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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a towering figure when it comes to selling oil, acting the strong man, and breaking into other nations' electoral systems and social media.

The big picture: Putin has been relatively passive amid the roiling transformations with which Russia's rivals are wrestling — a future driven by robots, artificial intelligence, a mobility revolution, space travel, and other relentless tech forces.

Why it matters: With comparatively few resources, Putin has resurrected Russia as a formidable global actor, disrupting Western politics, security and order with what appears to be a low-budget, opportunistic mission of chaos.

  • Putin's commanding, almost-blasé performance standing next to President Trump in Helsinki on Monday telegraphed his confidence within the controlled world he has built around himself.
  • But the robustness of that world and Putin's ability to profit by playing international spoiler seem likely to lessen should the future unfold as many technologists project.
  • "He opposes any reforms that rock his kleptocratic system," Anders Aslund, a Russia economic expert at the Atlantic Council, tells Axios.

What's going on: Against brutal headwinds created by western sanctions and a plunge in oil prices over the last few years, Putin axed debt, tightened the budget, raised interest rates, and let the ruble float.

The result has been what one economist calls "Fortress Russia," a macroeconomic moat that has shielded and stabilized his country. Stirring up nationalistic fervor has been crucial, too. With oil prices on the ascent, the Russian economy is no longer shrinking, and joblessness, at 4.7%, is at its lowest level since just after the Soviet collapse.

By the numbers: Putin has seemed to put a floor under some of the world's worst demographic trends:

  • According to the latest UN figures, Russia’s population will fall to 132 million by 2050. While that will be down almost 10% from the 2017 population of 146 million, it's improved from the prior estimate, in 2009, when the UN said the 2050 population would be just 116 million.
  • Government plans include spending $8.6 billion over three years on mortgage subsidies and other payments to encourage Russians to have more babies.

Between the lines: Putin's policies have also stultified the economy. Russian GDP will grow at 1.5% a year in the medium term, according to the IMF, and the standard of living in the country shrank by 17% from 2014-2017.

  • And, while the Russian military is competing well technologically, the advances have not made their way into business or companies, said Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University and author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia.
  • Russia is not only behind but actually out of the race for a widely forecast technological boom in the coming years and decades, economists say.
  • Most significantly, China has put the entire government behind a strategy to capture dominance of 10 key technological sectors in the next decade. Silicon Valley is also feverishly investing in future tech.

The bottom line: "Russia will be a consumer of these technologies, not a producer," Miller tells Axios.

Go deeper

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.
Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."

Convicts turn to D.C. fixers for Trump pardons

Trump confidante Matt Schlapp interviews Jared Kushner last February. Schlapp is seeking a pardon for a biotech executive. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A flood of convicted criminals has retained lobbyists since November’s presidential election to press President Trump for pardons or commutations before he leaves office.

What we're hearing: Among them is Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii woman who pleaded guilty last year to abetting an illicit foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low. Trump confidante Matt Schlapp also is seeking a pardon for a former biopharmaceutical executive convicted of fraud less than two months ago.