Vladimir Putin | Reign of the patriarch

If in the late 1990s, Vladimir Putin was seen as the man who could fix Russia’s problems, now he is the face of the state that’s at war in Ukraine “with the collective West” and has built a water-tight authoritarian system at home that allows no dissent.

Updated - March 18, 2024 01:10 pm IST

Published - March 18, 2024 01:09 pm IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Photo Credit: AP

There was no surprise. When Russia’s election authorities announced results of the presidential election, Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for nearly a quarter century, was elected for another term. He won 87% of votes, extending his reign for six more years, while his closest rival, Nikolay Kharitonov of the Communist Party of Russian Federation, won 4.31% vote. There was no meaningful challenge to Mr. Putin in the election. Candidates who were critical of his policies, including the Ukraine war, were barred from contesting. State-controlled media hardly allowed any voices of dissent. And Mr. Putin’s approval rating has stayed high, according to Levada Centre, an independent Russian NGO, and he faces no visible or credible challenge to his authority among Russia’s elites.

If he completes his term, Mr. Putin, now 71, would surpass Joseph Stalin as the longest serving leader of modern Russia and the longest serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great, the 18th century Empress, who captured Crimea from the Ottomans and annexed it in 1783.

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In many ways, Mr. Putin’s rise to power is intertwined with Russia’s own comeback from the forced retreat of the 1990s, which many Russians call the “decade of humiliation”. He has witnessed the peak years of the Cold War, the collapse of the state, which he called a “catastrophe” and the years of chaos. If in the late 1990s, he was seen as the man who could fix Russia’s problems, now he is the face of the state that’s at war in Ukraine “with the collective West” and has built a water-tight authoritarian system at home that allows no dissent.

Rise to power

Born in 1952 in Stalin’s Russia, Mr. Putin graduated in 1975 from Leningrad State University (now Saint Petersburg State University). He served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security), of which six years were in Dresden, East Germany. In 1990, a year before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In the new Russia, he started his political career in St. Petersburg, the former capital of the Tsars. In 1994, he became the first Deputy Mayor of the city. Two years later, Mr. Putin moved to Moscow where he joined the Kremlin as an administrator. He captured the world’s attention in 1998 when President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the KGB. He never had to turn back.

Russia was in a bad shape. Its economy was in shambles. It was not in a position to challenge NATO, which had revived talks of expanding to Eastern Europe. In Chechnya, a separatist war was raging. Yeltsin, the vodka-drinking, aloof leader who was struggling to deal with the many challenges his big but weak country was facing, started looking at Mr. Putin, the young spymaster, as his successor. In 1999, he appointed Mr. Putin as Prime Minister. When Mr. Yeltsin stepped down, Mr. Putin became acting President. And in 2000, he began his first term after the presidential elections.

Great power rivalry

During the early years of Mr. Putin’s presidency, Russia’s ties with the West were relatively cordial. Russia was taken into the G7 industrialised economies in 1997. Mr. Putin supported the U.S.’s war on terror after the September 11 terrorist attack. In 2001, President George W. Bush said Mr. Putin was “very straightforward and trustworthy”. “We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Mr. Bush said. But the larger factors of great power rivalry would soon take over the post-Soviet tendencies of bonhomie. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Russia took a strong position against it. This was also a period when Russia, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, was rebuilding its economy and military might. A year after the Iraq invasion, NATO expanded further to the east, this time taking the three Baltic countries — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all sharing borders with Russia — and four others in Eastern Europe into its fold.

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Mr. Putin’s later remarks would show how he looked at the U.S.-led global order. In a February 2007 speech given at the Munich Security Conference (a speech which is still seen by many as Mr. Putin’s foreign policy blueprint), the Russian leader slammed what he called the U.S.’s “monopolistic dominance” over the global order. “One single centre of power. One single centre of force. One single centre of decision making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign.... Primarily the United States has overstepped its national borders, and in every area,” he said.

Having silently accepted NATO’s expansion in the past, a more confident and militaristic Russia appeared to have drawn a red line on Georgia and Ukraine, both Black Sea basin countries that share borders with Russia. In 2008, the year Georgia and Ukraine were offered membership by NATO at its Bucharest summit, Mr. Putin sent troops to Georgia in the name of defending the two breakaway republics — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which practically ended Tbilisi’s NATO dream. In 2014, immediately after the elected Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by West-backed protests, Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Mr. Putin also offered military and financial aid to separatists in the Russian-speaking territories of Eastern Ukraine, which rose against the post-Yanukovych regime in Kyiv.

The conflict that began in 2014 snowballed into a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24, 2022, when Mr. Putin ordered his “special military operation”. The war placed Russia on course with prolonged conflict with the West. But Mr. Putin looked at it differently. “He has three advisers,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an oligarch after the war began, according to an FT report. “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

Tight grip

Domestically, Mr. Putin has tightened his control on the Russian state over the years. He stepped down as President in 2008 as he was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term but became Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev. Four years later, Mr. Putin returned as President. This time, he got the Constitution amended that allowed him to stand in Presidential elections again. Alexei Navalny, his most vocal opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in August 2020, died in a prison in February. Boris Nemtsov, another opposition politician, was shot dead in Moscow in February 2015. The Kremlin-tolerated opposition parties, including the Communist Party, do not pose any organisational or ideological challenge to Mr. Putin’s hold on power.

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In the state he rebuilt, Orthodox Christianity holds a prominent place. He is fighting not just a military conflict with the West, but also a culture war between “civilisations”. He is the new patriarch of “mother Russia”, not just the President of a modern republic. This mix of populism, civilisational nationalism, cultural roots and militarism kept him popular in Russia. According to Levada Centre, Mr. Putin’s approval rating stayed at 86% in February 2024, while 12% disapproved of his performance. Levada’s polls show that Mr. Putin’s popularity has never dipped below 59% since he became President. He has mastered a complex model, with regular elections, that allowed him to retain total dominance on Russian politics, while keeping dissent and political opposition under check, something which British historian Perry Anderson calls ‘a managed democracy’. At the same time, he constantly pushed to expand Russian influence abroad, challenging the West.

This model of dominance at home and counterbalance abroad faces a tough test when Mr. Putin is assuming another term. The Ukraine war is grinding on in its third year with no end in sight. Russia, which suffered some setbacks in the early stage of the war, seems to have captured battlefield momentum, for now. But the country is also paying a big price. It lost tens of thousands of soldiers. It is struggling to offset the impact of the sanctions the West has imposed. Its ties with Europe, which Mr. Putin rebuilt painstakingly in his early years of power, lies in tatters, forcing the country to pivot to Asia. NATO further expanded towards Russia’s border after the war began, with Sweden and Finland being the latest members.

At home, there are signs that his regime is ageing, which were evident in the rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of private military company Wagner, or silent protests in Russia, including on the election day. But Mr. Putin seems confident and unfazed. In his victory speech on Sunday, Mr. Putin declared that he will stay the course. “We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated — no matter who wants to intimidate us, suppress us — nobody has ever succeeded in history, they have not succeeded now, and they will not succeed ever in the future,” said the Russian leader to cheering supporters, who chanted “Putin, Putin... Russia, Russia”.

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