The man behind the myth. A lot has been written about Vladimir Vladimirovich since his ascent to power in late 1999. What I’m going to do in this report is not so much look at each and every event with the related minutiae, but take a brief look at events leading up to him taking power, discuss the changes that his rule has caused in Russia, and then look at how this will affect Russia, both at home and abroad.
We all know the situation in Russia during the 90s, the oligarchs, the worthless ruble and the rampant corruption being committed by both Russian and foreign politicians. As the carcass of the former Soviet Union was being peck by numerous vultures, the wealth that the new Russia should have enjoyed was being funneled into ever fewer pockets, nouveau-riche oligarchs racing to become the latest billionaires. Pensions dropped to as little as 800 rubles a month, and in order to put bread and butter on the table, ever more Russians needed to sell the table, yet little was known about this in the West, the Harvard Boys leading their chosen politicians around Moscow by the nose. From the fall of the Berlin Wall, these “experts” had been installed in Moscow, ostensibly to manage Russia’s transition to a capitalist economy, but in reality the “Yanks came to the rescue” of anything they could acquire, and if they couldn’t acquire it, they’d make sure neither could the Russian government. As the USSR drew its final breath, a 39 year old Putin chose to leave his post as an Intelligence Officer in the KGB, branching out into the political arena first in Saint Petersburg, then moving to Moscow. As the millennium came to an end, the Russian stage was set for either a complete meltdown or a miraculous salvation.
On the 31st of December 1999, in a rare moment of sober lucidity, Boris Yeltsin managed to stay sober for long enough to stand aside and let Putin take the role of Acting President. As the old guard handed over to the new guard, both Putin and Russia needed to make sweeping changes, or just like the old century, it too would very soon come to an end. Whilst his politics needed to Made Russia Great Again, he also needed to pull Russia back from the brink of oblivion. It was infested in certain areas with terrorists and the key was going to be to use soft power to regain control wherever possible rather than using military tactics at every juncture.
The first challenge facing Moscow was not so much the ravages that western experts had inflicted upon it, but the damage that these policies were continuing. to do. Capital flight was rampant, the ruble was worth nothing and the life of the average Russian was plummeting at an unsustainable rate whilst at the same time war was raging in Chechnya.
Diplomacy was going to be instrumental not only to Putin’s role in putting a difficult situation to rights, yet after only a few months in office, he was faced with his first and arguably greatest challenge through the Kursk tragedy. His critics said that he did not show the urgency or diplomacy necessary, yet looking at his decisions and the immense difficulties that the rescue and retrieval operations presented, it would be fair to say he learnt valuable lessons that have stood him in excellent stead in his ensuing political career.
One of the first matters he took in hand was that of the oligarchs. They had for years been living the high life off the back of others and Putin made the bargain that they could keep their powers and wealth in exchange for their support. He avoided their rocking the boat by taking them on board and making them row whilst not throwing Russia’s wealth overboard. This agreement slowly came into play over his first four years in power, yet enabled him to increase his power base whilst improving the general lot for the average Russian citizen.
One of the greatest difficulties facing the Kremlin at that time was the war in Chechnya. The Dubrovka Theater attack brought the Chechen issue into the headlines both in Russia and abroad, meaning that a solution had to be found. Separatists backed from overseas were fighting Moscow and it was at this point that Putin did something that not only stood out at the time, but is echoed in his politics to this day. He was visiting an army position in the area and the traditional toast to victory was proposed. At this point, after all had raised their glasses, Putin put his down and said “ we’ll drink to success once we’ve seen that success”. This act, small as it was, has typified the Putin-era mindset for the last twenty years. After the decadent and drunken 90s, rather than celebrating the enigmatic goals of the future, Moscow has become much more goal-driven, only celebrating victory once it has been won. In Chechnya, Putin won that battle through diplomacy and a referendum in 2003, further burgeoning his reputation as an expert dealmaker and diplomat.
Alcohol along with drugs such as heroin was other demons facing the Kremlin and Russia as a whole. Its ailing fortunes having turned millions to the bottle, alcoholism and to a lesser extent drug use was now an extreme problem for millions of Russian households. Anti-drug operations were increased at the same time that measures were put in place restricting both minimum prices and the hours alcohol could be sold, the WHO saying in 2018 that sales had dropped 40% in the last 15 years.
He was re-elected as president in March 2004, only months before terrorists killed hundreds in the Beslan hostage incident that September. Many in the West have criticized Moscow’s handling of the incident, yet few are able to say how the West could have handled it better under the circumstances. There had never been an attack on this scale anywhere before and therefore there was no textbook way of handling an operation such as this. It’s very easy to mock the operation with the knowledge of hindsight, but that was obviously a luxury that Russian forces did not have at that time.
