Did Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine to distract attention from his own political weakness at home? Sure, he was unhappy about NATO and obsessed with restoring the glory of the Russian empire. But the timing of this war and Putin’s expectation of a quick victory may be rooted in his own domestic political failures.
This is the view of our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Robert Orttung, research professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.
Orttung argues that Russia is a declining power, that it suffers from what he calls “the resource curse,” and that its days are numbered as an extraction economy. Further, he sees that the country’s lack of premier academic institutions and media freedom make any kind of brainpower, tech, or creative economy impossible.
On the economic front, Orttung thinks the sanctions against the oligarchs, who enable and profit from Putin’s rule, will not save Ukraine from devastation. Yet the broad sanctions against the Russian financial system may very well make Russia a failed state in six to 14 months. After all, Orttung reminds us, this is a country that has had no economic reform for the last 15 years.
He also talks about Russia’s “old school” approach to propaganda. He looks at the role of RT (Russia Today) outside Russia and how TikTok is playing a major role, not just in reporting on the “operation” in Ukraine but in the way it’s being used inside Russia as another Putin propaganda tool.
If Orttung is correct, the war in Ukraine may be the ultimate wag-the-dog story.
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Russia’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine is unparalleled in Europe since 1945. Today though, through cable news, and Twitter and Telegram, it feels like we’ve all become subject experts, as a result of stories that focus on how the war on Ukraine is playing out in our domestic politics and European politics, with respect to China oil geopolitics, and the psychoanalyzing of Vladimir Putin.
What perhaps is lacking, at least in depth, is an understanding of Russia today as an economy, as a nation, and with its own very real internal politics and social struggles. Russia gets painted as a superpower because it has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. But unlike the US, or China or Israel or Taiwan or Japan, the country is on the cutting edge of nothing: extracting oil and gas from the ground seems to be its entire reason for being.
Add to this that when those fossil fuels become obsolete, and they will, it will further enhance Russia’s status as a failed or failing state. For years Russians have seemingly accepted this fate. They’ve been told that as Russians, they’re somehow different from the rest of the world, that they have to accept this fate for Mother Russia. Ukraine, however, showed that there may be another way, not just with respect to politics or democracy, but with respect to economics and innovation.
We’re going to talk about all of this with my guest today, Robert Orttung. Robert is a research professor of International Affairs and Director of Research at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He’s currently a faculty member of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, and also a visiting fellow at the Center for Security Studies of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
He previously worked at the Open Media Research Institute, the East-West Institute, and American University’s Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. It is my pleasure to welcome Professor Robert Orttung here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert: Yes, thank you very much for having me.
Jeff: One of the things that you’ve talked about is this kind of wag-the-dog idea that one of the reasons for the Russian aggression has less to do with its concerns about NATO or Ukraine, but really is about internal politics in a way that really speaks to Russia’s deteriorating situation at home. Talk about that first.
Robert: Yes, I think that domestic politics is typically the primary motivation for Vladimir Putin’s behavior. He’s been in power for more than 20 years now and, even though he has a solid grip on power at the moment, he needs to constantly be watching his back, figuring out what’s going on in society, and what ideas might be circulating among the top elite in the military and the police forces that prop up his power.
So Russia’s economy has been only growing very slowly, maybe 1% or 2% a year, over the last six or seven years. And when he first came into power in 2000, it was growing at a much faster rate, thanks to rapidly rising oil prices. So the people in Russia haven’t seen their lives improve that much over the last decade, compared to their first decade with Putin.
And I think that’s very worrying to him. I think that means that people are losing their strong support for Putin. They don’t see him as someone who can provide stability and economic benefit to them going forward.
Jeff: And do they see alternatives? Are there alternatives that they think about, options that they think about, or is it Putin or the abyss?
Robert: Well, that’s the problem. Over the course of the 20 years that Putin has been in power, he has systematically destroyed every single opposition candidate who could potentially replace him. The most obvious one in the Western mind, and to some Russians, is Alexei Navalny who, through his masterful use of social media and his attack on Putin’s corruption, has gained a lot of attention, a lot of support across Russia.
He’s currently sitting in jail. There’s no other politician in Russia who currently has anywhere near the stature that Vladimir Putin does, or that could serve as a potential replacement for him. There’s nothing like that on the scene right now. So, in that sense, since there’s no alternative, really, Putin is in a strong position, but it makes it very difficult to imagine what it’d be like after Putin.
But if you look at other countries like, say, Turkmenistan, where you have a very strong leader, he just passed on power to his son. Putin doesn’t have a son who could replace him. So, it’s a difficult situation for the Russian opposition because currently there’s no coherent leader who could really stand against Putin.
