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The worse Russia's economy gets, the more dangerous Putin becomes

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

You might reasonably conclude that the destruction of Russia's economy is great news for the United States of America. After all, won't it humble Vladimir Putin, forcing him to finally back out of his disastrous Ukraine invasion, soften his growing hostility toward Europe and the US, and generally ratchet down the brinksmanship and aggression that have made him so troublesome?

Actually, it's the opposite. The odds are that Russia's freefalling economy will make Putin even more aggressive, more unpredictable, and less willing to compromise. The weaker that Russia becomes, the more dangerous it will get, and that's terrible news for everyone, including the US.

It is precisely because the cratering economy is weakening Putin that it will force him to bolster his rule, which he will almost certainly do by drumming up nationalism, foreign confrontations, and state propaganda. Russia, already hostile and isolated, is likely to become even more so, worsening both its behavior abroad and the already-significant economic suffering of regular Russians. The country's propaganda bubble will further seal off Russians from the outside world, telling them that Russia's decline is the fault of Western aggression that they must rally against.

In all, this effect is starting to look something like the North Koreaification of Russia. That does not mean that Russia is about to become or will ever be as isolated, hostile, or aggressive as North Korea, but it only has to edge a little bit in that direction to bring terrible consequences for the world and for Russians themselves.

Putin's handling of Russia's last downturn is a very bad sign for how he'll deal with this one

A currency exchange stand in Moscow (Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

We don't have to guess at how Putin will respond to a weakening economy: we already know the answer from how he dealt with the economic downturn that began for Russia in 2008, and hit home for Putin in 2012 when Russians protested his sham reelection.

Before then, Putin had certainly been a provocateur, but nothing like what he is now. He based his power and popularity on Russia's economic growth, which was enough. But after 2012, Putin shifted strategies, focusing on stirring up old-school anti-Western paranoia and imperial-style Russian nationalism.

That meant ginning up conflict with the US, for example by banning American families from adopting Russian orphans, and seizing on geopolitical crises such as Syria as an opportunity to present Russia as a great power opposed to nefarious Western imperialism. It also meant cracking down on free speech and civil rights at home, cracking down on everyone from journalists to gay and lesbian people, while ratcheting up nationalistic propaganda in the media. And, ultimately, it meant invading Ukraine, which Putin presented as a humanitarian intervention to save fellow Russian-speakers from evil Western fascism.

All of this worked: it distracted Russians from the sinking economy, focusing them instead on perceived enemies at home and abroad: Ukraine, the West, Russian liberals, Russian gays and lesbians. In fact, Putin's approval rating even rose, to a meteoric high of over 80 percent. But the danger is that Putin became trapped in the logic of his own propaganda, which is a big part of why he invaded Ukraine again, this time in eastern Ukraine.

The worse Russia's economy gets, the more Putin will need to escalate hostility abroad

russia tank

A tank operated by pro-Russia rebels in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

As the economy sinks, Putin will only become more reliant on these sorts of shenanigans he's used previously to stay in power. He's not just worried about his popularity, after all, but his very legitimacy as the head of state; the 2012 election showed him that Russians could turn against him.

Putin has little choice, then, but to seek legitimacy by stirring up more crises abroad, positioning himself as a nationalist hero leading the brave Russian state in a hostile world. But the only way he can maintain that image at home is if his soft conflict with the West continues. Putin can't deescalate tensions in Ukraine and more broadly in Europe because those tensions are just about all he has left.

More broadly, the obvious move here is for Putin is to blame his country's falling economy on American and European imperialism. By playing up the role of outside hostility in Russia's economic crisis, Putin would shift the blame and, just as important, promote the idea that Russians have to come together and endure the downturn as a matter of national mission against a foreign enemy.

This is part of why Putin has spent much of 2014 comparing the pro-Western Ukrainian government to Nazis and talking about World War Two. The memory of Nazi Germany's 1941 invasion is still palpable in Russia. By hitting on the memory of those years of hardship and struggle, and raising subtle and not-so-subtle comparisons to the international tensions today, Putin is trying to persuade Russians that, the worse things get, the more that they should support him and his government.

That's working, but the worse Russia's economy gets, the more that Putin will have to exacerbate tensions with the West in order to justify blaming it all on foreign conflict and enemies.