It was during his second mandate that real efforts started to be made to reverse the ills that happened between 1991 and 2000. Putin described the fall of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century”, National Priority Projects being implemented to replace the healthcare, education, housing and agriculture programs lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was also at this time that Moscow started to really chase those who had robbed the country, the Yukos affair being a case in point. Many of the businessmen and oligarchs who had gotten used to evading both taxes and the law under Yeltsin’s rule were brought to justice, this being portrayed as a witch-hunt in a West. And that West was slowly starting to oppose a Russian government that was working for the good of the country rather than western companies and their lackeys. This was reflected in the number of foreign-inspired and funded marches against the Kremlin as both Putin’s second mandate and western control of Russia’s economy was coming to an end.
Putin as PM.
As the Russian constitution of the day prevented Putin from standing for a third term, Medvedev was given the top job through legal requirement rather than through political necessity. Whilst Medvedev was now nominally in the hot seat, Putin, through his eight year legacy and an elevated international standing was still on the throne. In his period of Prime Minister from 2008 until 2012, there was a period of relative calm compared with earlier years, but there was an increasing unease in the West, not only concerning Russia’s continued rise, but also due to Moscow’s increasing independence from a Washington-orchestrated system. This was best exemplified by the “Snow Revolution” of 2011–13 when foreign journalists and organizations again attempted to meddle in Russian affairs to the West’s advantage.
Putin returns to the presidency.
In 2012, Putin again ascended to the post of president with a convincing majority. The elections received criticism for irregularities, but as we saw before, the protests, the Bolotnaya Square protest being the most notable, were coordinated either by sore losers or groups that were sponsored and organized by western-led organizations. This had become a recurring theme on the Russian political stage and the Kremlin was increasingly conscious of the efforts that foreign governments were making in order to meddle in Russia’s sovereign affairs as well as discredit Putin at every opportunity. It was also at this time that Navalny started to make an appearance, and the passage of time has proven the Kremlin’s suspicions regarding him and other western-orchestrated puppets to be true.
2014 and the Ukrainian coup.
Toward the end of 2013 and into 2014, a western-led coup removed Yanukovych, the democratically elected president of Ukraine from power. I am not going to go into detail regarding this event as it requires an article of its own, not just about the Maidan riots, but the subsequent annexation of Crimea.
It was however obvious to all and sundry that the Maidan coup was a US attempt to consolidate power in Ukraine in order to push NATO right onto Russia’s border. Washington’s meddling thrust a classic chessboard situation under Putin’s nose, forgetting the fact that whilst US presidents play golf, Russians don’t. This led to the West failing to appreciate that both sides were eyeing the western acquisition and use of the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia however had studied the chess game at length and moved quickly in order to dispel any misconceptions about NATO controlling the Black Sea. Using the Russian forces that were already legitimately stationed in Crimea, Russia was able to not only secure the area from Ukrainian troops acting under US orders in Kiev, but also to call a referendum asking the population whether they would like to remain under the rule of either Kiev or Moscow. When we recall that Kiev held two referenda in the 1990s regarding greater Crimean autonomy and that both were in favor, the ballot box figures in 2014 hardly came as a surprise. The Americans has envisioned their eating Ukrainian pie with Sevastopol as the cherry on top, yet when the dust had settled, the cherry was now flying the Russian flag and for a good part, Washington was eating humble pie. Putin and his team had not only second-guessed western intentions, they had also known the result long before the referendum was even announced.
The Post Maidan results.
Whilst the West whinged and whined about what had happened, a few glaring truths appeared, proving that whilst the West had tried forcing Moscow’s hand, Moscow had responded by playing a couple of aces in return. The first was that the US, having dominated proceedings over Kosovo, pushed NATO eastwards and gone unchecked for decades had suddenly been denied what it desired. DC had wanted use of Sevastopol as a primary objective with the humiliation of a weak Russia as a very close second. Moscow had seen the developing situation and had plenty of time to work out a plan that not only worked to Washington’s disadvantage, but also right into the hands of the Kremlin. The first ace that Moscow had was the fact that Crimea and the East of what was the Ukraine is inhabited by ethnic Russians who speak Russian and far more importantly, identify as such. This meant that not only would Kiev’s new western-oriented politics be rejected, but that rejection would automatically mean their acceptance of Russian overtures. The second ace was the fact that whilst the US had wheedled most of Ukraine into the hands of “our man in Kiev”, a goodly part had not. With Crimea becoming part of Russia and the Donetsk and Lugansk republics forming, any victory that Uncle Sam may have wanted to shout about was at best hollow and politically pyrrhic. At worst, it showed that when people were given a choice, Moscow was the winner. This has again been borne out by the fact that millions of Ukrainians have relocated to Russia in the last five years.
Sanctions and butthurt.
