Neither view is entirely accurate. The real hero of Russia’s rescue was oil. The dramatic rise in the average Russian’s income has been a consequence not of Putin’s policies but of oil prices. The price of oil when Putin came to office was $27 a barrel. From that point, it began an almost unbroken rise and is now at $116 a barrel. And oil is the lifeblood of Russia’s economy. It provides two-thirds of its exports, half of the federal government’s revenues.
The Russian state has used these revenues to dole out patronage across the country. It is widely believed in the West that Putin stays in power through repression. Actually, he does so in larger measure through bribery.
In the short run, Putin will be able to win the March election and consolidate power through a mixture of repression and patronage. His problems are more long-term. His government has ramped up its revenues to the point that it now needs oil to approach $125 a barrel simply to balance the budget.
Russia’s demographics are terrible. …