Putin’s Third Way

Barry W. Ickes and
Barry W. Ickes Former Brookings Expert
Clifford G. Gaddy
Clifford G. Gaddy Former Brookings Expert

January 6, 2009

Editor’s Note: With the rise in oil prices and a conservative fiscal policy, Russia turned from a debtor nation into an economic powerhouse. Putin’s strategy created a compromise between the excesses of the free market and the inefficiencies of a command economy. Yet there remain deep cracks in the foundation of the post-Soviet structure. In a recent article in The National Interest, Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes discuss whether or not his Putinomics can survive the financial crisis.

Speaking to a group of foreign investors on October 20, 2008, Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, boasted that in contrast to policy makers around the world, including those in the leading international financial institutions, he had not been caught unawares by the present financial crisis. While “all of them” were unprepared, he said, “we did not allow ourselves to be caught by surprise. When we formulated our long-term economic and financial policy, we took into account potential risks and threats.” Alluding to his insistence on building up huge financial reserves, Putin noted, “We were sometimes even criticized for being too conservative. Well, I think that conservatism proved justified.”

Was Putin really so prescient? The simple answer is no, Putin anticipated neither the exact timing nor the nature of this crisis. But in a more important sense, he did prepare. For eight years Putin pursued two main economic-policy priorities. One was to set up a system that could maximally exploit the advantages of the market economy while ensuring that the interests of private business owners would always remain subordinate to the strategic interests of the state. The second priority was to make the Russian economy robust to crisis. The dual policy objectives of optimal efficiency and maximum robustness to short-term shocks are inherently in tension. They cannot be permanently reconciled. Rather, they require continual balance. Until now, the balance has been struck such that there is a firm commitment to market methods and an openness to the global economy. But whether this can continue in the face of a much deeper and prolonged crisis has implications not only for Russia’s short- and long-term economic development—especially in the critical oil sector—but also for the country’s geopolitical behavior.

As Russia’s leader for the past nine years—in the posts of prime minister, president and then again prime minister—Putin has presided over one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Until very recently everything seemed to go his way. When he began his tenure, the economy was on the rebound from the 1998 financial collapse. That crisis had briefly paralyzed the economy, but because it also resulted in a fourfold devaluation of the currency, it gave a boost to domestic goods-producing sectors, like the food, auto and consumer-appliance industries, that had previously been swamped by foreign imports. By the time Putin took over, the recovery was already under way. Later, as it slowed, the oil boom took off. The rise in the world oil price from its 1998 low of under $10 a barrel to over $140 in 2008 transferred a vast amount of extra wealth to Russia. During Putin’s eight years as president, Russian oil and gas companies earned over $650 billion more from their exports than in the previous eight years under Boris Yeltsin.

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