Global conflict
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Clker-Free-Vector-Images / Pixabay

Seismic shifts in global politics: wars escalate, authoritarianism rises, and democracy faces its toughest test in today’s turbulent world.

Not since the 1930s has the world stood at such a dangerous inflection point. On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, our guest, Shay Khatiri, discusses the seismic shifts in global politics since his last appearance during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

With his roots in Iran and a scholarly perspective, he offers a panoramic view of today’s geopolitical landscape amid the complex crises that are testing the resilience of democratic states.

Khatiri, a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of The Russia-Iran File Substack newsletter, lays bare the West’s strategic missteps that he believes have emboldened the aggressive stances of Russia and Iran. 

The conversation delves into the regional fallout from the Abraham Accords, which aimed to end Israel’s diplomatic isolation, and the chilling advance of authoritarian regimes in Europe and Asia, painting a vivid portrait of a world on the brink of a devastating implosion.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to The WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. When my guest, Shay Khatiri, was last on this program, it was March of 2022. Russia had just invaded Ukraine. The Ukrainian people had shown remarkable courage in taking on the Russian aggressors and the world, certainly America and the West, was standing behind and even marveling at Ukraine. Just two years later, the world is a very different place. The war in Ukraine is not going well. The green shoots of progress in the Middle East signaled by the Abraham Accords have been trampled on. Israel has become a global pariah in the process of defending itself. Russia is considering putting nuclear weapons in space.

Iran, through its proxies, the Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah have given license to murder and destruction. Alexei Navalny is dead. Russia’s authoritarian future seems assured. North Korea’s nuclear program is proceeding. Authoritarianism is on the rise seemingly everywhere, and democracy is playing defense even here in the US. And that’s just a quick overview. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, when duck and cover drills were de rigueur, this seems like an even more frightening moment. The question that people seem to be asking is, is there a thread that runs through all of this? Is it Iran, Russia, Putin? Has democracy passed its sell-by date? Has globalization brought this on?

Is technology to blame? And what happens next? That’s the jumping-off point for my conversation today with Shay Khatiri. Shay is the VP of development and a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute. He was a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was born in Iran. He writes the Substack newsletter, presciently titled The Russia-Iran Files. He’s a contributor to The Bulwark, the Wall Street Journal, The American Interest, and National Review, as well as numerous other publications. It is my pleasure to welcome Shay Khatiri back to this program. Shay, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Shay Khatiri: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. As you look out at the world today, have you seen a time when it’s more dangerous, when there are more flashpoints, where there are the kind of opportunities for things to go so terribly wrong as we’re seeing today?

Shay: The last time was the 1930s, not since. However, it hasn’t looked as chaotic as today since the 1930s, but we have been in more perilous moments during the Cold War, most famously, the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I think that is the important difference, which is, there is greater chaos in the world, which shows that the international order is very shaky and a great war could erupt.

As opposed to the Cold War when it was not a matter of a chaotic order, it was a matter of two great powers who could erupt into a nuclear war against each other, but not much to imagine a chaotic time like this. So take it as it is, which one do you prefer? Obviously, neither is ideal, but we have been in such perilous moments, just not as chaotic a moment in almost 100 years.

Jeff: And that chaos seemingly provides so many opportunities for things to go wrong. You talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis, that was a moment, dangerous though it was, where the eyes of the world were focused on one particular flashpoint. Here we have, as you say, within the context of chaos, there’s so many things that could go wrong.

Shay: Yes. So that was a point that as I was talking, I was alluding to, which is that despite the hostilities between the USSR and the United States, there was an international order that was stable beneath it. We do not have that today. The intensity of the problem at the time could lead to catastrophic outcomes. However, the likelihood of such an outcome was much lower than it is right now. So, all in all, with the bias of recency, I am tempted to agree with you that this is the scariest moment since World War II.

Jeff: Looking at all of this chaos today, what in your view is the thing that we most need to focus on?

Shay: If you go back and look at the rhetoric of the Trump administration, and then later on, the rhetoric of the Biden administration, they’re quite the same except that President Biden was much more adamant to enforce its rhetoric than the Trump administration. And by that, I mean a promise that we are done with Europe and the Middle East, and we would like to focus on Asia and face the threat of China. To some extent, Trump did it, not very forcefully, and the administration was quick to, at least, tend the garden in Europe and the Middle East, even if not as forcefully to my liking. However, the Biden administration really was serious about doing that.

