Power Player: The Reign of Vladimir Putin

by Vladimir Schlapentokh

From the beginning of his rule, Vladimir V. Putin has assumed that his ability to govern Russia was highly dependent on the strength of the ideological justification of his power. Indeed, he was never elected according to even elementary democratic standards. For this reason, the state’s ideology was of primary importance in the decision-making process for President Putin’s regime—even higher than for the Soviet leaders of the past. Thus, many domestic and foreign policy decisions have been decided upon in order to cultivate Mr. Putin as a national leader and savior of the nation. His obsession with his personal power makes him indifferent to the long-term national interests of his own country, like the diversity of the Russian economy, the state of science, the flight of talented people from the country and, certainly, the development of democratic traditions that the Russians so badly need.

President Putin’s hostile attitude toward the West is determined by his belief that Western leaders and the media do not see him as a democratically legitimate leader of Russia and, as a result, systematically plot to remove him from power. For the same reason, his attitude toward the former Soviet republics has depended on the character of their regime. If they were authoritarian, the relations between Russia and the post-Soviet republics were more or less good, but if these republics happened to make movements toward democracy, which could set an example for the Russian people, then they became fierce enemies. This inferiority complex explains why Mr. Putin is so afraid that the revolution in Kiev will usher Ukraine into an era of national prosperity. He needs chaos in Ukraine in order to convince his own people that democracy and an alliance with the West can only lead to disaster.

In the first half of his rule, the main ideological argument in President Putin’s favor was the stability of society, together with some increase in the standard of living; in comparison with the 1990s, this was seen as one of the regime’s great achievements. By the beginning of his third term, however, it became evident to the country, and to Mr. Putin himself, that “stability” had worn itself out as the basis of an ideological construction. The prospect of economic stagnation, as predicted by his own advisers, makes the future appear quite gloomy for Mr. Putin. The protest demonstrations in 2011-12, which scared him immensely, made it necessary for the Kremlin to “reset” the regime’s ideology. In the geopolitical realm, a public goal of partially restoring the Soviet empire as a way of restoring the unity of the Russian people, combined with anti-Americanism, was chosen as the new major ideological instrument for the legitimization of the regime.

In Mr. Putin’s address to the state Duma in the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea, he proclaimed that the West has always, or at least since the 18th century, conducted a policy of “containment” because “we have an independent position and are not hypocritical.” In addition, he hardened the official attitudes toward the West, accusing it of moral decadence and disrespect for Russian civilization and its Orthodox religion. Hatred of the United States in particular was a leading ingredient in the president’s third-term ideology, not only because it was easy to foment the xenophobic sentiments of Russians but also because the United States was seen by him as a sponsor of democratic processes inside Russia, as well as in the former Soviet republics. Mr. Putin was also encouraged by his vision of the United States as a declining power and by the meekness of the American president.

At first glance, it looks as though providence has once again helped President Putin with the revolution in Kiev. The events in Ukraine in autumn 2013 frightened him because they offered Russians an example of how to fight a corrupt system. At the same time, the unrest offered opportunities for the Kremlin master to recharge the country’s ideology. Indeed, the events that destabilized Ukraine allowed him to play his geopolitical card, which, as seen by his war against Georgia in 2008, he had used rather cautiously in the past. This time, Mr. Putin has seemingly decided that entering into a risky game of confrontation with the West can give him the fuel he needs to maintain, and even increase, his personal cult; in his mind, this promises to secure his power for many years despite the deterioration of the economic situation in the country.

Indeed, President Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March looked like a grandiose geopolitical victory for the Russian ruler. It was definitely perceived this way by the majority of Russians, who celebrated the “return” of Crimea to the motherland. In March, 80 percent of Russians enthusiastically greeted “the restoration of historical justice,” since Crimea was indeed a part of Russia for two and a half centuries. Many liberals, including Mikhail Gorbachev, joined the jubilant Russians, praising the brave move by the government. It is true that 40,000 to 50,000 educated Muscovites came out on March 16 to protest the Kremlin’s foreign policy—there were practically no other serious protest actions in other cities—but they clearly did not spoil the country’s euphoria. The Kremlin immediately labeled the protesters a “fifth column” and a gathering of paid foreign agents. “National traitors” is a new entry in Mr. Putin’s lexicon. More than ever, the impact of the brave critique of the Kremlin by a few famous cultural figures, like the writer Boris Akunin, has been neutralized by the mobilization of numerous members of the intelligentsia, like the famous theater director Oleg Tabakov, who offered their full support and admiration for the president.

