This article, originally posted in March 2015, has been updated in spring 2017. Scroll to the end for the update.
This is the third and final part of my profile on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and how he fits into Russian history in general The first part, dealing with Putin’s childhood and early career, is here. Part II, documenting his rise to power in the 1990s, is here.
Putin is not a visionary or transformative leader. He has no specific ideology and no broad program to remake Russian society on a specific model. His goals as national leader have been relatively modest: rebuild the economy, recover from the post-Communist chaos, and strengthen Russia on the world stage. In this Putin differs from Communist leaders, even Stalin, who despite their autocratic tendencies had at least some tenuous allegiance to a social or economic vision to remake Russia into something else. Seen in this light Putin’s mission is much more in line with the old tsars of the pre-Revolutionary era: hold power for power’s sake and keep Russia as strong as possible, however that may be accomplished. Putin is a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
After attaining power in 1999 and winning his own Presidential term in 2000, Putin sought to calm relations with large economic interests, hoping to bring them into support of his government; in this he was similar to tsars who often found themselves cowtowing to nobles (boyars) for fear they might challenge his role. Putin also sought to reassert Russian dominance in its traditional geographic spheres of influence, such as the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, which inevitably led to conflict with the West. The long-simmering war with Chechen separatists started to ramp down in 2002-03, and gradually Putin stabilized the Chechnya situation, though horrific acts of terrorism continued to occur.
Since he came to power at the end of 1999, Putin has exercised a degree of control over Russia arguably greater and more unfettered than anyone since the days of the tsars–Stalin included. Stalin had a world revolution to ferment; Putin doesn’t care about such nonsense.
Above all, however, Putin sought to remain in power. His coming to terms with Russian oligarchs–there’s talk of him having struck a quiet “grand bargain” with some of the richest businessmen in the country–was all about that. His increasing control of the Russian media, with the Kremlin buying shares in major media companies, was also about that. This in fact was one of his keys to winning the Russian presidential election in 2004. With Putin on every channel and news about him saturating the media, opposition candidates–who were poorly-funded and not well organized to begin with–couldn’t get much of a foothold in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, Putin left nothing to chance. European and international election monitors cited numerous irregularities in the 2004 Russian election, including widespread stuffing of ballot boxes. Putin was now in virtually complete control of the election machinery in Russia and could count on the result of a contest that was obviously rigged from the beginning. He received 71% of the vote. But even without the rigging Putin probably would’ve won handily. He’s been wildly popular with the Russian people since the beginning, and they probably would have voted for him anyway.
Putin’s second term continued the tightening of his grip on all aspects of the Russian state. This period was marked by a rollback in civil liberties and personal freedoms, and crackdowns especially on journalists who printed stories critical of him. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on the Chechnya war, was brutally assassinated in a Moscow elevator in October 2006, on Putin’s birthday no less; she’d already been non-fatally poisoned two years before in a manner consistent with KGB assassinations. But she’s only the tip of the iceberg. Numerous other reporters have also been murdered in Russia during the Putin years. Amnesty International continually reports torture and other habitual abuses in Russian prisons. Russia undoubtedly became considerably less free during the course of the 2000s.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who challenged Putin in the press, was assassinated in 2006. The murder is “unsolved” officially, but it’s not hard to figure out who was behind it.
One of the most interesting and telling aspects of Putin’s rule is the gradual abandonment of constitutional protections. In 2008, at least theoretically Putin was up for election again, and again theoretically the Russian constitution prohibited him from running for another term. His solution was simply to switch jobs with his chief deputy, Dmitry Medvedev, a fiction that fooled almost no one. Medvedev is a colorless yes-man and it’s difficult to imagine Putin voluntarily giving up the reins of power. His premiership coincided with an increasing focus on foreign affairs. In addition to significant increases in military expenditures and more regular military exercises, Russia in 2008 quickly scuttled the breakaway tendencies of Georgia’s province South Ossetia and Russian rhetoric became increasingly anti-Western. Putin’s return to the presidency in the 2012 election, and his brazen grab of Crimea in 2014, both continue trajectories clearly visible in 2008. Much of the face Putin shows to the West is now based on sham and window-dressing: the ridiculous farce of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the “tough guy” posturing with viral photos of him shooting guns with his shirt off, and disingenuous pretenses at working with international partners are all largely artifices, the smallest possible fig leaf for what’s really going on, which is an autocratic regime largely unencumbered by rules, procedures or balancing influences. Putin does things his way and he really doesn’t care if you don’t like it.
And that’s the continuity with Russian history: that’s exactly how Russian tsars typically ruled. Although Putin’s dictatorial style seems strange, tone-deaf and unnecessarily belligerent in the modern interconnected and globalized world, it’s really not that different from the way tsars operated in the 17th and 18th centuries. But Putin may actually have even less constraint on him than tsars did. Despite their awesome power tsars couldn’t run too far afoul of the boyars or the Orthodox Church, and with a monarchical structure they had clear lines of succession and continuity of government, however imperfect or repressive it was. Putin has no line of succession and no institutions to check his power at all. He’s already put off the next Presidential election until 2018; one presumes that if that election happens at all it will be an afterthought with a preordained result. The people of Russia are, like they were in tsarist times, children to be firmly governed by an authoritarian father.
Putin’s “tough guy” image, ironically, has resonated among many American conservatives, eager to contrast him with Barack Obama. There’s no real comparison; Putin offers few lessons applicable to American politics.
Is Putin a threat to world peace? I guess it depends on how you define “peace.” I don’t think he has much interest in asserting control over any part of the world that is not (or was not at one time) Russia, but he’d certainly prefer his country to be surrounded by pliant buffer states who he can control or at least bully economically. Unlike the Communists, Putin has no ideological “mission” to convert the world or bring revolution to the masses. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia by other countries are ridiculous in the extreme, because they’ll never change Putin’s behavior or deter him from doing anything he wants to do. No country, including the United States, has anything significant to gain from open military conflict with Russia over any conceivable issue. Putin’s foreign policy behavior appears very bellicose and belligerent simply because he has nothing to fear from the rest of the world. No one can really challenge his supremacy, and Russia is too big to ignore economically or geopolitically, so the world is basically stuck with him.
I believe that, barring some sort of political ouster (which is unlikely) or an unforeseen illness or assassination, Vladimir Putin is likely to remain the leader of Russia for the rest of his natural life. He’ll fight a brush fire war here, assassinate a journalist there, repress his people regularly, fix elections and probably do something unpredictable or outrageous every few years just to keep us all guessing, but Russia of the future is very likely, in my opinion, to resemble Russia of the past 15 years. Putin has everything he wants, which is unfettered control over the world’s largest country. He really doesn’t seem interested in much else. In a way that’s probably the only tempering influence he possesses. Essentially, it’s Vladimir Putin’s world. The rest of us just happen to live here.
Update: April 2017
Much has happened regarding Vladimir Putin since this series originally ran–namely, Putin’s intelligence activities in trying to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and his political and economic ties to President Donald Trump. Has my opinion of Putin changed in light of these new developments?
Not really. Putin’s attempt–successful, it seems–to influence the election is entirely consistent with his modus operandi. It’s to his advantage to keep potential adversaries divided, confused and in chaos so they can’t unite against him; the breakup of the European Union, thanks to the disastrous Brexit decision, has already eliminated one counterbalance to Russia’s power, and having the President of the United States (who openly admires Putin’s authoritarian ways) owe him a favor is just another insurance policy. Unfortunately Putin’s geopolitics comes at the likely cost of breaking the American democratic system, but that’s just fine with him. What constitutes an appropriate response to Putin’s provocation is something I don’t feel qualified to opine on.