If you go and see the press releases from the 2021 Biden-Putin Summit, President Biden says we want strategic stability with Russia. In other words, don’t do anything crazy, because we want to focus on China. He also, if you go and read what the interviews that Jake Sullivan, his assistant for National Security Affairs was giving, said at the time that basically we want to solve the Iran problem. And he had an essay in Foreign Affairs, which he edited the online version because it came out right before the war, or after the war, two days after the Israel-Gaza War, that bragged about how quiet the Middle East is.

And the conclusion is that, yes, we told our enemies in the Middle East and Russia that we are not interested in paying attention to them, and they took us for our word and became more aggressive, and we are paying the price for it in Israel and in Ukraine right now, and in Yemen, in the Red Sea, et cetera, et cetera. It is a problem of our own making. So what is the biggest problem that we need to focus on? I would say our biggest problem is our modesty in our ambitions. We cannot walk away from the problems of the world thinking that they won’t come to bite us or that they will not erupt.

We have global commitments that disproportionately benefit us. What we are doing around the world is not a charity. It is something that by the virtue of being the judge, the jury, and the executioner of the international order, we are the biggest beneficiary of this order. And I must add that these rhetorics and policies were quite similar to the Obama administration with the pivot to Asia. So yes, when you have three administrations in a row to say we want to walk away from Europe and the Middle East, this is what you get. And we should go back to understanding our commitments, accepting our responsibilities, and also realize that there’s a limit to what we can do.

That’s true, but what is the priority of those things? If you go and take a look at the foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration, there are many things that I scratch my head, not that these are not serious problems, but are they as urgent and as serious as the possibility of the breakdown of the international system? Such as how much investment, and I don’t mean financially, but just as an asterisk here. One of the most important resources in foreign policy is the time of policy makers, because at the end of the day, as great a bureaucracy as you might have, you have only one secretary of state, only one secretary of defense, and only one president, and they each have 24 hours during the day.

Especially with an elderly president who might need more rest, you cannot do too much, as important as other things might be, because you cannot delegate these things to an assistant secretary. It is the president’s job to decide, it is the secretary’s job to enforce these decisions. So you go and look at the priorities of the administration, and you come up with things like climate change. You come up with things like creating norms for a cyber domain. I’m not saying that these are not important. They are, but are they more important than preventing the outbreak of a war in Europe and a war in the Middle East? I don’t think that they are.

Jeff: Then the other question, which goes back even further into the Obama administration, is whether, going back to 2012, was Mitt Romney right that Russia was the greatest threat that we were facing?

Khatiri: Yes, and he was unduly ridiculed for it. I’ll give this to the Biden administration. President Biden is the first president since Ronald Reagan, not counting him, every president came to office trying to better relations with Russia, President Biden was the first one who did not try to do that. Which is to say that I do blame President Biden for the war in Ukraine, but not entirely. It has been a consistent failure of US administration after US administration to enforce deterrence against this monster. If you go back to the first instance of Russian extraterritorial aggression, starting in 2007 in the Bronze Soldier cyber attack that shut down electricity in Estonia, that was a cyber attack.

Then a year after that, you get the invasion of Georgia. Putin also before that attack, gave a speech in Munich Security Conference. So I blame Europeans too, and I’ll tell you why. He gave a speech that basically said, America is bad, you guys are too mean, and he received a large ovation from our European allies when he said that in 2007. The posture of Europeans was also one of appeasing Russia and condemning American foreign policy. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and de facto occupied Donbas, and the Obama administration practically did nothing about it.

And Germany, which called the shots in Europe, Angela Merkel, refused to enforce sanctions on Russia. It was not until weeks later during the conflict, a Dutch airliner was shot down carrying EU citizens that Merkel was convinced to impose sanctions on Russia. So yes, administration after administration, European government after European government has refused to punish Putin. It’s not a coincidence that Putin has concluded that he can get away with murder. Now this time so far, he has been pushed back. And it is on us, an unanswered question, whether we will sustain this policy of supporting Ukrainians to punish Russia for themselves and for us or not.

Jeff: Talk about the ways in which the Biden administration, which you mentioned earlier, is in some ways responsible for what’s happened in Ukraine.

Khatiri: The Trump administration had imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was 90% complete at the time, and it halted the completion of the project to export gas from Russia to Germany. One of the first things that Biden does in office is lifting that sanction to allow for the completion of the project. The project ended up not being completed because of the war and the reinforcement or reimposition of that sanction. However, that was a big topic, that was a big appeasement of Russia. Then you had the first few weeks of the administration.

