For most of the post-Soviet years, Russia has been torn by a question that haunts its people and their rulers: Do Russians want their country to be an imperialist power feared by other nations or a land whose primary concern is its citizens’ well-being?
President Vladimir V. Putin has resolved the issue, or so it seems. He has decided to tip the balance in favor of ambitious expansionist politics rather than domestic development. Prosperity for the people is all very well up to a point, but it has a downside: It produces independent-minded individuals who may try to vote their ruler out of office.
Pursuing grand strategies on the international stage is safer — at least for Russia’s powers that be. Defending the Russian-speaking populations of the former Soviet Union creates so much tension both at home and abroad that the domestic economic agenda is dwarfed in comparison. Who cares about economic deterioration, poor public services or endemic corruption when the nation is gripped by imperialist fervor?
But in pushing Russian expansionism is Mr. Putin really making a safer bet? When asked by pollsters about what Russia’s priorities should be, respondents are generally divided. In a recent survey by the Levada Center, a Russian nongovernmental research organization, 48 percent favored prioritizing the country’s international standing, while 47 percent said they favored a government that concentrated on creating conditions for individual prosperity.
Almost a decade ago, there were indications that this dilemma was close to being resolved in favor of economic progress and peaceful nation-building. According to a poll conducted in 2005 by Levada, more than 60 percent of respondents said they would prefer to live in a nation with higher living standards, while 36 percent counted national “greatness” as a priority. But that resolve proved temporary.
Back in 2007, Michael Porter, a Harvard business professor, advised the Kremlin on economic matters. He and his team then wrote in an analysis of Russian competitiveness that differences of opinion within the government “go beyond the usual policy disagreements that are present in many governments” and “strike to the heart of the goals of the nation itself.”
They continued: “Is the goal politics or prosperity for citizens? There is no clear mechanism to resolve these incompatible aspirations. Instead, conflicting signals threaten to cancel each other out and, even worse, create a high level of uncertainty about future policies.”
One has to remember that, in a country where the mass media is under strict government control, public opinion may be easily skewed. For several years, especially since street protests erupted in late 2011 and the Kremlin was shocked to discover serious public discontent, the state propaganda machine has been busy inventing or exaggerating threats the Russians are supposedly facing. Mr. Putin embarked on a radical information offensive to divide and frighten his countrymen.
The current streak of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western propaganda — fraught with menacing imagery of Ukrainian fascists and their American puppeteers — is only a recent chapter in a larger PR-strategy. Past Kremlin agitprop has included dire warnings of vague conspiracies to overthrow the government, attacks on artists supposedly seeking to humiliate the Russian church, and warnings that homosexuals and a “pedophile lobby” are using the Internet to undermine the traditional family and Russian society.
These threats, fomented by the state-controlled media, are an excuse to increase the security budget, push anti-gay legislation and laws against “blasphemy,” and establish control over the Internet.
The Kremlin’s current propaganda campaign, focused on the “Ukrainian threat,” has been paraded as a justification for military activity along that country’s borders, for possible covert use of force inside Ukraine and for an all-out information war against the West.
Given the intensity of the media blitz, it’s a sign of relative sanity that only half of Russians are choosing sovereign and military greatness over well-being.
“Despite all the propaganda, half of the country is resisting the imperialist temptation,” says Vladimir Magun, a sociologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea appears to be overwhelmingly popular, but that is because the true cost is being hidden. The Russian public has readily bought the propaganda message that it received Crimea as a free gift, says Mr. Magun, but it’s like shopping in a store with no price tags. A disappointment awaits us at the exit: Stores that don’t display price tags are usually very expensive.
As a result of Mr. Putin’s adventure, Russians can expect higher borrowing costs and a decrease in the value of the ruble, and along with that, a decrease in the value of their savings. Mr. Putin is risking a severe economic downturn and even a regional war.
The president must understand that he won’t be able to avoid economic realities: We can’t race ahead without fundamental improvements in Russia’s global competitiveness. The economy is in recession, and though the effects have not yet trickled down to most Russians, tougher economic times lie ahead. That will bring a day of reckoning.
Mr. Putin will argue that the West is punishing Russia for its international ambitions and that we, the Russian people, will have to persevere.
This is the type of social contract the Soviet government used to impose on its citizens: The enemy is at the gate, and we all have to hunker down. Mr. Putin is bringing this siege mentality back because he knows very well how to work it to his advantage.
The choice between “greatness” on the world stage and domestic prosperity is a false one. Russia can be a formidable world power while flourishing at home.