Jeff: What about the military? Where do they fit into this equation? There’s lots of loose talk about Putin being afraid of certain characters in the military. What’s the reality of that?
Robert: Well, if you look at history, the Russian military has never really played a big role in the Russian politics. It’s not like a Latin-American country where you might expect to see a coup frequently. The one time the military did play a role was at the very end of the Soviet Union when they tried to replace Mikhail Gorbachev and they took power for three or four days, but it was obvious that they had no plan.
The top generals were drunk most of the time, and the coup quickly failed. So that was the only time we saw the military entering Russian politics. So, that doesn’t really seem to be an option. On Twitter, you might find some discussion that the current minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, is plotting to remove Putin. But I doubt that that’s really the case.
Jeff: Given that, given there doesn’t seem to be real opposition and that the military is not a threat, why then would he undertake this war for domestic purposes without an immediate threat?
Robert: Well, the thing is, even though there doesn’t seem to be any logical threat to Putin’s power, he has strong control over the police forces, the secret police, he has a presidential guard, lots of troops at his disposal. And he’s paying those troops their salary. So, they are loyal to him. I think he looks at a place like Belarus where there were a couple years ago huge protests when they had the most recent fake election and the people came into the streets and tried to remove the leader. But there Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, had enough control over the military and the police to put down that protest.
We saw something similar in Kazakhstan earlier this year, where workers who were unhappy with their living conditions came out on the streets, and the Kazakh president actually had to request help from Putin to put down those protesters. I think Putin always has in the back of his mind that he needs to keep an eye on the situation, that he can never trust anybody, and that there’s always groups out there trying to get him.
I think, in his mind, there’s a lot of danger out there, and he needs to really keep a strong focus on the domestic situation. That’s really what drives his policy. I think the invasion of Ukraine was in a small attempt in his mind to deflect attention away from the domestic difficulties and create a rapid victory. And he obviously wanted to have a rapid victory, but that didn’t happen.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the sanctions and the oligarchs that we hear about. It does seem to be that most of these oligarchs who have been sanctioned are almost from a previous generation, that these are not people that are actively close to Putin at this point, and that are not really involved in the running of the country.
Robert: Well, that’s right. And these are very rich people, obviously; they’re billionaires. But they have very little political power. Putin is the one who decides what happens in Russia. It’s really the guns, not the dollars or the rules, that determine what the politics are. So, Putin controls the guns, and that’s the key thing. He keeps the oligarchs around, I think… [there are] all these rumors that Putin himself has a vast wealth, and they help him support that wealth. Potentially, that’s true.
These are people who benefited from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of them grabbed assets, at that time, whether it was the oil companies or the metal factories, things like that. These people are not politically important because they’re under Putin’s control. But I think Putin relies on them when he needs access to quick cash, and they can provide hundreds of millions or billions of dollars when he needs it for his purposes, and then it doesn’t have to go through the state budget or other things like that. They’re convenient for him. The system in Russia is very corrupt. They help support that corrupt system.
Jeff: On the other hand, these are not people, even though they may be sanctioned, who really can play a role in changing Putin’s mind about anything.
Robert: That’s right. And I don’t think we can put sanctions on them. And that’s the correct thing to do. And also, we should be investigating where their assets are because, if those assets are not in Russia, we can repossess those assets and use them to support reconstruction in Ukraine when the fighting stops. We should definitely do that. But none of these oligarchs are going to turn against Putin; they’re going to support him because their wealth depends on his being in power. And so the idea that you might turn the oligarchs against Putin is probably an erroneous one, although it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put sanctions on those oligarchs and try and use their wealth for good purposes such as transferring it to the Ukrainian people.
Jeff: One of the things you’ve talked about is this resource curse that certainly other nations have faced and that Russia faces and that it is natural resources – oil and gas, specifically – that keep its economy afloat because it has been so bad in terms of any other innovation.
Robert: Well, it’s very interesting to think about the resource curse in relationship to Russia. Now, the basic idea of the resource curse is that an economy that depends on oil and gas production, or any kind of commodity, is one that’s likely to be an authoritarian country because you don’t need to have a lot of people producing oil and gas; it’s not really a labor-intensive industry. So, you can have a small number of people, you get huge profits, and then that can support an authoritarian government. And certainly, there’s lots of examples: Russia is one; Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, many of the Middle Eastern countries, of course.
On the other hand, though, there are exceptions and Norway is one. That’s a country with a lot of resource wealth but a very democratic government. And another point to make regarding the resource curse in Russia is that Russia had an authoritarian government long before the discovery of oil. So, it doesn’t particularly make sense to blame all of Russia’s problems on the resource curse. But nevertheless, despite that context, I think it is true that Putin benefits from having an oil-based economy because he can get a lot of money out of that economy without providing a democratic system.