The new start was expiring an Obama-era nuclear arms control agreement with Russia that many more Russia-hawkish experts were against at the time and were against renewing it without any conditions. And there were ways to renew it with adding extra demands on Russia. Specifically, it capped the development of high-yield nuclear weapons, but not theater nuclear weapons, which are lower-yield, and we fear every day that Putin might use one in Ukraine. Although, I think that those fears are mostly exaggerated. But President Biden, without any additional demands or conditions, renewed that treaty.

Which was quite important to Putin because he has been building theater weapons, which are not covered under that treaty, and we are not matching him. So he has been adding to his nuclear advantage. So that was another concession. And again, I mentioned, the biggest one, these are all tactical problems, but the biggest one remains that we told the world and we told Putin that we don’t want trouble in Europe so we can focus on China. And what insane person thought that if we ask nicely, Putin would concede to our demands? That was the biggest problem.

And last thing, that it’s very difficult to prove it, it’s perhaps impossible to prove it right now, maybe at some point that Putin’s regime falls and archives open, but the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster in, one, proving that we wanted to walk away from the world. And two, in showing a degree of American incompetence, in showing us as a paper tiger that not only did we not win the war, but we could not even competently withdraw. And if I am Vladimir Putin, I would look at that and say, these guys are not serious.

Jeff: Talk about the ways in which Iran has acted and the degree to which they have seen weakness on the American front.

Khatiri: So the weakness shown to Iranians has been going on as long as this war of the Russians, except that until the war in Ukraine, the Islamic Republic of Iran had been much more aggressive than Putin. There was a State Department release of intelligence under Secretary Mike Pompeo that Iranians were responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of American deaths in Iraq. We knew this, and before that, we have been trying to engage with Iran diplomatically. Every single president since Bill Clinton has been trying to do this, including the George W. Bush administration.

They have differed in tactics, some have exerted more pressure on Iran, some less. Even Donald Trump was begging in the summer of 2018 to have a summit with the president of Iran, which luckily did not happen. But every single president has been trying to do the same thing with Iran and this has only furthered Iran’s aggression. Right now you see, around the Middle East, a network of Iran’s proxies and satellites which have been attacking not just since the conflict and the war in Israel, but for years have been attacking our service members. Many have been wounded.

Now we have dead Americans because of these attacks and we have failed to respond, because we have punished Iran’s proxies and that has not gotten Iran to back off, and we keep doing that. And it is not going to get Iran to back off because this is a regime that celebrates death, celebrates martyrdom. So the death of a foreign fighter who might be from Syria or Lebanon or Iraq, or even a low-ranking Iranian officer, is not going to be a terrible cost that they cannot bear. The real cost on Iran would be on its capabilities, a military cost, and a political cost of humiliation that they are attacked without the capacity to respond, that humiliates them before their own political base at home.

That has been a cost we have been unwilling to impose on Iran. Therefore, Iran has been escalating its attacks for two decades now, and has been aggressive against us. But it’s not just against us in the Middle East that Iran is aggressing. Today, there is a report that Iran has exported hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles to Russia to use in Ukraine. Iran-made drones have been killing Ukrainians throughout the war. Iran has been a military supplier to Russia. Despite all these, we have not been enforcing sanctions on the book against Iran. The revenue from Iran’s oil exports have climbed back to pre-oil sanctions, that would be 2018 levels.

And we’re not enforcing oil sanctions. We did not renew UN sanctions on Iran’s missile exports, which expired in October. We gave Iran $7 billion in its frozen assets. And the administration makes the case that this only can go into humanitarian causes, except that, well, money is fungible. Even if you succeed in making sure Iran doesn’t cheat and spends all the $7 billion on food, it can take $7 billion out of its domestic budget to spend on its military. So we have been financing the war in Ukraine, Russia’s war in Ukraine by giving Iran this money, by not enforcing these sanctions.

And now, Iran’s support for Hamas and other proxies that attack us are being financed by the money we gave Iran and the sanctions we are not enforcing against Iran. So that’s another link for you.

Jeff: Is there any kind of a more formal nexus that we have seen between Russia and Iran at this point?

