The annexation of Crimea, the media offensive against Kiev and the threat of military force against Ukraine are President Vladimir V. Putin’s ultimate response to Russia’s own failures. His latest actions are a veiled recognition that all of his other efforts to prove that Russia is regaining the Soviet Union’s status as a global superpower have come to nothing.
Mr. Putin and his cronies preside over a country with the planet’s largest land mass and the vast material wealth that comes with it. Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of oil, gas, diamonds and nickel. It boasts one of the largest mechanized forces of any army and a nuclear arsenal that is comparable to or even larger than that of the United States. Kremlin officials love to regale their countrymen with orations recalling Russia’s military triumphs, its space program, its cultural significance — on and on, ad nauseam.
Yet the reality behind the rhetoric is bleak. No matter how many warheads he commands, no matter how much wealth his sycophants amass, no matter how much publicity his propagandists attract, Mr. Putin is constantly reminded — mostly by the Western press and by the shrinking pool of domestic independent news media — that he has been doing a poor job.
Transparency International ranked Russia among the top 30 percent in its Corruption Perceptions Index last year. The World Economic Forum finds it the least competitive of the so-called BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Its business and investment climate is fraught with hostility and risk. It is repeatedly cited by human rights organizations as economically, politically and socially “unfree.” The quality of life for most Russians is embarrassingly low, while the number of its billionaires is obscenely high.
Much the same can be said for Ukraine. Under President Viktor F. Yanukovych a government and business elite grew wealthy as corruption spread and the quality of everyday life deteriorated. “Both Russians and Ukrainians are very similar in the way they evaluate the corruption and poor governance of their respective countries,” says Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster. “But unlike Russia, Ukraine has no unifying figure, a Vladimir Putin who can use the power of the state to cast himself as a protective force, the source of all social benefits, public good and national security.” Moreover, Ukraine lacks the vast natural resources that keep Russia afloat, and its economic situation is worse.
While Russia is not the nation Mr. Putin yearns it to be, it would be unfair to say that the country has never tried to resolve its problems. A tax and an administrative reform program was implemented during his first term as president, from 2000 to 2004. Numerous initiatives to fight corruption have been announced, and Moscow is currently seeking to improve Russia’s standing in the World Bank’s Doing Business index and other indices.
But those responsible for improving governance have never had the power to do so: Modernization programs have always been stymied. In a phrase coined by the political scientist Nikolay Petrov, the reformers in Russia Inc. have always been mere managers, never real shareholders in the country’s fate.
There was a time when the Kremlin tried to play with the problem by producing its own (“fairer”) assessments of social and economic conditions. A few years ago the Moscow State Institute for International Relations published a list of nations with strong “international influence” potential, ranking Russia as seventh from the top. If only they continued that ranking, Russia would be on the way to No. 1 right now. The growth of Russian G.D.P. would have been endlessly celebrated, and the state-run media would be certain to trumpet the news whenever Mr. Putin won praise from a Western publication.
But the internal conflict between democratic reform and the status quo has ended. Most Russian sources of honest information and constructive criticism — the independent media, academia, the business community — are blocked. Most formerly autonomous government institutions, such as the courts and the Parliament, have been destroyed or brought under control. The country’s managers are reduced to acting as Kremlin errand boys who are kept busy minimizing the damage while Russia Inc.’s “shareholders” loot the nation.
But as the Russians stumbled along, the Ukrainians sought more radical solutions to surmount similar problems: stronger economic ties with Western Europe, a greater push for parliamentary democracy, and the one action that Mr. Putin absolutely could not abide: the deposition of a ruler who had always done Moscow’s bidding.
Mr. Putin thought if he let go of Ukraine he would be seen as a “lame duck,” an autocrat who allowed regime change in a smaller country with parallel problems. A neighboring state that implemented all the reforms Mr. Putin himself aborted would pose an obvious threat to his rule. It would provide millions of Russians with a clear example of non-Russian, non-authoritarian prosperity and freedom.
The revolutionary aspirations expressed by protesters in Kiev’s Maidan are exactly what Mr. Putin wants to suppress in Russia. His reasons are not just geopolitical. He realizes that the quality of governance in Kiev is worse than in Moscow, but that Russian aspirations are not too far behind those in Ukraine. While the Kremlin permits Russian official TV channels to call Ukraine a corrupt and failed state, to describe its leaders as populist, nationalist or even fascist, such media descriptions of leaders in Russia are taboo.
The Russian regime is looking at what is happening in Ukraine through a glass darkly, without realizing that what it is seeing reflects its own image. Mr. Putin does not like what he sees. So he is punishing Ukraine for Russia’s failure to put its own house in order.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.