Going forward – when the oil runs out; when we start dealing with the effects of climate change 20 years down the road; when hopefully we won’t be using oil, but solar and wind and other forms of renewable energy – Putin or whoever’s in Russia is not going to have access to the petrodollars that he gets today. And so, therefore, you would hope to see a much more democratic system, one that would benefit from Russia’s prowess in science and technology, the programming skills you see in Silicon Valley. And then that kind of economy would be based on knowledge and that would require a much freer political system. So, hopefully, at some point, Russia will get past this current resource curse. But it’s not clear when that’s going to happen.
Jeff: Is there any reason to think, is there any evidence in the country today, that indicates that there’s a desire to move towards that kind of innovative economy?
Robert: Well, certainly not at the top political level; there’s no sense that Putin wants to make any kind of change. And even though he has concentrated extensive political power in his own hands, he hasn’t made any kind of economic reforms in the last 15 years or so. So, he’s very much wedded to keeping the current system. There might be some demand for change from below, like a middle class that gets most of its income from private business. But unfortunately, in the Russian case, most of the middle class is actually government employees, which is a very different model from the West, where we would think of the middle class as independent entrepreneurs who are separate from government power.
So, to the extent that there is a middle class in Russia, it’s not pushing for a high-tech economy; it’s more supportive of whatever the leader of the country wants to do, because the people in the middle class depend on government salaries to maintain their lifestyle.
Jeff: What damage do you think these sanctions have actually done? Not the ones on the oligarchs, but the ones that affect the banking system in the economy of the country?
Robert: Well, actually, I think that the sanctions, the speed with which they’ve been imposed and the comprehensiveness, actually had a major impact. I think it’s going to mean something to Russians that they can’t go to McDonald’s and Starbucks. It sounds ludicrous, but they’re somewhat cut off from the global economy. The fact that you can’t transfer money into Russia anymore is a big deal. Working through GW [George Washington University], we have research partners over there and we were trying to send their stipends and stuff like that, and that’s no longer possible.
So, the Russian scientists, whether they support the war or are silent or actually oppose it, no longer have access to any income coming in from outside the country. And Russia is also a country where many of the people depend on remissions sent back. If may be the husband is working in Europe and sending money back to his family in Russia; that’s no longer possible, either – well only through very informal and difficult means. So, I think that these sanctions are having a profound effect on the Russian population. And the longer they’re in place, the more pain the average ordinary Russians are going to endure.
Jeff: How does all of this play out do you think?
Robert: [chuckles] Well, that’s definitely the 10 million dollar question. It’s very hard to see. Obviously, Putin was expecting a big victory, a quick and easy victory in Ukraine, and then that would boost his power. That’s clearly not happening. The Ukrainians look like they’re dug in, and they’re going to fight until victory – and people are starting to think that that might potentially be possible, even though Russia has much more firepower than the Ukrainian military. If Putin loses the war, and I think this is the big problem for this whole situation, he would likely lose power. But it’s not clear what the scenario would be.
So, he would certainly be in a very paranoid situation where he’s afraid of a popular uprising, he’s afraid of some internal revolt. Although, it’s very hard to predict how that could happen. But the general sense among Russia watchers is that Putin can lose the war. And I think Putin feels that way too, because it would put his personal safety in danger. So, people talk about an exit ramp and things like that, but it’s very hard to see one.
Jeff: One of the things we can look to is what happened with Brezhnev after Afghanistan; that was really his Waterloo as well.
Robert: Right. But he was able to hang on. So, that didn’t turn out to be the end for him. This is a much quicker and more brutal, and more obvious to the Russians what’s going on. So it might have more consequences. Although it is true, and talking to a lot of colleagues in both Ukraine and in Russia, that a large percent of the Russian population simply does not believe the reality on the ground of what’s happening there. Even when their relatives call, as we’ve seen numerous stories in the media, and tell them “I’m being bombed by Russian forces,” they can’t believe it.
So, it’s going to force the Russians to go through a complete identity shift. They were the victims of World War II, the victims of Nazi aggression. Now, they are the aggressors. And it’s going to take a long time for them to make that mental shift to understand the criminality of the Putin war against Ukraine, and what the consequences of that are for their whole country.
Jeff: To what extent is social media and information from the outside world getting into the country?