Shay: I wouldn’t say formal because we have a very Eurocentric understanding of politics and that includes ourselves. You see that enemies were signing treaties and abided by them. That has been how we’ve been conducting international affairs for millennia now. We signed treaties. That’s not how many other states necessarily operate. So I wouldn’t say formal because no, there’s no treaty, but as far as an understanding goes, yes, there is an axis I would even say, that is forming and strengthening. You have Iran there, you have Iran’s terrorist proxies there, such as Hezbollah, such as Hamas, such as Islamic Jihad, such as the Houthis.

And Iran calls it, by the way, the axis of resistance. Resisting the international order. And you have then China, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, these countries, Cuba, that are increasingly strengthening their bonds with each other and creating a unified front against American interest, and by extension, the interest of the liberal democratic world. So yes, there is such an axis forming, but I wouldn’t say it’s a formal one. And I wouldn’t say that because it’s not formal, it’s any less dangerous.

Jeff: There was a story today in the New York Times about China trying to act as peacemaker in the Middle East. Talk about where China fits into this equation as you see it.

Shay: Let me actually start with other Asians in the Middle East, and then I’ll get into China, because they’re related. You go to our Asian allies and tell them– this is even before the war– we are not paying any attention to the Middle East anymore because we want to pay more attention to you.

They look at you, and these are conversations that have been had by the way, and you would expect if you say that I’m going to pay less attention to somebody else to pay more attention to you, you would think that they’re going to be grateful. And they look at you and say, well, we’re grateful, we really like the attention we’re being paid, the extra attention, we like it, thank you, thank you, but we really, really, really love oil. [laughs] These are developed economies. These are producing economies. They require energy to produce, and that energy largely comes from the Middle East.

So this is a point that we have not been able to appreciate. And this is a point that China appreciates, and even setting aside oil, the Middle East and also Eastern shores of Africa have significant natural resources in addition to maritime choke points for commercial ships to pass through. You are seeing that with the Red Sea. You have The Strait of Hormuz, you have the Eastern Mediterranean, and all these maritime choke points combined, I believe the majority of port trade goes through them. And China has been, in its official documents, publicly saying that it seeks to control these choke points.

By doing that, it can control most of port trade and create a mercantilist system that benefits itself and subjugates the rest of the world economically to the will of China. Right now we have control over these choke points, and our Navy safeguards them. We do not impose a mercantilist system, we impose a free trade system. That is not what China would do, and that is its interest in the Middle East. To be able to control these choke points, but also to have a friendly relationship with these governments, to cut our access to natural resources, be it oil or be it rare earth metals, or be it just grain that comes out of the Black Sea, though not the Middle East.

To be able to benefit itself, and to be able to cut our access to these important exports. So that’s where China comes in. And you say that China has been acting as a peacemaker, I am not sure if the Chinese are interested in peace for the sake of peace. I do believe that what they’re doing is, one, to portray themselves as a global power broker to buy prestige, both internationally but also domestically. And I say this not as a China expert, so there are better people to comment on this, but I think that they want to buy prestige with such acts.

If you go back and look at the China-brokered Iran-Saudi deal a year ago, it comes right as Xi Jinping is being re-elected to another term. So his re-election happens with the announcement that it’s my third term and I have arrived, I’m starting my third term with returning China to a global power status. I’m accomplishing something that the United States could not accomplish. So the peacemaking element of China, partially it’s that. Another part of it is that, well, peace on China’s terms are not in our interest. As you see with the Houthis.

The peace that China made in Yemen between Saudi Arabia, Houthis, and Iran that essentially established Houthis as a permanent entity in Yemen, is now coming back to bite us. Now we have to figure out how to open the Red Sea, something that we will have to do again. China receives favors from Saudi Arabia because of this. And you see now, Chinese domestic social media are full of not simply anti-Israel notions, but Jewish conspiracies that you would be hard-pressed to find on the various corners of American far-right.

And this is mainstream. If the Chinese achieve peace in Gaza, what happens is that one of the members of the forming axis, Hamas, remains in power, always being able to threaten our closest Middle Eastern partner, Israel. That is a good leverage for China to have. It’s not peace that it seeks. It is the survival of a terrorist group that would, China predicts, be able to carry favors for China.

Jeff: How have Israel’s actions and the world’s reaction to them in Gaza, how has that played into this?

