For all the fear of Russia these days – in election meddling or the rollout of new weapons – its leader, President Vladimir Putin, did not seem so fearsome during his first talks with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In fact, the power dynamic between them on Tuesday was surprisingly in Ukraine’s favor. Mr. Putin made concessions that would ease the hot conflict in eastern Ukraine. He also pledged to hold talks again in four months.
One reason may be that Mr. Putin is realizing power is more than missiles, cyberwarfare, or targeted assassinations. It also lies in making Russia an attractive place for its young people to work and start families. On that source of power, he is failing as a leader. And perhaps he knows it.
Nearly half of all young Russians under 24 would like to move abroad – a sharp increase from five years ago, according to the latest polls. In addition, real incomes in Russia have declined for six years as pro-democracy protests have increased. The population is also dropping.
In Ukraine, by contrast, wages are rising and, with a revived democracy under Mr. Zelenskiy, migration abroad could be in decline. The country’s reform process was just given a stamp of approval by the International Monetary Fund with a $5.5 billion loan. Despite ongoing battles with oligarchs and a culture of corruption, young people feel some hope. “We fought Russia with nothing [in 2014]; we built an army from scratch,” says Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov. “The only little thing left is to start believing in ourselves.”
These contrasting trends explain why Ukraine is on track to be a full member of the European Union (and perhaps NATO) while Mr. Putin tries any lever of power to stop its neighbor from drifting toward the West and embracing democratic values. The more he overreaches abroad, the more he loses youth at home.
This point is made in a new book, “The Return of the Russian Leviathan,” by Sergei Medvedev, a professor of social science at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. The war in Ukraine and the taking of Crimea in 2014, he writes, are good examples of Russia acting upon its fears and myths of being encircled by enemies. The fears have become self-fulling prophesies.
“Today Russia does not need geopolitical myths that lead us to war and mobilization, but a program of national demobilization and a lowering of the temperature of hatred and confrontation with the West,” he writes. “The Cold War is over; it’s time to build our house and bring up our children, not send them to the slaughterhouse.”
Ukraine is hardly out of Russia’s influence yet. But as its people embrace democratic ideals and equal opportunity to flourish – the ideals of the EU – the more it can win the struggle in its Russian-speaking eastern regions. The power of attraction is greater than the force of arms.