Vladimir Putin's czarist folly

Alex Nabaum / NEW YORK TIMES

New York Times

Oxford, England — Russian school textbooks praise Peter the Great as an industrializer and cultural visionary who turned his country into a European power. Russia became feared but also respected by its neighbors, and Peter is the official czar-hero of Russian history.

Vladimir Putin himself is much more like another czar, Nicholas I, who stumbled into military conflict with the British and French and rejected calls for the basic reforms needed to enable Russia to compete with the world powers of the day. Nicholas had a cramped perspective and arrogant personality. Always attentive to the armed forces and the secret services, he overlooked the broader necessity to modernize Russia’s economy and society. His country paid dearly for this when his army was humbled in the Crimean War of 1853-56.

Russian foreign policy under Mr. Putin displays an equally gross lack of foresight. On Ukraine, he made much of the threat to ethnic Russians from West Ukrainian “fascists” who were influencing political developments in Kiev. It is true that Ukraine’s right-wing coalition known as the Right Sector includes some decidedly insalubrious extremists. But not every partisan who waged the war of independence against the Soviet Army in the 1950s was a fascist; and by seizing the Crimean peninsula, Mr. Putin has set up a classic temptation for Russian patriots to extend to the whole of Ukraine.

One-eighth of the Crimean population, moreover, consists of Tatars, whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944 and who were allowed to return to their native peninsula only in the late 1980s. They largely abstained from voting in the recent referendum on incorporation in the Russian Federation. Most are Muslims, and some of their young people could now become recruits for a jihad against Russian imperialism.

By snatching 4.5 percent of Ukrainian territory, Mr. Putin has performed the unlikely feat of wrecking his own dream of forming a “Eurasian Union” under Russia’s leadership. He once planned to keep President Viktor F. Yanukovych as his puppet ruler in Kiev. Now Mr. Yanukovych is a refugee somewhere in Russia, and Ukraine’s government is strengthening cooperation with the European Union.

This is a disaster for Mr. Putin’s foreign policy. Although he is concealing this from the public through his control of TV channels, he will not be able to fool all the people all of the time.

His biggest miscalculation is about Russia itself. The emergency over Ukraine has jolted the Russian superrich to ship even more of their wealth to the West. Up to $70 billion has left the country this year alone.

Mr. Putin prided himself on bringing stability after the tumultuous years of Boris N. Yeltsin’s rule. Capital flight on this scale tells a different story. The World Bank is sounding the alarm about a halving of Russia’s growth rate if Mr. Putin continues with his Ukrainian obsession.

Just as worrisome for the Russian president should be the phenomenon of human flight. Hundreds of thousands of the brightest young Russians have packed their bags and left for Silicon Valley, New York and London. This has been happening since the collapse of Communism, but Mr. Putin has done nothing to arrest the trend.

Young people leave out of exasperation with bully-boy administrators and violent entrepreneurs. They want to live in a meritocracy where talent alone is what counts. Their model is Google’s Sergey Brin, not the seedy ministers and businessmen of Mr. Putin’s court.

For the expatriates to want to go back to Russia, things have to change — and this is the true test of Mr. Putin’s effectiveness as a president. First elected in 2000, he has done little to clean up corruption. He spectacularly punished a handful of so-called oligarchs, only to redistribute their fortunes to political cronies. The rule of law is feebly enforced whenever the men of power see their interests at risk.

Nor has Mr. Putin done enough to diversify and open up Russia’s economy. For years — indeed, since Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika period — Russian and foreign economists have highlighted the need for the country to move beyond its reliance on the petrochemical exports. Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev has always understood this, but he lacked the authority to rectify the situation.

Russia needs to pump out high-technology goods, not just oil and gas. And the rival power it ought to keep in sight is not to the west but to the south. Since the mid-1970s, China’s rulers have prioritized the diversification of their economy. This would be the minimal requirement to ensure Russia’s status as a Eurasian power. Instead, the Chinese are set to become a superpower while the Russians fall away.

Moscow’s opportunities to compete have always depended on cooperation with Western states with advanced technology. Mr. Putin’s impulsive action in tiny Crimea has rendered this a distant prospect. He has lost his place at the Group of 8 industrialized countries.

There was always skepticism about Mr. Putin’s good intentions in Eastern Europe; now there is outright hostility. Even Germany’s reliance on Russian gas imports has not stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel from rebuking Mr. Putin. The European Union is actively considering how to wean itself off dependency on Russian fuel.

Mr. Putin started the year with a display of Russian “soft power” at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the closing ceremony presented a country of stylish, inoffensive sport and culture. The very next day, he sent troops to Crimea. And now the World Bank suggests Russia may suffer economic recession by the end of the year.

The signs are that Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov are starting to appreciate the implications of their self-inflicted geopolitical blunder. Mr. Lavrov has at least begun to talk to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Western powers are not going to start a second Crimean war, but they have more opportunities to exert pressure on Russia than Mr. Putin imagined. He would do well to consider the precedent of Czar Nicholas I.

Robert Service, a professor of Russian history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, is the author, most recently, of “A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century.”

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