By Ben Simmons

Russia's stability is at increased risk and the overriding objective of Vladimir Putin is to preserve the narrow and personalized ruling system built over the past twelve years, says a new Chatham House Report.

Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West argues that the instruments of government, not least the security forces, are corrupted and unreliable, but they have a clear interest in maintaining the system that sustains them.

The way in which the Duma elections in December 2011 were fixed and the implication that Putin and his team are determined to stay in power indefinitely angered many Russians, including the country's educated urban electorate. The gulf between the rulers and many of the ruled was further widened. Only some 35% of the electorate in fact voted for the United Russia party, and 39% now say that Russia is moving in the wrong direction.

Returning to the Kremlin will cost Putin his claim to be a national leader above politics and further weaken his legitimacy.

Russians are beginning to flex their muscles as citizens rather than to behave merely as subjects. But failure by the opposition to move on from protest to lasting organization is matched by the failure of the current authorities to reform the system from the top. The risk is that if the resulting stand-off continues, the consequences will prove damaging or even dangerous to the Russian state.

This report, which analyses Russia's present economic as well as its political condition, says the Russian economy needs systemic reform and its future prospects are disappointing. Poor economic prospects only compound Russia's problems and international lending to Russian banks and companies is not likely to rise. The declining working-age population may be the most important reason for gloom: Russia will probably lose 11 million of its workforce by 2030 and it attracts very few highly skilled workers from abroad to compensate.

In the realm of foreign policy, Russia's ability to punch above its weight is diminishing. This is true to its West, South and East. America and Europe are disappointed that Russia has not become a more responsible international player in the years since Communism.

The reset has been exposed as hollow and relations with Europe are generally poor, with Germany a notable exception. A lack of mutual respect and trust also characterizes relations with its eastern neighbours. China, in particular, values Africa and even Latin America more.

By deconstructing the daunting social, economic and foreign policy challenges facing Russia, this report shows that the implications for the country and the West are stark: Russia's very fabric, as well as its place in the world, is at risk. The challenges are the same for whoever wins the March 2012 presidential election, of course.

No one vision of the future is infallible. But the authors of this report firmly believe that the possibility, even probability, of things going badly wrong for Russia during the next six years is real. If the governing elite cannot adjust to changing realities, the consequences are likely to play out in uncontrolled and unplanned events across the country. This may well have repercussions for Europe and the wider international community.

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