Rarely does a political leader get a shot at greatness. Questions of talent, character and ambition aside, there is usually no challenge great enough during a leader’s time in power to require any true greatness. Far rarer is a second chance at greatness, though it does occur, think of Napoleon.
Vladimir Putin had his first chance for greatness in his second term as president in 2004-2008. After the chaos and grand larceny of the ‘90’s, the country was finally stable. The price of oil was climbing steadily and would peak at $147 a barrel in July 2008. All of a sudden there was a middle class.
This was the moment to switch from a petro-state to a hi-tech economy, the moment to put Russia’s army of the highly educated to work creating products where knowledge would be the value-add. Nothing of this was any secret to Putin who had criticized the continuation of the Soviet system’s “excessive emphasis on the development of the commodities sector.” Russia could never truly be great again as it was little more than a gas station and lumber yard for Europe and China.
This was the moment when Vladimir Putin could have achieved a serious measure of greatness for himself and his nation. He might even have gone down in history as the third of the Vladimirs who transformed Russia – Great Prince Vladimir, later sainted, who imposed Christianity on Russia and Vladimir Lenin who could have imposed communism. Since change in Russia is always top-down, Vladimir Putin could have imposed hi-tech modernism on Russia making it a streamlined 21st century contender instead of a pariah petro-state.
But he didn’t. Why?
The short answer is that mistrust of the outside world bred in him by Soviet culture and his KGB training stayed Putin’s hand. Transforming the country seemed too perilous with NATO flanking Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Ukraine being stirred up by saboteurs in the guise of NGOs and Chechen rebels massacring school children in the south. But there’s never a convenient time for risky change.
Now, however, the current impasse with the US and the West may be providing Putin with history’s rare and elusive second chance. It is bad enough to be a petro-state when countries like England and France are already committing to non-carbon fueled cars in the near future and when companies like the Chinese-owned Volvo are doing the same. It is bad enough being a petro-state when oil prices look like they will stay low for a long time and even worse when Russia’s own oil fields are “browning”, meaning the easy oil has been pumped and all that is left is the more difficult, that is, expensive oil to extract. The only hope now would be the rich oil fields of the Russian Arctic but their exploitation requires foreign investment, expertise and technology, precisely those things which are blocked by US sanctions.
Europe remains the principal market for Russian natural gas with Poland and Germany particularly dependent. That, apart from NATO’s Article V, is the reason Russia will not invade Europe – you don’t attack your best customer.
But European dependence on Russian natural gas makes Russia vulnerable too. The way for the West to strike a body blow to the Russian economy is to move fast to replace Russian natural gas with American LNG. That, in fact, was a subject President Trump raised with Polish President Duda during his visit to Warsaw before the G-20 meeting in Hamburg. Russian pundits have been putting out two messages on that score – the US is attacking Russia by stepping up competition for Europe’s natural gas market and therefore it is again a moment for radical reform from the top, to break Russia’s own humiliating dependence on gas and oil and become a true modern hi-tech society.
Though he has not declared, Putin is already running for re-election in the 2018 campaign. Transforming Russia to a hi-tech society could be the slogan of that campaign and the strategic theme of Putin’s last six-year term in office.
By signing the bill to impose new sanctions, President Trump has inadvertently given Putin a second shot at greatness. Maybe this is the way their unlikely bromance will play itself out. Maybe they will yet ride off into the historical sunset together. The sooner the better.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard Lourie
RICHARD LOURIE is the critically acclaimed author of both fiction and nonfiction, including The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin and Sakharov: A Biography. He has translated more than thirty books and served as Mikhail Gorbachev’s translator for The New York Times. His articles and reviews have appeared in many influential publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the New Republic, and The Nation. He has also served as a consultant on Russia to Hillary Clinton.