The fact that the mass support of the military invasion into Ukraine was bolstered by the official media does not undermine the political meaning of Russian public opinion. The impact of the blatant lies about Ukraine that were interspersed in President Putin’s public statements in February and March 2014, and the influence on the Russian public of such abominable figures of Russian TV as Dmitry Kisilev, would be impossible if the masses were not traditionally receptive to xenophobia and anti-Americanism. Most Russians, including the most educated, believe the wildest absurdities about the developments in Ukraine, like the supposed mass harassment of the Russians there, the alleged U.S. State Department’s direction of the revolution in Kiev and the claim that there were no Russian troops in Crimea during the referendum on March 16. From the beginning of the Soviet system until now, the Kremlin has never been concerned about the internal motivations of those who obeyed its orders, whether through fear or by a “genuine” belief in the official ideology. It is simply delighted with the support, whatever the motivation.

Ideological Strategy

Among the devotees of the authoritarian regime are the enthusiasts, who are more royalist than the king, and who will call for the further expansion of governmental policies on key issues. On March 17, the participants in a talk show on a leading television channel almost unanimously demanded that President Putin not stop with the annexation of Crimea but also seize eastern and southern Ukraine, justifying their aggressive ardor with both the need to protect Russians and their language, and the dubious security of the nuclear power stations and chemical industry under the current chaotic conditions in Ukraine. Half of Russians support this position. In the atmosphere of patriotic paranoia, several Russians are going even further. A Moscow newspaper reported that a member of the Volgograd legislature demanded on March 13 that President Obama return Alaska. Judging by the response on the Internet, the idea of Alaska being returned does not seem absurd to many Russians, who look at Mr. Putin as a leader able to undertake practically any imaginable geopolitical action. So far, of course, the slogan, “Alaska back,” or even a call for the return of the other former Soviet republics to the imperial fold, does not play a serious role in the Russian political climate. It does, however, reveal the real potential of the president’s ideological strategy.

The Kremlin hawks were restrained in their imperialist demagoguery up until now. They seem to have been given a green light for the most arrogant statements, even to the point of threatening the United States for its alleged involvement in pro-democratic movements in Ukraine and elsewhere. They remind the world that Russia can turn the United States into “radioactive dust” with Russian missiles if, as they have insinuated, the United States continues to hinder Russia’s path to glory and supremacy in the territory of the former Soviet empire. Even during the gloomiest years of the Cold War, including Stalin’s times, it would have been impossible for a Soviet propagandist to resort to such language. With this statement, the Kremlin has clearly decided to follow the example of the North Korean leaders, who regularly scare the world with threats of a nuclear attack to secure their personal power.

Traitors and Patriots

Operation Crimea also helped President Putin accelerate the eradication of opposition to his regime. The events in Ukraine put accusations of anti-patriotism into circulation, with a frequency similar to the way the term was used during Stalin’s fight against cosmopolitism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Previously standard denunciations, like extremism or denigration of authority, clearly retreated before this charge. Many journalists and academics have lost their jobs, mostly under the pretext of anti-patriotism. What is more important, the campaign for the elimination of the “fifth column” has raised the fear of persecution—so far mostly of losing jobs or normal business conditions—to a level not seen in the country since 1985. Professor Andrei Zubov was fired from the Institute of International Relations for his “anti-patriotic article” in the newspaper Vedomosti. This was only the beginning of a mass campaign against “national traitors.”

The success of the Russian campaign in Crimea, which was accepted with such elation by the majority of Russians, also misled many analysts in the West and in Russia into believing this was a great victory for Mr. Putin’s geopolitical program. In fact, an elementary cost-benefit analysis shows that this is not so. The sudden decision to invade Crimea—it was abrupt not only for American intelligence services but for members of the Russian ruling elite as well—actually had nothing to do with a long-term strategy for “gathering Russian lands and Russians living in the near abroad.”

The geopolitical goals and the desire to help Russians living in the “near abroad” are only a cover for the single passion of the Russian president—to keep his status as the Russian leader “forever.” His foreign policy is virtually always an instrument for his personal goal, a fact that is mostly ignored by observers, who assume that Mr. Putin is actually pursuing the national interests of his country, and that the seizure of Crimea is a reaction to the humiliation of Russia by Western countries (see David Herszenhorn’s article “In Crimea, Russia Moved to Throw off the Cloak of Defeat,” The New York Times, 3/25). This is not only true in the West but also in Russia, where too many analysts, like Fedor Lukianov, the leading Moscow political scientist, have advanced theories that try, with their various incursions into history and philosophy, to obfuscate the crucial impact the current developments around Ukraine will have on Mr. Putin’s personal interests. In contrast, nobody tries to explain the policy of Kim Jong-un as a desire to pursue his country’s national interests because it is so evidently directed by his desire to keep power by any means.

