As the United States goes to the polls after an unprecedentedly vulgar election campaign, its former cold-war rival is exuding strength and confidence. Just last week, Russia cited its proud history of exploration and science in Antarctica when giving the green light to an international agreement to create a vast marine reserve in the Ross Sea. Even so, Vladimir Putin’s chauvinistic approach to politics has a certain appeal to some — at home and abroad.

The Russian leader’s perplexing popularity in some circles detracts from his enduring failure to modernize his country’s government, society and economy. Russia’s flagging science system is in dire need of a cure, too. But the recent appointment of Olga Vasilyeva as Putin’s science and education minister casts strong doubts on whether the right healers are at work. Vasilyeva, an ultra-conservative historian, is mainly known for her affinity with the Russian Orthodox Church and her ambivalence towards Stalin.

Russian science is still struggling to recover from decades of neglect and post-Soviet degradation. Its research community is ­isolated. ­Foreign students and scientists are a rare commodity at Russian ­universities and research institutes. A generously funded government scheme to attract top foreign researchers to Russian labs is hampered by red tape: Westerners attempting collaborative science in Russia often complain that the security services and customs authorities interfere with civil research — harassments that many Russian scientists have been quietly enduring for many years.

According to official reading, science is held in high esteem. Putin and the clique of allies he has placed in key positions in industry and administration like to think of Russia as a technological powerhouse. But government programmes such as RUSNANO, a multibillion-­rouble nanotechnology initiative launched in 2007, have by all accounts delivered little in terms of innovation. The Skolkovo Innovation ­Centre outside Moscow, hailed as a Russian Silicon Valley, grapples with ­allegations of embezzlement against members of its management body. Private initiatives and philanthropic ventures, meanwhile, are feeling the effects of jealous state control: the Moscow-based Dynasty Foundation, a rare private science-funding body, ceased operations last year after it was labelled an undesired ‘foreign agent’.

Even so, some growth in public science spending in recent years, together with plans to strengthen universities and streamline the oversized Russian Academy of Sciences (which runs hundreds of research institutes), raised hopes that things might start to improve. Dmitry Livanov, a dynamic physicist who ran the science ministry from 2012, had seemed the right person to push through a series of reforms to get Russian science back on course. It came as a shock, therefore, when Putin fired him in August.

The reasons for Livanov’s abrupt departure remain unclear, although they are likely to be political rather than related to the performance of the ministry he headed. His dismissal might be considered a win for the Russian Academy of Sciences and for numerous low-profile universities, which he intended to close. But wins in these cases would not be a win for Russian science at large.

Putin must understand that isolationism leads to a dead end in both science and politics.

The arrival of his successor has created fresh uncertainty. In one of her first moves, on 28 September, Vasilyeva announced her intention to suspend planned university mergers and expressed doubts about the future of a government programme to create five world-class universities by 2020. Then last month she said that Russian scholars and scientists should be assessed primarily on the basis of their publications in Russian-language academic journals. Scientists were puzzled: would the proposed system apply only to the humanities or to all fields of research, in which case it would render much of Russian science a footnote in global terms? Her ministry has failed to respond to requests for clarification from Nature.

Livanov’s removal and Vasilyeva’s awkward manoeuvres during her first months in office indicate that science and science-related affairs are becoming increasingly subject to Putin’s autocratic scheming. ­Moscow’s suspension last week of an agreement with the United States on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium fits with that view.

But no matter how tense the geopolitical climate, Putin must understand that isolationism leads to a dead end in both science and politics. Livanov’s reforms should continue, and Vasilyeva must urgently provide Russia’s anxious research community with a clear outlook. Putin and his ministers must also strive for more constructive international collaboration, in science and in other spheres. Russia cannot go it alone, either in science or in Syria. One can only hope that its consent to join efforts to protect the high seas might herald a new era.