Shay: I would say this, based on what we’ve seen from the Chinese and before that the Soviets who use similar tactics as China, in fact, Chinese tactics are a lot adopted from the Soviets, it’s a moment of opportunity that China is taking advantage of. I don’t think that there was a long-planned strategy to exploit this moment. It’s just that they are exploiting it based on instincts and we’ll see if they succeed, but I don’t think that there is really a well-formulated strategy. It’s throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks, which by the way, is not a bad strategy. I’m not saying this critically, because it’s working and it has worked in the past.

Jeff: And what do you see as the ongoing situation in Ukraine now, and what do you see as Russia’s next step?

Shay: Ukrainians are worried about a coming Russian offensive in the summer. I don’t know whether it’s going to materialize or not, this fear, but let’s go back to two years ago when the war started. On day two of the war, most people thought that Kyiv was about to fall. In month two of the war, the Ukrainians were doing so well that it looked as though Russia would be driven out very quickly. On the first anniversary of the war, after the liberation of Kherson and Kharkiv, there was a reasonable question whether Ukrainians could ride their tanks into Moscow. And on the second anniversary of the war, we’re back where we started with our fears.

This is to say that the trajectory of the war is not linear. And people talk about the stalemate as though there is a stalemate, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Stalemates do not have to be permanent. You can break it. Many stalemates have been broken in the past. This one could be broken too if Ukraine receives the aid that it needs. So as things stand right now, if there is no additional aid, or there’s no meaningful additional aid, it is likely that Kyiv would fall. We are not past a point of the fall of Kyiv.

If Ukrainians receive the weapons they need, including F-16s, and including long-range missiles, at that point, you’re looking to a force that has very good capabilities, but also two sides that are both depleted in their best units but also in morale. So the question becomes one of pushing one side over, outpowering the other one. That’s one outcome. That’s, I guess, two outcomes. Russia outpowering Ukraine or Ukraine outpowering Russia. Then there are two more outcomes, which is one of the armies collapsing because of low morale and exhaustion. So those are the four outcomes that are possible.

By giving Ukrainians the weapons they need, they will be able to rely more on weapons to attack Russians and less on men to mitigate the morale problem. And there has been a worry in the administration that giving the Ukrainians advanced weapons could lead to Russian nuclear escalation. Every weapon that they said could cause World War III or a nuclear war was given to Ukrainians and nothing came out of it. There’s very little reason to fear that it will be any different. And by the way, as in parentheses, let’s say Putin orders a nuclear attack. Well, first, where is he going to nuke? Is it the United States or Ukraine?

If it’s Ukraine, Ukrainians have said that it’s a risk they are willing to take. We cannot be the nanny of Ukraine and say, yes, but we don’t think that you should not take that risk if that’s the risk. If you fear that the United States will be attacked, or a European and a NATO country by a Russian nuclear weapon, well, let me ask you this. If you are a Russian officer, and you are ordered to attack a European or American city, would you do it? Would you want to be that person responsible? Because that’s going to result in, at best, nuclear retaliation against Russia.

Your family could die in that nuclear retaliation. If that doesn’t happen, you know that this is not going to end well. This is not going to end with the re-establishment of the Russian Empire. It’s going to end in the surrender of Moscow, and you’re going to be arrested and tried and executed for that nuclear attack. So it is not like there’s a red button on Putin’s desk that he pushes and the nuclear attack happens. There are many degrees of separation. He requests different plans for a nuclear attack. They have to devise those plans. He has to pick one. They have to prepare for these plans, then they have to execute these plans for Putin.

In this process, there is a much greater likelihood that someone kills Putin before this happens, because nobody wants that to happen in Russia, even if Putin wants it. Nobody wants to be the person who does that. If not for moral reasons, because of survival reasons. So that is a silly fear to have. But the Biden administration has been quite fearful about this escalation. And if you go back early into the war, our Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, said Ukrainians would be within their right to attack Russia inside Russia to cut supply lines. And then he was told to shut up and not repeat it. I think that he was right.

We are not giving Ukrainians long-range missiles, partially because we are worried that they would do exactly that. But the truth is that cutting the supply lines of the enemy is an important part of any military strategy. And Ukrainians would be well within their rights, but also, it would be quite wise to attack these supply lines, to break them before they arrive at the front. And it really is not going to cause a nuclear escalation on Russia’s part. So I think that that’s another thing that we should allow Ukrainians to do, not just to use more advanced weapons, but also to further the range of their attacks.