Robert: That’s a good question. I just assigned a student to write an article on the role of TikTok in this war. And it’s very interesting to look at how the Ukrainians are using TikTok and how the Russians are using TikTok. The Ukrainians, it’s mostly young people, obviously, who are on TikTok, and they’re showing scenes from the war, they’re showing scenes from what it’s like to live in a bunker. Some of the soldiers are showing some of their victories against Russian tanks and things like that. And those like 15-second videos that give you a very quick snippet of what it’s like to be on the ground in Ukraine. So, you’re getting bits and pieces of the war and a young audience is learning what it’s like to live in a wartime situation.
On the other hand, on the Russian side, it’s the government who’s really using TikTok, and they’re showing all kinds of videos, claiming that the Ukrainians are faking the deaths, that there’s nothing really happening. Putin has this narrative that they’re building biological weapons or chemical weapons in Ukraine, and they’re planning to use them against Russia, which is absurd. But all these kinds of things are floating around in the Russian TikTok space. So, it’s a battle for the minds and the eyeballs of different parts of the population – whether it is the stories of true heroism with the Ukrainian people defending their homeland, or the kind of lies and propaganda put out by the Kremlin.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the propaganda put out by the Kremlin. When you were quoted in a New York Times story yesterday, the day before, about RT, which shut down recently, talk about that – and what Putin had in mind for it
Robert: Well, RT is their big propaganda. I like to think of it as a giant octopus that has tentacles everywhere. And the goal initially of Russian propaganda was to somehow counter the power of CNN and BBC, where the Anglo-American voices shaped the narrative of international politics. Putin wanted to have a Russian voice in that conversation and so that was a very legitimate interest and concern. But I think over the years – that was probably around 2005 or so, over the years, and particularly after 2014, when he first invaded Ukraine and [unintelligible 00:20:30] – he’s used it much more as a way of weaponizing information.
And the real purpose of [unintelligible 00:20:39] I think in many ways now is to undermine democratic systems to sow doubt and distrust amongst Americans in their own institutions, something that is happening in any case in this country. And so they’re just trying to twist the knife a little bit more. The bigger propaganda effort is aimed not just at the English-speaking world, but also at the Arabic-speaking world and the Spanish-speaking world.
Places where there’s already kind of distrust of the West and Putin’s trying to tap into that and present an alternative narrative that Russia’s doing good things. And that was particularly effective when Russia seemed to be having a lot of military victories in Syria. And so those victories in Syria helped him spread the word that the West was in decline, Russia was rising along with China and other powers, and there was going to be a new system in the world. But I think Russia today, Russian propaganda in general, is losing that [narrative] war to the Ukrainians.
Zelensky, of course, is a comedian by profession and he really understands how to connect with an audience. That’s a great skill to have these days as a leader of a country. If you saw his speech to the Congress, he was very effective in laying out the case that Biden should provide more weapons. And then he showed a video that made it very clear to the congresspeople and senators what’s really going on in his country and showed them the devastation and the bloodshed caused by the Russian invasion.
So, that use of images is very effective sometimes. And I think the Ukrainians are doing a much better job now communicating their message than is the Russian propaganda machine. So, Russians are being beat at their own game at the moment.
Jeff: How active is Putin or was Putin in that propaganda machine? How much of a handle did he have on RT and other propaganda outlets?
Robert: I don’t think he played a direct role. He doesn’t go on the internet or understand social media at all. He had people to work on that. And I think the key there was – whether he’s hiring Americans to work for RT America or just Russian propagandists – is that you hire all kinds of different personalities and different types of people, and they all work in their own style and reach their own bits and pieces of the audience that’s out there.
And so the basic message was that democracy is in decline and Russia is doing better – and never to criticize the Kremlin policy. But within those guidelines, he let them do whatever they want. And so some of their work was effective. A lot of it was just garbage or unwatchable. So, I don’t think he had much control and I don’t think there was a grand plan behind the whole thing. It’s just like they had the key messages, which are obvious, and then they just turn loose the journalists and commentators to do things in their own particular style.
Jeff: How long is the economy sustainable with the current sanctions in place? How long before it really starts to have a profound effect on the people in the country?
Robert: Yes. Some of my colleagues have been working on that political economy question. And they think that not only with the sanctions but the departure of Western companies from the Russian economy – everything from Ikea to the major energy companies, which provide technology for developing offshore oil wells, things like that – all that combined means that the Russian economy is in very big trouble. And especially if they’re not able to export their wheat and other things like that, it could be a collapse in the next, I think the projections are, six months to a year, something like that.
We’re going to see very significant problems. We’re already seeing shortages in grocery stores and things like that, as people start to panic. It’s only going to accelerate over time and these sanctions are pretty comprehensive. We’ve never done anything like this to Russia before, especially if we cut off purchases of oil and natural gas. The Europeans, they’re probably not going to cut off those purchases, but they’re going to try and reduce them significantly. That’s going to have a major impact on Putin’s income and the Kremlin budget.
