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Moscow slashes interest rates in a bid to get the economy back on track

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Russia makes incremental gains in its war on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to entice more men to the fight. Meanwhile, Moscow is slashing interest rates in a bid to stabilize the country's economy. Is Russia taking temporary measures to portray strength, or is the Kremlin actually making gains? To answer those questions, we're joined now by Sergey Radchenko, a professor of Russian history at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Welcome to the program, professor.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: Morning.

FADEL: So I want to talk first about these measures that Russia has been taking to blunt the impact of sanctions, including pumping up the value of its currency and, as I mentioned, slashing interest rates. Are these actual fixes? Or are these measures a way to create a sense of normalcy, at least for now?

RADCHENKO: We have to look at the long-term trajectory here. We have a tendency in the West to go from euphoria to despair back to euphoria. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, there was an expectation that they would be successful within days. When they didn't, and then the West imposed sanctions, there was an expectation that everything would just fall apart. The ruble collapsed for a time and then bounced back. Now, of course, sanctions are taking their toll on the Russian economy. There is inflation. There is growing unemployment. Whether or not this actually translates into a reduced popularity for President Putin is another matter altogether. I think, you know, the question here is that we have to be realistic. The Russian propaganda has two narratives to explain the economic crisis. First is it's part of Western economic warfare. It's something the West is doing to us. Therefore, we have to blame them. And the other part of that is that they're saying, well, this is part of a global economic crisis.

FADEL: Right.

RADCHENKO: So yes, we have high inflation. But this is also that they're - something they're experiencing in the West, as well, in the United States, et cetera. And the argument here is that, yes, we're struggling now, but perhaps we can outstruggle the West.

FADEL: So how does this all impact regular Russians? You mentioned that the ruble collapsed for a time, but it's bounced back. So what does it mean for regular Russians right now? Are they at cafes? Are they able to get things?

RADCHENKO: Well, again, we have to have a, you know, comparative perspective on this.

FADEL: Right.

RADCHENKO: Obviously, the situation is dire, perhaps will turn worse. We have - you know, a thousand Western companies have exited the country, leading to unemployment and growing unemployment. Technologies are being denied to Russia. This will have impact down the road. But we're not seeing the 1990s in Russia yet. We're not seeing sort of massive impoverishment. We're not seeing, you know, collapse in savings and so on and so forth. And what's also interesting - and this is where this whole discussion of how the Russians will react and whether, you know, the Russians will rise up and overthrow Putin's regime becomes interesting - is if you compare it to the 1980s, there was a sense of crisis, ideological crisis in Russia. You know, communism was basically - had, you know, delegitimized itself in the Soviet Union. And so there was a sense that something had to change. I think there's some of that today. But it's also important to know that Putin's legitimation narrative is Russian nationalism. It's very toxic Russian nationalism. It's potent. And I think it's still alive and kicking in Russia.

FADEL: OK. Let's talk about the war in Ukraine now. This week, the Russian Parliament approved raising the age limit for military personnel to 65. What does this tell us about the war?

RADCHENKO: So general mobilization, which is what, you know, Russia would really need to make this into a very, very big war in their part, is something that would be extremely unpopular with the Russians. So therefore, they've been trying to do secret mobilization or essentially go in with contracts instead of conscripting people. And this is what they're still trying to do. Putin is trying to avoid a situation where he has to declare general mobilization.

FADEL: Sergey Radchenko, a professor of Russian history at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much.

RADCHENKO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.