What’s up with The Spectator magazine? As I mentioned in my last post, on Thursday they published a piece by Andrew Foxall entitled ‘Covid-19 is testing Putin’s regime’. And then, on Friday, just one day later, out comes another article, this time by Owen Matthews, with the headline ‘Can Putin survive the coronavirus stress test?’ Really? How many different versions of the same story does the Spectator plan to publish?
Matthews has been on my radar since he produced this piece, just a few days after I had written this one. Perhaps I’m a bit petty, but I was somewhat peeved by the striking similarities. Anyway, Matthews is a fully signed up member of the ‘the Putin regime is doomed’ club, as you can see by the Speccie front cover below from the time of World Cup two years ago. ‘Russia is crumbling’, he told us, which is odd because Russia looked quite good during the World Cup, at least to me and just about everyone else who attended. But it’s always the beginning of the end for Matthews, apparently. The annexation of Crimea? A huge blunder, he said – it would cost a fortune, Putin’s paymasters wouldn’t tolerate it, and it ‘will be the downfall of Putin’. And so on, and so forth.
The strange thing is that I remember reading an article by Matthews a month or two ago in which he admitted to having regularly predicted Putin’s downfall, and to having regularly got it wrong. But, rather than change direction, he seems to have decided to double down, perhaps on the principle that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And so it is that he proceeds to tell us all the same things that Andrew Foxall told us, just in a few more words.
‘Putin has created a kleptocracy in Russia’, says Foxall; ‘Putin’s Russia is characterised by wholesale theft’, says Matthews. ‘As coronavirus has destroyed the global economy, it has destroyed the demand for oil with it. Russia relies on sales of oil and gas for 40 per cent of its revenues’, Foxall tells us. The ‘regime faces a double whammy. Not only have oil prices fallen to levels not seen since the early Yeltsin years, but Russia’s harsh corona lockdown is also set to devastate the small- and medium businesses’, reiterates Matthews, making sure we also know that, ‘oil and gas still account for more than half of Russian exports.’ ‘Putin has backed into the shadows’, claims Foxall; Putin has ‘disappeared from the scene’, adds Matthews. ‘The pandemic is tarnishing Putin’s aura of invicibility’, Foxall informs us, noting that Putin’s ‘approval ratings have fallen’; ‘there are already signs of discontent’, adds Matthews. It’s ‘the biggest crisis of [Putin’s] two decades in power,’ concludes Foxall; ‘the Putin system faces a stress test every bit as radical as that which brought down Mikhail Gorbachev’, says Matthews.
I suspect a lack of communication between those who edit the Spectator’s online content (in which Foxall’s piece appeared), and those who edit the printed edition (in which, it seems, Matthews’ appeared, though I don’t have a copy). But still, do we really have to hear this twice? Wasn’t once enough? It’s a striking example, in my opinion, of the extreme lack of depth and originality of thinking about Russia, in which what is taken as sophistication is to spout clichés and repeat the same old thing over and over again. The Spectator’s been running for almost 200 years now. I think it’s seen better days.