U.S. President Barack Obama is weak, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is strong. That’s the mantra of proponents of aggression. It trickles down from above; people at the Prime Minister’s Office repeat it incessantly.
But anyone who knows what’s going on in Russia can only scoff. The aggression of Putin’s regime is a sign of extreme weakness. As with other regimes of this type, the lust for power and political repression lead to bullying abroad.
That’s how you harness the people to visions of grandeur and imperialism, in the hope they’ll forget their day-to-day troubles. It’s almost always a vicious circle — the internal crisis increases the external aggression, which deepens the political repression at home, and so on, until the collapse.
The key to understanding the current Russian situation is the economic fiasco. This drama remains a mystery to most commentators, simply because the data are not widely known. But millions of Russians are falling into terrible poverty. The Western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and plunging oil prices have created a severe recession. The ruble’s collapse is badly stoking inflation, and the decline in purchasing power has been shocking.
Nothing good is evident on the horizon. The sanctions have been extended for another year. Flight bans and asset freezes have been imposed on dozens of senior Russian officials. Russian banks and companies have been cut off from international funding, while trade with the European Union — Russia’s main economic partner — has dropped by a third in recent months.
An angry Moscow responded to the sanctions à la Ayelet Shaked, with a counter-boycott that bans the import of Western food. This pathetic step has had a boomerang effect and sent prices 20 percent higher last month.
Then, in a move that can only be called desperate, Putin pardoned tax offenders and money launderers who had smuggled out huge sums on condition they repatriate the money or at least take it out of global tax havens. Putin pushed this humiliating law in an effort to keep capital in Russia.
Contrary to his image of aggressive virility, with his black belt in karate, rifle and bare chest, Putin is facing a hopeless situation. He is no Siberian Rambo; he’s helpless. Billions of rubles are flowing out of Russia every month. The rich are trying to save what’s left of their money. The capital outflow tripled last year, reaching a record $150 billion. This year looks even worse.
Facing a catastrophe of such dimensions, Putin can do one of two things. He can stop the subversion and warfare in Ukraine, calm his neighbors in Eastern Europe and the West, and go for immediate financial relief. Or he can stay on the edge, threatening and attacking, and gamble that whoever opposes him will blink first, after which somehow Russia will get back on its feet. For the time being, he’s taking the second course, causing terrible damage.
And who’s drooling over this folly? Who admires Putinism? A strange combination of extreme-right and racist parties in Europe and Israel who yearn for a strongman, ephemeral parts of a radical left still blindly worshipping everything out of Moscow, and dark regimes that receive Russian weapons. In their eyes, democracy, a free press and human rights are evidence of weakness.
Anyone interested in Russia’s well-being must not confuse bullying with real power. You don’t need a lot of power to jail musicians and film directors, to persecute journalists and harass LGBT activists. It doesn’t take much intelligence to provoke a war across the border.
The true test of a state and its leaders is to give the people prosperity and better lives. In this test Obama has some fine achievements to his name, while Putin is an abject failure. He has proved that a strong leader means weak citizens.
Nitzan Horowitz is a former legislator for the left-wing Meretz party.
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