Western Praise for Nabiullina Deserved but Misses the Point
June 14, 2024
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer, runs channels on YouTube and Telegram (here and here)

Journalist Oleg Kashin responds to two recent articles in major Western publications giving credit to Russian Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina for the resilience of Vladimir Putin’s regime amid the war and Western sanctions. Kashin argues that it is not Nabiullina, but ill-conceived Western policy that should get the credit.
The original text in Russian was published on the Telegram channel Kashin Plus and is being republished here with the author’s permission.

There is no doubt that Elvira Nabiullina is the best weapon Putin has in his arsenal, and that over her years of leading Russia’s Central Bank, she has proven herself not only an outstanding manager and administrator, but also a skillful politician who feels supremely confident within Russia’s Byzantine system.

The conventional wisdom about Nabiullina

In the third year of the war, this domestic conventional wisdom has gone international – almost simultaneously Bloomberg and The Economist put out laudatory articles with the same story – she knows how to say “no” to Putin, she has engineered “macroeconomic dexterity” and she has managed to minimize the economic losses from the war. Some experts even suggest that in post-Putin Russia, Nabiullina, with her managerial talents and international reputation, will remain an important figure with whom the West can negotiate.

When, under pressure from Western allies, Volodymyr Zelensky or the next Ukrainian leader signs a peace agreement with Russia on its terms, everyone will say: Nabiullina saved Putin, the war was decided not on the battlefield but in the offices of the central bank, and the key interest rate is sometimes more important than weapons supplies or mobilization.

Years from now, Nabiullina herself will probably title her memoirs something like “How I Won the War” – there really is something to be proud of and something to brag about. She will talk about the key rate, the ruble exchange rate and macroeconomics. It will not be a collection of memories, but a full-fledged textbook, a guide to action.
When a new war happens somewhere, the leader of one of the warring countries will use her memoirs as a methodological manual. They will do everything as Nabiullina did and then be surprised when they are defeat. Shedding tears over the act of surrender, they will think – what did we do wrong? Why did she succeed, but we did not? And I even wonder whether future readers will guess that it was not she who succeeded, not she who won the war, not she who ensured that Putin’s system was maintained and survived.

Why the conventional wisdom is wrong

It was not Nabiullina who came up with a sanctions regime that did no serious damage to the Russian economy and allowed “Kaja Kallas’s husband” (in quotes because, in fact, he is not the only one) to keep doing business in Russia without pain or fear; it was not Nabiullina who provided mystical immunity to the Druzhba oil pipeline; it was not she who created the parallel import belt around Russia.

It was not Nabiullina who put in place a regime of zero tolerance in Western countries toward Russians fleeing Putin: she did not deny them visas and asylum, she did not block their bank cards and did not prohibit them from getting new ones, she did not kick them back to Russia, turning emergent oppositionists into citizens who are loyal to and even ready to fight for Putin.
For rallying Russian society to the regime’s side, for stopping the flight of capital – both financial and human – Elvira Nabiullina deserves no credit.
Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
Source: Wiki Commons
It was not Nabiullina who initially came to terms with “Kyiv will fall in three days,” evacuated Western embassies and prepared to “express concern,” and then, surprised to discover that the Ukrainians were resisting, gave them verbal assurances, in reality dosing out assistance just so that the front did not collapse, no more no less.

It was not Nabiullina who deceived the Ukrainians with offers of a lend-lease deal; she was not the one who forbade them to strike Russian territory; she was not the one who blackmailed Zelensky by linking Western aid to domestic political decisions.

Everyone acknowledges that Elvira Nabiullina is brilliant and that without her Putin would have had a harder time – not only now, during this war, but also earlier, like during the pandemic and other crises. But when we are told that it was thanks to her that Putin has survived and can fight as long as he wants, this looks reprehensible.

Nabiullina is now a sort of “General Winter,” on whom past generations of Western memoirists blamed their military failures. Why do you continue to trade with Putin? Nabiullina. Why are you so sluggish in helping Ukraine? Nabiullina. Why did you not support Russians who ran away from Putin? Nabiullina.

For almost two and a half years, Vladimir Putin has been at war with Ukraine. In these two and a half years, there was probably a handful of moments when the Russian economy, the front and Putin’s power itself were all hanging by a thread – but such moments certainly presented themselves. And Nabiullina had nothing to do with the fact that the West did not take advantage of any of them – not the confusion in the first weeks of the war, not Russia’s dependence on imports, not the Prigozhin rebellion, not anything at all.

This can be seen as incompetence or a conscious choice. After all, it is true that the collapse of the Russian state could lead to the most unpredictable and undesirable consequences for the whole world, so there will always be arguments in favor of not letting Putin lose.

But who will bring up these arguments and in what debate and with whom? There is no such debate. Instead, we are now offered the myth of the superwoman Nabiullina, thanks to whom everything has turned out the way it has. Why is Putin unbeatable? Nabiullina. All the inconvenient questions will dissolve in this myth. New generations of students will take it for granted that in any war the most important thing is the central bank. They will make decisions based on this assumption and lose, but there will be no one to ask – the real enablers of Putin’s success will go down in history as people who did everything right but simply underestimated Nabiullina.

And what does it feel like for her to be a truly outstanding central banker, understand everything, but at the same time see (she has to see?) that besides her real achievements she is being credited with someone else’s stupidity or treachery. This is undeserved and depreciating, but she cannot do anything about it, and someday she herself will believe the hype and write her “How I Won the War” memoirs.
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