There’s a lot of room for disaster in the Russian economy. So, it really matters how long this goes on. If it’s going to go on for months and months, they’re in real serious economic trouble.
Jeff: Is Russia more dangerous, Putin more dangerous, as a failed state?
Robert: Well, that’s something we’re going to be dealing with as a world going forward – a failed Russian state, a very angry, isolated Putin. Obviously, he still has his nuclear weapons. It’s not clear – and this is very much an open question for debate – how rational Putin is at the moment. And if he loses the war, would he be likely to lash out and launch the weapons? It’s very hard to know. I don’t think that’s going to happen. There’s no evidence for anything like that happening at the moment.
It’s certainly in his interest to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, but obviously not to actually use them, but who knows? It seemed before the war started that it was in his interest to threaten the beginning of a war rather than to actually prosecute a war. So, most people thought that’s what he was doing. He wasn’t actually going to attack Ukraine the way he has. So, we’re in uncharted territory here, but obviously launching a nuclear war is a much different thing from launching a [conventional] war against Ukraine, which he thought he would win in two or three days.
Jeff: What’s your sense of how China plays into all of this for Russia?
Robert: Yes, that’s a very good question, too. I think the typical Chinese view is that Russia and the West are fighting, China’s going to be the winner, and it’s just better to let Russia and the West deplete their strength and resources fighting each other, and then China can walk in and take much more control over the global system. But I don’t think that’s the case here. And China needs to make a decision, whether they’re going to continue to back Russia the way they have, or if they’re worried about the West putting more sanctions on China, seeing it as just another belligerent power. And whether they’re going to try to distance themselves from Russia as much as possible in order to maintain a strong economic relationship with the West.
So, I think China has to make a choice. But I think from a Western perspective, we need to look at what it means to have an authoritarian government. Putin obviously concentrated all power in his hands, and he was able to use that power for these belligerent purposes. Xi [Jinping] is in a very similar situation. He’s broken precedent in China, where they would have a new leader every 10 years.
He’s obviously going to be staying on after his 10-year term is up. And so he is also someone who has unlimited power and likely could use that power in belligerent ways. So, I think as a Western world, we need to pay much more attention to the authoritarian nature of the Chinese political system and the dangers that kind of system presents to the rest of us.
Jeff: And what does seem different, though, is that Xi does have a political class that he does have to answer to. There does seem to be more internal activity in China than in Russia, for example, as we talked about before.
Robert: Well, certainly in China you have a lot of regional powers and a lot of politics takes place at the regional level. But he certainly has transformed the system to some extent with concentrating power in his own hands, going after some of his opponents with corruption charges, things like that – making sure there’s no obvious replacement for him, because once you start to name a successor, then you start to lose power to that person as you become a lame duck. He hasn’t done anything like that.
There’s more and more power concentrated in the hands of one man. And so I think that’s creating a lot of danger and the war in Ukraine is going to make us focus more on the danger of the authoritarian nature of Chinese politics.
Jeff: And finally, before I let you go, as somebody who has watched Russia for so long and understands it, what worries you the most right now?
Robert: Yes, a lot of things. But I would say the nature of the Russian people and what’s happening inside the country. Because a lot of us thought that Putin would never invade because he would immediately lose the support of the Russian population, that they would never support a war, and particularly not such a bloody, vicious war against Ukrainians, who are in many ways similar to Russians and have a mutually comprehensible language, a long history together. The Russian people feel some form of affection for Ukraine and some connection to it.
But that turned out not to be the case. As soon as Putin invaded there was sort of a rally around the flag in fact and, to the extent that we can measure public opinion or really understand what people are thinking in Russia, it does seem that he has genuine support in the population.
What’s going to happen to Russia after this war? Where is the population going? Are they ever going to try to return to a more democratic system? Are there any optimistic scenarios for Russian society? Those are some really important questions that we’re going to have to deal with in the very near future. Because you look back at the history, obviously, when Germany lost World War I – and it wasn’t during sanctions and reparations, things like that – it led to a terrible outcome, obviously, with the onset of World War II. In this case, we need to make sure that [regardless of whether] Russia wins or loses the war, we somehow find a way of integrating it back into the international system. Even though it’s been cut off very effectively, we need to find some way of bringing it back and making sure it becomes a responsible country again in the family of nations.
Jeff: Professor Robert Orttung, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Robert: Oh, yes, thank you. You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
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 liked 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 whowhatwhy.org/donate.