“There’s no money, but hang in there!” — Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s now infamous exhortation to a group of Crimean pensioners crystallizes the familiar and onerous reform environment confronting President Vladimir Putin as it did to many Russian leaders before him: a clear set of choices between between the demands of the security state and economic modernization under conditions of an expansive foreign policy and middling economic performance.
This paper sets out three tasks. First, I show that ahead of the March 2018 elections, Putin has acknowledged dissatisfaction with the economy to solicit three discrete plans for turning around growth: less state intervention in the economy to free up entrepreneurism, more state intervention to jump-start the economy, or simply seeking growth through productivity gains via better utilization of existing resources—form Putin’s set of choices. Second, I demonstrate that the last time he was in this position, Putin didn’t make a clear choice but sought to increase the power of the state over economic actors instead. Finally, I argue that he is likely to repeat the same experience as before: enough economic reform to provide a veneer of credibility, but not so much to alter the state’s position as the source and adjudicator of economic opportunity, leading to a reaffirmation of the state over the market.