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Russia: Weak and Strong

Guest: Jill Dougherty, Russia expert and former CNN international correspondent for nearly three decades. She’s the former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief and White House CorrespondentShe is now a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

The US and Russia were at public blows in recent weeks. Within just a few days of each other, US President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer” and US intelligence declared: “President Putin and the Russian state authorized and conducted influence operations against the 2020 U.S. presidential election aimed at denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S.” Despite a weak economy and internal dissent, clearly Russia is spreading its influence. 

On Altamar’s latest podcast episode, Jill Dougherty, Russia expert at the Wilson Center and former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief, discusses Russia’s power with hosts Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen. Dougherty was an international correspondent at CNN for nearly three decades, serving as Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Moscow Bureau Chief, and White House Correspondent. She is now a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and a professor at Georgetown University where she uses her expertise to analyze and teach.

“Russia is never as strong nor as weak as she looks,” Winston Churchill famously said. Altamar’s Téa Ivanovic notes that “Despite Russia’s lack of economic diversification and a shift in Putin’s support, especially among younger Russians, Russia somehow continues to stand strong.” The Kremlin seems to garner one success after the next, making international headlines on all fronts: vaccinations, cross continental projects, cyberwarfare, and its recent announcement of an alliance with China for space travel.

According to Dougherty, “Russia is actually weaker in more ways than we think it is. So many people say that President Putin plays a weak hand quite well. But I would also say that Russia historically, even going back to the Soviet days — if [leadership] really wanted to accomplish something, they could also play a weak hand quite well.”

“Despite the protests, its shaky economy and its dependence on oil and gas, Russian influence continues to spread,” notes Altamar’s Muni Jensen. How is that possible?  “Historically, when Russia wanted to do something spectacular, they had these projects where if they had the technological capability, great scientists, enough money and most importantly, the leader’s undevoted attention to the project, they could do amazing things,” explains Dougherty. “If you look at recent years, you have an influence of sanctions on Russia. You have the price of oil, which fell, and now it’s coming back up again. [But] the GDP… last year was 3.6% which is actually not that bad. It’s because they have some very good people in the economic side of the government, who are making sure that they’re doing what they can to survive low oil [prices],” explains Dougherty. But she warns that analyzing the GDP is not enough: “You have to look at people. There are far more people living in poverty now than just a few years ago, and food prices continue to go up. Real incomes for Russians have declined every year for the past eight years. And that is significant.” 

Russia has a laundry list of domestic problems. “Some believe that Russia’s weakest link is coming from within, particularly from young people who are exhausted and who feel that dissent is the only way to go…how is this generation going to try and shape things?” asks Altamar’s Peter Schechter. Dougherty, who teaches a course at Georgetown University on the ‘Putin generation’, notes, Over the past 20 years, these young people have grown up all online. They are not watching the national media, and many of them don’t even have TVs. Therefore, they’re not exposed to the propaganda that the Kremlin is [sharing] through the state media. And [this generation is] different in many ways.” They have become more global in their thinking and beliefs. Due to their dependence on online communications, they are not like other generations. “A lot of it can be ascribed to the internet, and social media, of course. Younger Russians now see what’s out there…these young people are the future leaders, they are the new voters, and I think that’s really important here,” notes Téa Ivanovic.

Why does Dougherty say, “Communication with young people is not going well. And yet, they are the key to success for Russia. So, the things that [Putin] needs for a modern country could be dangerous to his own continuation in power”? Find out by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

Image Source: Michael Parulava/Unsplash

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Episode 96