Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a very good couple of months.
First, he managed to make the world believe that he is a champion of privacy and Internet freedom by granting asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. It makes little difference that he lied to the international community about Russia’s relationship with Snowden, housing him at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong as Snowden prepared to escape to Moscow.
Then, he managed to completely outmaneuver President Obama in the debate over whether to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons, making Obama and his administration look dithering and uncertain. Never mind that Putin was protecting a dictator who is responsible for a civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Putin’s winning streak may be short lived, however, even though he agreed to a peace deal in which the United States made nearly every concession Russia and Syria wanted. The threat of military action was explicitly taken off the table in exchange for Syria’s destruction of chemical weapons, which is set to begin next year.
Washington agreed to this deal despite claims by chemical weapons experts who doubt that Syria will be able to meet the terms of the treaty. The terms the White House agreed to also do nothing to stop the civil war, prompting the rebels that Washington is backing to tell the world they’ve been let down.
"What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in Istanbul, adding that the agreement allows Assad to go unpunished for using chemical weapons. "We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”
It’s been a heck of a run for Putin, and he’s been able to pull it off by siding against the United States. He’s projected himself and his country as a major world power able to manipulate international events. He’s even moralized to the American public in an op-ed in The New York Times. With the winter Olympics scheduled in Sochi this winter, Putin has many more months to savor the limelight.
But as the saying goes, pride comes before the fall. So while Putin has much to gloat about right now, his bluster hides structural weaknesses in Mother Russia. Unless he and his government address the following six issues, Putin will have to relinquish his bragging rights as a world leader.
1 Russia’s military is decades behind that of the United States. As part of his 2012 presidential campaign, Putin pledged to spend $770 billion to upgrade Russia’s military. But that kind of transformation will take decades.
In the meantime, Russian troops use outdated weapons, communications techniques and equipment. During their brief war with Georgia in 2008, field commanders were forced to use cell phones to communicate. A military that weak cannot challenge minor military powers, let alone the United States.
2: The economic foundations that fueled Russia’s economic boom are crumbling. Russian economic growth over the last decades was fueled by energy. Gazprom, the state-owned energy company, made Putin, his advisers and the rest of the political class extraordinarily rich. One of the primary reasons Putin is able to hold his grip on power is that he made the political elite rich.
But Russia cannot ride Gazprom’s gravy train forever. The company only has 20 years worth of reserves on hand, and must undertake expensive exploration projects in Siberia and under the Arctic. Putin has admitted as much in June, saying the energy boom allowed Russia to grow quickly. "This situation has changed now. There are no simple solutions and no magic wand we can wave to change things overnight."
3: Beyond energy, the Russian economy is virtually non-existent. Russia has tried and failed to diversify its economy in recent years. It tried to get into the auto business with the Germans, but the deal fell apart. Former President Dmitry Medvedev tried to kick start Russia’s tech industry, but that has yet to take off. For now, energy is the biggest game in town.
4: Poor living conditions and widespread alcohol abuse lead to Russians dying young. The average Russian lives only to 69; the average Russia man only makes it to 62. It’s hard to sustain power when your population is dying before retirement.
5: Government services beyond western Russia are non-existent or ineffective. People often forget that Russia is huge. It spans 9 times zones (recently reduced from 11) and the areas east of St. Petersburg and Moscow have not benefited from the energy boom. In many places, government services and modern infrastructure are ineffective or non-existent. Just ask “Forest Boy,” the 20-year-old Russian man who spent the last sixteen years living in the Siberian wilderness.
6: Opposition to Putin and the political class he serves is growing. Putin’s crackdowns on opposition groups have been brutally effective. But they’re also gaining international attention. He can only continue to rule his country with an iron fist for so long. History proves that dictatorships, even in Russia, don’t last forever.