Vladimir Putin | Unpredictable populist  

The Russian President has tightened control domestically, but faces a tough test in Ukraine due to the West’s stiff curbs

March 12, 2022 11:17 pm | Updated March 14, 2022 10:35 am IST

Unpredictability was one of the cornerstones of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. Not many foresaw the Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008, a few months after Georgia was offered membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian Peninsula that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in 2014, immediately after the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by protests, surprised many. A year later, as the whole world was debating whether the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the brink of a collapse, Mr. Putin sent Russian jets and special forces to the West Asian country that hosts a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. All these operations are largely seen as a successful display of the new Russian power. Russia wrapped up its military operation in Georgia in 12 days. It annexed Crimea without any major military operation. And in Syria, the Russian intervention turned around the civil war.

Meticulous planning

Cut to the present. Russia had started mobilising tens of thousands of troops along its western border with Ukraine late last year. Western intelligence agencies repeatedly warned that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine. The unpredictability factor was totally missing. The Kremlin dismissed those warnings. But in the early morning of February 24, Mr. Putin ordered “a special military operation” to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine. Immediately thereafter, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began from three sides — from the Belarus border in the north, from the Russian border and Moscow-backed self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the east and Crimea in the south.

As the attack entered the third week, Russian troops have captured territories on the three sides, but Ukrainian cities continue to stay defiant. The attack has also triggered a united response from the West, which has imposed tough sanctions on Russia. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the U.S. has banned imports of Russian oil and gas, besides other sanctions. Germany has also announced a sharp rise in its defence budget, signalling a decisive shift in Europe’s security calculus. As the war drags on and the West keeps tightening sanctions on Russia, it emerges that the Ukraine war is totally different from Russia’s previous military actions.

From spy to President

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 bad shape. Its economy was in a 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. Mr. 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 had been 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 engagement. 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.

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, 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. This speech remains one of the best documents to understand the driving forces of Russia’s policy thinking. 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, Mr. Putin sent troops to Georgia in the name of defending the two breakaway republics — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which practically ended Georgia’s NATO dream. In 2014, besides annexing Crimea, 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 has now snowballed into a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine.

Tight grip

Domestically, Mr. Putin has tightened his control on the Russian state over the years. He is one of the longest serving government leaders in Europe. He stepped down as President in 2008 as he was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term but became the Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev. Four years later, Mr. Putin returned as President. He got the Constitution amended so that he can, in theory, continue to stay in power. Alexie Navalny, his most vocal opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in August 2020, is now in prison. Boris Nemtsov, another opposition politician, was shot dead in Moscow in February 2015. The mainstream opposition parties, including the Communist Party, do not pose any meaningful challenge to Mr. Putin’s hold on power.

But despite the crackdown and militarism, Mr. Putin remains a highly popular leader in Russia. In February, before the war started, Mr. Putin had a 71% approval rating among the Russian public, the highest since May 2018. According to Levada Analytical Centre, a Russian non-governmental research organisation, Mr. Putin’s popularity has never dipped below 59%. He has mastered a complex model, with regular elections, that allowed him to retain total dominance on Russian politics, 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 in Ukraine. Its too early to say which direction the military conflict would go. But one thing is certain. The West is determined to make sure that the economic costs of the attack are unprecedented and long term for Russia. The way Mr. Putin manages his war and its consequences would determine not just his political future but also the future of the post-Cold War European security architecture.

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