Event Recap | Russia 2018: Preparing for a Post-Putin Era

Russia 2018 John Beyrle
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle
gives a lecture at the Tower Center Jan. 23.

Spoiler alert: Vladimir Putin will win the 2018 Russian presidential election (if it can even be called an election), but is his support really at an all-time high? Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, the final guest of the Russia Series, visited the SMU Tower Center to discuss Putin’s standing in Russia and world politics. He started his lecture with three reasons why Russia is still, and always will be, a crucial component of global politics:

  1. Russia and the United States remain the only nuclear super powers in the world. The two countries together account for more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. This fact alone means Russia can never be ignored, Beyrle said.
  2. Russia is a major international power and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This means it has veto power over critical security issues, such as those posed by North Korea and Iran.
  3. Russia is an economic giant as one of the world’s top 10 economies. Depending on the day, it’s the world’s second or third largest producer of oil and natural gas. This means it will always have a shared interest with the United States, the world’s largest producer.

Why Russians Love Putin

After ascending to the Russian presidency in 2000 Putin’s first two big accomplishments were bringing the oligarchs into check and crushing the Chechnya terrorist efforts. The extensive economic growth the country experienced in Putin’s second term (2004-2008) and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 boosted his approval rating even more. As Beyrle said, he has succeeded in making Russia great again.

Even Putin isn’t Perfect

Despite these wins, Beyrle also discussed why Putin’s favorability could be faltering. Beyrle still visits Russia often, and drawing from his conversations with Russian elites and scholars he listed four policy blunders that are causing the Russian elite to, privately, doubt Putin’s effectiveness as the country’s leader.

  1. The annexation of the Crimea alienated the majority of Ukrainians. Ukraine has been a historic partner for Russia, and it’s support is critical for Russia if Russia hopes to become an economic super power on par with China or the European Union.
  2. Putin’s aggressive rhetoric and actions have reignited NATO. Instead of including Russia in discussions and strengthening diplomatic relations NATO is now deployed in the Balkans and is preparing for a defensive war against Russia.
  3. Putin has made little effort to reform the economy and reduce its dependence on natural resources and the Russian state.
  4. Meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election has resulted in anti-Russian sanctions being passed by Congress. These congressional sanctions are much harder to get rid of than the previous executive order sanctions, meaning recovering lost ground in U.S.-Russia relations will take years.

Why Putin will be with us Until the End

Despite these blunders, Beyrle predicts Putin will remain a key player, if not the key player, in Russian politics for the rest of his life. Even if Putin’s fourth term, ending in 2024, is his last, Beyrle predicts Putin could establish a supreme council during that term and be appointed as its head for life. But even without an assured position of authority it is in the Russian elite’s best interest for Putin to remain in power in at least some way. Putin acts as a referee among the elite; they are is inner circle. There is no law securing their power or fortunes. A new leader, especially one with the agenda to reform, could put the status of the elite at risk.