Putin attends a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in Moscow. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Kochetkov.

On March 18, Russia holds a presidential election. No surprises are expected regarding the outcome; and, according to the economist and political analyst Dmitri Travin there should be even fewer expectations of political reform in the country following the re-election of Vladimir Putin for his second consecutive (and third overall) presidential term.

Travin is a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg and the scientific director of the Center for Modernization Studies. For more than 30 years he has studied economics, economic history and historical sociology. He is the author of more than 10 books on the history of reforms in Russia and the modern Russian economy.

His most recent book, co-authored with academics Vladimir Gelman and Andrei Zaostrovtsev, was ‘The Russian Way: Ideas, Interests, Institutes, Illusions.’ That book, on Russia’s path dependence, came out in late 2017 and sparked heated discussion across the world’s largest country by land-mass.

Just prior to Russians heading for the voting booths, Travin spoke to Asia Times on a range of issues facing the country. Here is the second installment of our interview.

In addition to economic promises the president’s March State of the Nation Address was notable for its saber-rattling. He talked a lot about new military equipment that Russia has. Are these real achievements?

The second part of Putin’s March 1 speech was accompanied by a demonstration of new Russian weapons that can fly across oceans towards America. Information available to the public about these developments is not available. My gut tells me that this is a bluff.

As an economist with extensive experience, I don’t see how numerous weaknesses across many sectors of the economy can lead to innovative breakthroughs, even if we are talking about the military-industrial complex. There were exceptions in the Stalin era, but at that time, all possible economic strength was directed to the military-industrial complex. Now, there is nothing like it in terms of scale.

In November, nearly 20 micro-satellites from other nations were lost in the unsuccessful launch of the Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Space Center. The nation has suffered a partial launch failure every year for at least the last decade. What does this tell you?

Dimitri Travin

When something is launched not in a video clip, but in real life, it becomes clear if it works or not. In recent years, our military-industrial complex has been getting more funding than ever. But the economy is very global, and it is difficult, under sanctions, to create modern equipment and source all the necessary components. Some things have to be imported from developed countries, but this is now impossible.

Most importantly, we should not forget that this video with the missile that was played during Putin’s speech was aimed at the Russian voter. It was shown just before elections. We witnessed how the president tries to create the impression that his power and country are strong, that respect for Russia around the world is growing. Putin managed to achieve victory in the minds of the voters (so) from time to time such clips, will be shown. 

Relations with the West have deteriorated. Is it logical for Russia to look East?

The problems with the West are huge. In theory, Putin would like to develop allies in the East, but it is not entirely clear what benefits Russia can get and what it can offer Asian partners. A particularly vivid example is the relationship with China on gas exports. Gazprom is building a gas pipeline, the ‘Power of Siberia,’ under a contract with Chinese oil major CNPC. Its capacity is 38 billion cubic meters; the first deliveries are scheduled for December 2019. But, this carries no special prospects for future development. China is self-sufficient in terms of gas supply. It doesn’t need Russian supplies.

Once the pipeline is complete, there will be a situation in which the consumer can choose who to buy gas from, and the producer, who has stretched this pipeline from one point to another, has no choice. China can dictate the terms, and if Russia doesn’t like them they will have no other alternative selling point for the gas – unless they build another gas pipeline. Or agree to China’s terms.

What other Asia options Russia has is not clear. An unstable Russian economy is of little use to anyone. If there were some offers from Asia coming through, Putin would have shown interest.

What can Russia offer Asia?

I do not think that Putin is ready to concede anything in the East. For example, there is the old dispute over the Northern Territories with Japan. It’s not very clear how Putin can hand them over in a situation where he is propagating the idea of Russian greatness and superpower status in society. We can’t rule anything out since Putin has virtually unlimited power and can manipulate the occasion to his will – but it would be strange for him to abandon territory, given the message he’s sending to the public.

Can China become a strategic partner of Russia?

Russia needs relations with China more than the other way round. Russia needs investment. There is constant talk in our country that we can afford to bicker with the West because we can always raise money from the East. So far, none of that has happened, however. And it likely won’t happen because the Russian economy is unattractive for foreign investors.

And, conversely, if China decides to funnel money to Russia with political intent, Russia will become subjugated as a satellite state. But, that development is not feasible unless it lies in the distant future. It is not something I see at the moment.

When can Russia’s military operations in Syria end?

Putin is bargaining with the West. If the United States and NATO as a whole go to him with some concessions – primarily in the post-Soviet space [i.e the states of the former Soviet Union such as Georgia, Latvia, Ukraine, etc] – then perhaps he will cooperate with them. If they do not pay attention to Russia, Putin, most likely, will create problems in other parts of the world to force a sort of relationship.

Does Russia feel a legitimate sense of danger from the West?

I believe that Putin is pragmatic and if there was a serious conflict that could lead to war, he would not get involved. He controls Russia. His friends build up their riches. And there is no need for adventures. All the loud words are to manipulate his own people.

Still, not everyone agrees with me on this. Some commentators believe that Putin does not adequately understand the balance of forces between Russia and NATO. But no-one can show evidence of this misunderstanding on Putin’s behalf.

One of your books is called ‘Will Putin’s system exist until 2042?’ When could Putin go and who will be his successor?

Putin will remain in power until 2024 [the end of the next presidential term], but perhaps even that will not be his limit. However, I can’t give any detailed analysis on the possibilities.

To return to reform, are reforms possible in Russia without a serious upheaval or a cataclysm?

Germany and Japan began to transform only after devastating military defeats. But there are many examples of countries that underwent reform peacefully. At some point, Spain reached such a degree of degradation that the country had to be reformed. Estonia started its reforms simply by leaving the USSR.

If Russian society does not understand the need for reforms at least in the medium term, the probability of unpleasant clashes with neighbors and brutal defeats will increase. Because we are weak, and our society does not adequately understand this. This [catastrophic outcome] is possible – but it is not our only fate.

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