Putin has every reason to keep the conflict in Ukraine going, or even make it worse

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

It's not just that Putin needs to maintain tension and conflict in order to maintain his self-made image as a tough-guy nationalist leader holding strong against a hostile West. Even his short-term strategy in Ukraine points to further escalation.

Putin can't simply withdraw from Ukraine, which would be a public humiliation. He's currently too invested in a losing situation to cut his losses. Mark Galeotti, a New York University scholar who studies Russia, points out that Putin might conclude that his best bet is to escalate even further, sending more troops, to try to force a better deal.

After all, Putin cares more about Ukraine than the West does — this is true — and at some point the very weak Ukrainian government may concede defeat and allow Putin more favorable peace terms. The more that Putin's economy suffers, the more likely he is to try some dangerous gambit like that to ease the cost of sanctions.

The North Koreaification of Russia

putin tv presser

(Dmitri Dukhanin/Kommersant via Getty Images)

The similarities between closed, crazy North Kore and Russia, a troubled and authoritarian but still vibrant and cosmopolitan country, are few. But one troubling and telling parallel that has emerged since Putin began taking Russia down its isolationist and confrontationist path is that, as in North Korea, it is the citizens of Russia who suffer most. And, as in North Korea, the suffering of the Russian people is not incidental but is a crucial element of that strategy.

It's not that Putin wants Russians to suffer. But their suffering is nonetheless a tool that he can use. Their sense of being besieged can be redirected. It's not impersonal economic forces responsible for your pain, Putin's state media can imply, but rather the hostility of an anti-Russian world. There are enemies without and within — everything from the imperialistic American leadership to the gays and lesbians eroding Russia's great culture — that must be confronted. This gives something for Russians to rally against, and relieves Putin of the responsibility of providing them with something to rally for.

Economic deprivation also tends to give rise to political extremism, particularly on the right. Putin has, since returning the presidency in 2012, cultivated the elements of political conservatism so carefully that one has to wonder if he foresee the Russian right's resurgence. He has elevated the Orthodox church and its socially conservative precepts, positioned Russia as a haven of conservative family and gender values against the liberal depravity of the West, and most important grown the role of Russian nationalism, including Russian ethnic nationalism.

The nationalists are the Russians who march on the streets waving old imperial flags. They have grown significantly with the economy's downturn, as is happening across Europe. But the difference is that in most countries they are a political threat, whereas in Russia they are part of Putin's strategy. Not only has he positioned himself as the country's chief nationalist, but he has stoked the Ukraine crisis in part to relive old nationalist dreams of Imperial Russia, to not just speak in nationalist code-words as leaders do in Japan or China but to live out their grandest ambitions.

In Greece or Italy or France, nationalist movements overtake or threaten to overtake the government. In Russia, Putin has overtaken them, co-opting the popularity of a movement that would otherwise oppose him. His Ukraine invasion has been crucial to that.

There is a self-reinforcing element to this that will only get worse as the country's economy further declines. Putin stokes his war in Ukraine to co-opt nationalist sentiment and drive up his popularity, so as to survive the economic downturn. That invites Western sanctions, which further shrink the Russian economy, which make Putin yet more reliant on nationalist causes such as the Ukraine invasion. Throughout all of this, the far-right logic of the Ukraine invasion becomes not just popular but practically a national ideology. Putin is trapped; the nationalists and their ideas are too powerful to reject, and the weaker the economy gets the more he needs them.

All of this requires a higher level of state media propaganda, both to fulminate the infectious ideas of nationalism and to convince Russians of the necessity of rallying against the hostile outside world. This is both a product and cause of Russia's growing isolation; Russians increasingly live in a world apart from the reality we know.

This is a much milder version of the same process that, over the last 60 years, allowed North Korea to spiral into the alternate reality in which its citizens live today. In North Korea, extreme nationalism and permanent war with the nefarious imperialists are the only way that Kim Jong Un can possibly justify his rule, and blanket propaganda is the only way to convince citizens of that logic. As North Korea has become poorer, especially in the early 1990s when its economy collapsed, it has become only more bellicose, more aggressive, more isolated, and yet more politically stable.

Russia is nowhere near that point, and it will probably never be; it has simply been too open and too educated for too long. But the disturbing parallels are impossible to miss, and will only grow clearer as the country's economy sinks further.

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