Opinion: Putin’s days may be numbered, but the West’s distrust of Russia will endure for decades

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I was working at the American Embassy in Moscow in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is not hyperbole to say that it was a monumental event that changed the world. It was also nothing short of miraculous that the one true U.S. rival simply vanished peacefully.

With the near quarter-century rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin appearing wobbly and — perhaps — on its last legs, some basic questions are in order. What if Putin’s government collapses? What would new leadership in the Kremlin mean for the U.S.? Could Russia eventually be plugged in again to the global economy?

The answers will affect the U.S. economy and its security in the years ahead. 

What if Putin’s government collapses? U.S. intelligence, whose deliberate leaking of information (a tactic called “pre-bunking”) about Putin’s intentions in the runup to the Ukraine war was spot on — was aware that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the shadowy founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, was planning something. (He now claims that he was not trying to overthrow his onetime pal Putin.) 

Even so, we must focus on this question: Who might eventually replace the 70-year old Putin? My own experience in Moscow and understanding of Russian history is that the U.S. should not delude itself into thinking that a change at the top in Moscow would mean much. A new leader would likely be cut from the same cloth as Putin: instinctively repressive in nature and  philosophically hostile to the West. Perhaps even more so.  

Why? Because power in Russia today comes from three powerful institutions: Putin’s United Russia Party, the army and the FSB (essentially the renamed KGB, or spy agency). This is no different than in the Soviet era, when the three power centers were the Communist Party, the army and the KGB. There’s no serious reformer in the upper ranks in any of these organizations. There is no system in Russia by which a freely elected leader would serve with the consent of the governed. 

You might remember Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who introduced the West to the terms “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness). He was, as then–British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, a leader “we can do business with.” Gorbachev allowed the Berlin Wall to come down, ended the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and was named Time magazine’s “Man of the 1980s.” Two years later he was out of power when the USSR itself collapsed.

Read: Russian mutiny against Putin was predicted by this analyst. Here’s what he thinks happens next.

Even if a Gorbachev-like figure were to emerge in Russia today, that’s just one person in a country whose culture is repressive and steeped in vast corruption. Such characteristics go back centuries in Russia, which missed out on Western influences like the Renaissance and Reformation. Things Westerners take for granted — political pluralism, a robust free press, genuine property rights backed up by contract enforcement, and a truly independent legal system — simply do not exist in Russia. So let’s not hold our breath waiting for someone new who’s going to make it all better. 

The Russians have had 30 years to integrate with the West.

What would new leadership in the Kremlin mean for the U.S.? Could Russia eventually be plugged in again to the global economy?

Western distrust of Russia will endure for decades. The Russians have had 30 years to integrate with the West. The West welcomed them into the G-7 and normalized trade relations. Multinationals invested billions. In return, the West got years of cyberattacks, election interference, assassinations on Western soil and nuclear threats. Enough. 

If some sort of reformer emerged and wanted better relations with the West, that would be welcome, of course. But the West has learned its lesson. It has largely weaned off Russian oil and gas and revitalized NATO. 

The opposite of everything Putin has desired over his long, nasty and damaging rule has occurred. Let him, the billionaire Russian oligarchs that have supported him—and the long-suffering Russian people— chew on that.

More: What next for Putin? That’s one of many unanswered questions after failed revolt.

Also read: Here’s how a more protracted war in Ukraine would threaten Russia’s economic stability

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