And, by the way, there is another thing to consider, which is that attacks within Russia will bring the war to the Russian people. And yes, there is a possibility that it will further rally people behind the Russian flag, but it is also very likely that, as it happened with Hitler, after a while, they realize that we are being slaughtered for this maniac’s war, and it will cause Putin to lose popularity at home and cause a political crisis domestically for him. So the last thing I want to add here is that having said all these, I’m not pretending that any of these outcomes are certain.

What I’m saying is that the Biden administration has been making decisions only after it is certain about the outcome. And the truth is that there’s no certainty about the future. If you go back to Thomas Schelling, who was one of the great Cold War strategists, he talked about– Clausewitz talked about this before Shelling, the greatest strategist of all time, Clausewitz. You have to leave something to uncertainty if you want to win. If you only make decisions once you are certain about their outcome, then you become very predictable, and that allows the enemy to act with somewhat impunity and win the war.

So that is the biggest criticism I would have of the current administration, which is they are unwilling to take any risk. And that’s not how you fight a war. With wars, you have to take risks. Going back to the landing of the Normandy, there was a risk that it would fail, but we did it and it succeeded.

Jeff: And finally, Shay, as we look at the internal situation in Russia today, short of the ordering of a nuclear weapon on Ukraine, is there any reason to think there is instability within the politics of Russia today?

Shay: Yes, there is reason to believe that. There have been protests recently about the price of eggs. It’s not because Russians love eggs extraordinarily, but the price of eggs increased and Russians started showing discontent because eggs were the last protein item that they could afford. They cannot afford meat, they cannot afford poultry, they cannot afford fish. Eggs were the last one. A month or two ago, there were widespread power outages in the middle of winter in Russia, not ideal. The economic sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia are just beginning to show signs of success, not mostly on Russia’s military production capacity but on civilian life.

And that, in turn, is causing discontent within Russia. You then go and see the elections that are coming up, which are sham elections. It’s a foregone conclusion that Putin’s going to win. He found the most uncharismatic vanilla candidate possible on Earth to choose as the opposition candidate to make it as easy as possible. And then the guy began attracting giant crowds, this vanilla guy, just because he was something not entirely from the system. And then he had to disqualify the guy by saying that the guy could not gather enough signatures to be on the ballot.

The guy who was attracting the massive crowds that scared Putin could not get enough signatures. So these are all signs of discontent. Whether this discontent turns into unrest is another matter. And whether that unrest results in a revolution is another matter. The truth is that these regimes always look stronger from the outside than they are from the inside. But also, Putin has been in power since December 31st, 2000, so it’s been 24 years, and he has shown to be a survivor. I wish that it was more unstable than it is right now but it is definitely not as stable as Putin would want it to be. Whether something could come out of it is entirely out of my power to predict.

But I’ll say this, if I’m not mistaken, since the last Tzar, no Russian leader has left office, no Kremlin leader has left office alive except for Khrushchev, who was nonetheless ousted. And Yeltsin, who was very ill and was a democrat, a very imperfect one, and gave up power to Putin. But more often than not, Kremlin leaders leave that either ousted and executed or likelier to die in office. If you are making a bet, you should put your bet that Putin dies as the president of Russia, a natural death, but don’t bet the house on it.

Jeff: And does the death of Navalny make any difference in terms of potential for unrest?

Shay: It has not so far. What it has done is, by eliminating the key opposition figure, what Putin might have done is create a new leader who’s out of his control, and that’s Navalny’s wife. If Navalny’s wife manages to be as good as Navalny himself, then you have two problems. [laughs] You have the Navalny problem back but he’s not in prison anymore. And if she doesn’t rise to the opportunity, if for Navalny you had Nemtsov whom Putin killed. It is not that Russia is starved of humans and who do not like the regime, and one of those humans is going to eventually rise as a new leader.

So I do not think that this is going to fix Putin’s opposition problem. Whether it will cause immediate unrest, I also don’t think that’s going to happen. Because after all, what Navalny represented or what made him popular was not any ideals he stood for. It was that he was challenging the regime and the corruption of the regime. It was not a liberal democratic ideal that he was standing for. And I’m not saying this critically of him. I’m saying that that’s what the constituency was, and he was very shrewd in tapping into that.

And this was an act of eliminating a political opposition. So I don’t think that Russians are going to actually be as angry about it as other problems they have in their society, such as corruption, such as economic problems, to rise up against the regime. I think that the existing problems are political problems in society, such as corruption, such as economics. I think these are going to be much more important than eliminating an opposition leader.

Jeff: Shay Khatiri, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Shay: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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