervades every aspect of the Russian state. The notion that Russia is a near peer of the United States in any way save its possession of a sizable nuclear arsenal seems to have little basis in reality. Even without the constant rumors about Putin’s deteriorating health, it is hard to believe the shaky edifice over which he presides will last much longer.
Launching a war in Ukraine certainly isn’t going to help.