Putin Stands Tall on the World Stage, But Will His Personality Cult Survive a Russia in Decline?

by Brian Sherry

     Forbes handed Vladimir Putin a decisive publicity victory last month when it named him the world’s “most powerful person,” coming in ahead of Barack Obama.[1] The magazine was most likely reacting to Putin’s diplomatic triumph over US saber-rattling in the Syrian conflict, which resulted in the cancellation of a seemingly inevitable military attack on Bashar al-Assad and a new lease on life for Russia’s Syrian ally. Putin has also capitalized on the Edward Snowden affair and the general anti-American sentiment stirred up by revelations of extensive NSA spying, which alienated world leaders from Berlin to Brasilia. In the longer term, Putin has served as a source of stability for a Russia that spent a decade in socio-economic turmoil following the collapse of Communism; Putin’s assertive foreign policy has enabled Russians to move beyond the humiliating loss of prestige and territory accompanying the death of the old USSR. Though widely reviled in the West for his authoritarian tendencies and (most recently) his promotion of anti-gay legislation and propaganda, Putin has undoubtedly made his mark both at home and on the world stage.

      However, what does all this mean for Russia? Russia’s seeming resurgence as a major world power is built largely on Putin’s image as a strong leader, with some help from the economic benefits of the country’s vast energy resources. That second factor, however, is beginning to slip away. The Wall Street Journal reports that even the Russian government is admitting the energy bonanza that kept the country growing during the global economic crisis of the late 2000s has reached its end:

The Russian government slashed its economic forecasts for the next two decades, issuing a dire warning that the oil-fueled growth that has been a foundation of Vladimir Putin’s rule is over and there’s nothing likely to take its place, given the country’s poor investment climate and aging infrastructure.[2]

 Like many countries whose economies are based on the exploitation of natural resources, Russia has experienced the curse of a commodity boom, which defers the necessity of making important economic reforms. Underneath the profits of energy exports there lies not only a bad business environment and poor infrastructure, as the Wall Street Journal indicates, but a population that is not only aging but shrinking, as well as ethnic and religious tensions in the far-flung provinces which have erupted into violence before and could do so again. Perhaps Putin has what it takes to restructure the Russian economy, but the bigger picture appears to be one of a nation in long-term decline, briefly revived by a charismatic leader utilizing the temporary benefits of a resource boom. Now that the good times are likely coming to an end, will Putin’s charisma alone be able to sustain Russia’s resurgence? More importantly, will Putin’s cult of personality survive a tanking economy and Russia’s return to relative decline on the world stage?

[1] “Putin tops Forbes most powerful people list,” BBC News, October 30, 2013,  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24742039.

[2] James Marson and Alexander Kolyandr, “Boom Years are Over, Says Russia’s Economy Ministry,” The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303763804579183690681832608.