Not the End of the World

Russia’s elite, Ivan Krastev tells us, are apocalyptic thinkers.

I have the utmost professional respect and personal affinity for Krastev, which is why it pains me to say that he’s wrong.

Krastev is right, of course, that the Russian elite are survivalists. He’s right that they now find themselves in such a dire mess that it’s hard for them (or anyone else) to conceive of a good way out. And he’s right that Putin — who, to summarize Krastev’s argument, is in charge but not in control — is of little use to them but cannot be replaced. But Krastev is wrong, I think, to say that they are ready to blow up the world (literally or figuratively) and let the irradiated chips fall where they may.

There is, of course, plenty of apocalyptic thinking in Russia. But it’s among the opposition, not the elite. To get a sense, just look at Arkady Babchenko’s heartbroken (and heart-breaking) ‘cry of the soul‘, which is reminiscent of too many of the kitchen-table conversations I have these days in Moscow. Those Russians who dreamt of a different future for their country — one untrammeled by hatred and violence — can no longer see a future any different from today.

Not so, Russia’s elite. Certainly, in the paranoid musings of Naryshkin (speaker of the parliament, no less) and Yakunin (head of the national railways, no less), it’s easy to to find threads of dark fantasy. But actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Russia’s elite speak to a remarkable (perhaps delusional) degree of confidence.

In its recent report on the Russian economy, the IMF notes (not without satisfaction) that the Russian government and Central Bank have pursued fiscal and monetary policies that are, by and large, prudent (waste, corruption and the need for structural reforms notwithstanding) and aimed at preserving the ability to manage the economy well into the future. And Russia’s biggest state-owned hydrocarbon companies are still pursuing global deals designed to underpin their long-term sustainability, geopolitics be damned.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not for a moment suggesting that Russia is well governed, or even that Putin et al have a realistic endgame for their confrontation with the West. But Russia’s ruling elite are not, in fact, acting as though the sky is falling. They rather clearly intend to return to business as usual (and this may be where the delusion kicks in) as soon as possible, to continue to accumulate and enjoy their wealth, and to govern a Russia (freed of the likes of Babchenko, if possible) well into the future.

Krastev is right to question whether Putin can take them there, and many of the elite are probably asking the same question (quietly). But if the elite are to be judged on their deeds, and not just their screeds, their game is very far from over.

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