An Emperor’s Tactics

The theory about President Putin’s neo-imperialist goals is fully refuted by the facts. It is well known that any leader concerned with building and maintaining an empire tries to gain the support, almost the love, of all of the nations that are (or could make up) its parts. Indeed, Franz-Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as Lenin and Stalin, sought to cultivate “the friendship of the people” (to use one of the most important Soviet slogans). Mr. Putin’s policy is the absolute opposite. Instead of improving his relations with other countries—candidates for a variety of alliances in which Moscow might play a leading role—he has scared them all. Only Armenia expressed full endorsement for the annexation of Crimea. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, two major actors in forging allies with President Putin, were very evasive about supporting the annexation of part of the territory of an independent country; tiny Kirgizia and Moldova even dared to protest. More important, however, is that Ukraine will be an implacable foe of Moscow for a long time into the future. Meanwhile, the Baltic republics and all the former Russian satellites in eastern Europe, particularly Poland, have increased their desire for even closer military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Besides Armenia and Belarus, only Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe supported the annexation of the peninsula in the vote in the U.N. General Assembly. The Crimea operation also helped revive NATO, which had almost lost its raison d’etre. In the last several years, Russian foreign policy considered preventing the building of an American antimissile defense system in eastern Europe to be its main task. Now, the issue of Russian discontent has lost any meaning in the international debate, and the United States is largely free to create this defense system anyplace it chooses.

Meanwhile, the actions in Crimea can only help the separatist activities inside Russia in the future. For now, it has revived the idea of the referendum, which President Putin had outlawed, refusing to recognize it as a legal way of expressing the people’s will inside Russia. Indeed, the country is full of territories where many people now nurture the idea of separation from Russia. In addition to the Muslim republics in North Caucasus and Tatarstan, we can mention the Far East, Kaliningrad and even some Ural regions. Russia may find itself paying for the Crimean operation with insurrection in some regions, where the people will resort to their own referendum to proclaim their autonomy or even full independence.

The deterioration of relations with the West, however far it goes, can hardly help to raise the international status of Russia, which President Putin sought to enhance by means of the extremely expensive Olympic Games in Sochi. Instead, Russia was being ousted from the elite G-8 club. In the West, Russia now looks like a veritable monster to many ordinary people. Whatever the reluctance of Western Europe to join American economic sanctions against Russia, and however limited the American sanctions themselves are, they will all hurt the Russian economy in various ways and bring unpredictable consequences for Mr. Putin. This will be true even if his special forces are able to quash protest actions in the near future.

If looked at from another perspective, the Crimean operation is fraught with serious dangers for President Putin’s long-term chances of staying in power. The opportunities for this new geopolitical adventure to maintain the current blazing levels of patriotism are limited. He is generally a cautious politician, even if he is confident of the West’s reluctance to engage in a “hot war”—the fear the West has of a new war is, in fact, his major weapon—he is still afraid to go further.

The Russian Elite

President Putin has also pitted himself against a considerable part of the ruling political and economic elites. Almost all those who were included in the blacklists formed by the United States and the European Union, like Vladimir Yakunin, the president of state-run Russian Railways and one of the richest people in Russia, publicly mock their new “no travel” position (in the Soviet Union, this status was enjoyed by all people suspected, as I was, of not being loyal to the system, as well as by most non-party members). The fact is, however, that restricting their freedom to travel, even aside from the potential loss of their property and money kept in the West, has hurt them a great deal. One can suppose that these people, who are utterly cynical, are hardly admirers of Mr. Putin’s patriotism, and are very much indifferent toward the reunification of Crimea with the motherland. It is also highly probable that with only a few exceptions, the members of the elite, along with their families, are cursing their national leader for his anti-Western policy.

Even those privileged people in Russia who, so far, have not been targeted by the West nurture a growing animosity toward their benefactor. Of course, in the climate of total fear of the president, the members of the elite show complete public loyalty to their chief. What is more, many of them are aware that the fall of this regime does not promise them a nice future. Nonetheless, the discontent of the elite is a time bomb that will contribute, in one form or another, to the end of President Putin’s rule. Private property is a new factor in Russian politics, one that will have a notable impact on Putin’s future.

There are those who try to prove that Mr. Putin’s geopolitical triumph is evident, and that the world is trembling as it tries to guess the next move of the new Russian tsar. His propagandists pointed with great schadenfreude to the critique of President Obama in the United States—ignoring, of course, that it was mostly because of his weak response to Russia’s aggression—and said that Americans see Mr. Putin as a much more energetic leader than Mr. Obama. Politicians and the media mocked the American and European sanctions against Moscow.

Whether President Putin will continue to play the geopolitical card in order to sustain the patriotic hysteria in Russia, or will see the cost of his activities as too high in the post-Soviet sphere is something that even Putin himself probably cannot answer yet. Meanwhile, the only policy of the West seems to be to increase this cost if there is a new act of aggression. The naïve idea floated by some that Mr. Putin will become a peaceful member of the world community now that Russia has swallowed Crimea without serious reaction from the West is wrong. Those who share this view do not understand that Vladimir Putin’s major preoccupation is to stay in power as long as possible.