The re-Sovietization of Russia

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

How far can Putin lead his country back to the days of the U.S.S.R.?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has not gone according to plan, but Russian forces have nonetheless occupied some Ukrainian territory. According to my Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor, Russian forces are following a particular script: “In captured city after city, Russian authorities or their local proxies are removing Ukrainian flags and hoisting Soviet victory flags. In their view, and certainly that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, their presence in Ukraine is the revenge of history and the restoration of a union with Moscow sundered by the fall of the U.S.S.R.”

There has been a lot of talk about how Putin seeks to reverse what he sees as Russia’s geopolitical disaster: the collapse of the Soviet Union. The attempt to create “People’s Republics” in Donetsk, Luhansk and maybe Kherson is also evocative of the Soviet era. Stories about who is in Putin’s inner circle carry more than a whiff of Kremlinology — as does analyzing Putin through his contrived appearances in front of the camera.

Without in any way condoning what he is doing, one can understand Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet era. In its heyday, the U.S.S.R. was the second-largest economy in the world and the first to put a man in space. Its territory stretched from Vilnius to Vladivostok. The Warsaw Pact and other alliances extended Soviet influence even further, with power projection capabilities ranging from Berlin to Havana to Hanoi. Heck, even current Russians identify with the Soviet Union more than they do with Russia. If you’re Putin, why wouldn’t you attempt to revive the Soviet era?

The obvious answer is that the Soviet economy proved to be sclerotic over the long run. The thing about the U.S.S.R. was how little trade and exchange there was outside the Soviet bloc. The U.S.S.R. exported energy and imported consumer goods and key industrial components from the West. Overall, trade played a minor role.

A closed-off, centrally planned economy is a bad way to run a superpower. A lack of engagement with the global economy meant that the U.S.S.R. fell further and further behind in key technologies. Only after the Cold War ended was Russia able to truly open itself up to foreign direct investment and technology transfer from the OECD economies.

Putin might well succeed in reviving the Soviet era within Russia, but not in the way that he intends. We have already seen the exodus of Western multinational corporations from the Russian economy. U.S.-led economic sanctions will inhibit any further foreign direct investment to Russia and cause the economy to contract. As the latest report from the British think tank Royal United Services Institute suggests, Russia will be unable to manufacture even vital military goods if it is cut off from global supply chains. The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip noted back in March, “Russia may be an energy superpower but Taiwan is a semiconductor superpower, and semiconductors are harder to replace than oil.” The return of inferior Soviet brands seems likely as the sanctions continue to bite.

The difference between Russia’s economy now and the old Soviet economy is one of size and demographics — and neither difference helps Vladimir Putin. The Soviet-led economic bloc encompassed the entire Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, Vietnam and assorted other economies. For the 2022 version, you need to subtract all the Warsaw Pact economies as well as half the 15 old Soviet republics. This does not leave a formidable economic union. At the same time, Russia is hemorrhaging working-age population. Its scientific and technical elite are trying to leave the country, and for once, the Biden administration seems receptive to the idea of inward immigration.

The only advantage that modern-day Russia has over the old U.S.S.R. would be more trade with China. Even here, however, it is far from clear that Chinese firms will want to run afoul of U.S. sanctions. Like the old Soviet Union at the end of World War II, Russia could try to profit from plundering conquered bits of Ukraine. It turns out, however, that 21st-century plunder is harder to pull off.

The longer that war and sanctions persist, the better the odds that Putin will re-Sovietize the Russian Federation. That, however, will not make Russia great again.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

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