With the US, NATO and Kiev having been rebuffed in so much of the former Ukraine, Washington and its European cohorts decided to not only place sanctions against Russians and their interests, but to use any and every weapon, tactic and lie in their efforts to spite Moscow. The most glaring example of this has been the downing of MH17 and the subsequent malfeasance by both investigators and the judiciary, but the western establishment has made any and every effort to both damage Russia and its economy wherever possible. Has these measures been taken against many western countries, they would have fallen prey to the IMF years ago.
Syria was the first major deployment of Russian military assets since the fall of the USSR and came as a surprise to many in the West. A civil war had been raging for a number of years, those forces opposing the government being led by terrorist organizations and military formations under the care of the Pentagon. The two overriding points in this theater have been that the Kremlin entered the Syrian fray after a request from Assad in Damascus, and that Russian forces did more in a year than the Americans claimed to have done in three. US forces invaded Syria in defiance of both international and US law, yet had claimed to be destroying terrorist targets since their arrival. What was apparent to anyone who looked was that the terrorist groups were growing in size to the point where they were declaring a caliphate at the same time as those “freedom fighters” that the US was funding, arming and training were defecting to the terrorists in ever greater numbers. When Russia entered Syria in 2015, the Islamic State was at its zenith after being allegedly attacked by the greatest military force on earth for upwards of three years. The next year saw a massive influx of assets from Russia, these managing to do in a matter of months what the US had claimed to be doing for years, the beleaguered Syrian Arab Army finally being able to reconquer its rightful land. It was as at this time that the Turkish armed forces decided to shoot down a Russian aircraft causing a rift in relations that has today apparently been healed, and Russia and Turkey presently work together in certain areas of the country.
As soon as the tide had decisively turned, most Russian assets returned home, just leaving a small contingent of Russian military to both aid Damascus and safeguard Russian assets in the port of Tartus and the airbases at Khmeimin and Latakia. This was no military masterstroke by Putin, yet put it Russia back on the global map again. After decades of US dominance in the area, Russia was now in the Middle East again, and defeating those that the US allegedly could not. Whilst the military commitment was small in relation to American efforts, it was a flicker of light in an area darkened by decades of US-orchestrated wars, paving the way for one of Putin’s most capable, if not most capable of colleagues, Sergei Lavrov, to increase Russian diplomacy in the area.
Meddling and hacking.
The US election in 2016 was where western efforts really started to show signs of desperation. And I’m not talking just about the candidates. In a campaign that was as bitter after the election as it was before, the true colors of both the American political establishment and their media became apparent. The multiple ills not only of the campaign, but also the ensuing result sent the whole show into a frenzy. And who to blame? Russia of course. Through the connection made between Russian citizens and a couple of $50 Facebook ads, Washington ended up chasing demons, traitors, spies but ultimately its own tail trying to blame Russia for corrupting the US elections. Nobody was asking how the “greatest nation on earth” had fallen prey to these alleged and completely unproven tactics, yet DC melted down whilst snowflakes were falling in Moscow. And what did Putin do? Virtually nothing. Rather than entering an increasingly vitriolic fray, the Kremlin let politicians and media alike beat each other silly whilst Russia sat smirking on the sidelines. These accusations, along with regular rafts of sanctions continue to emanate from Washington to this day, but the Kremlin is like a cat sitting in a tree, almost smiling as it watches the political dogs barking far below it.
With a new term as president, Putin had not only had old issues to resolve, but new challenges to face. An increasingly bellicose West pushing ever harder, an Iran being punished by those who wronged her and ever closer relations with a China that has also come right into the western crosshairs over the last couple of years. On top of that, the Coronavirus has presented Moscow with as many difficulties as it has anyone else, but the judicious use of politics and measures has meant that Russia has suffered later and less than many others.
The western push, not only against Russia, but also against any nation that refuses to be controlled by it has meant that an increasing number of nations that have been cold-shouldered by DC are finding warmth through Moscow’s increasing diplomatic efforts. Trade has obviously rocketed with China over recent years, but the cooperation between Russia and Teheran, Caracas, Damascus and even Baghdad has taken a huge upturn in the last couple of years. This is not only thanks to the likes of Putin, Lavrov and Zakharova, but also due to America’s fall from diplomatic grace in the world. In an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, people want rock steady relations rather than the winds of war. And on the subject of war, one cannot ignore the military exports that Russia has made in recent years, along with the leaps it has made in both development and production. With hypersonic missiles, the latest generation of submarines and drones lining up, should the day arrive when war is the only option left to Russia’s rivals, the technology is coming together to ensure that war is what they’ll get.
The only problem that Putin has not been able to solve through diplomacy has been the Coronavirus, but due to taking due precautions, using healthcare assets to the full and locking down certain areas, not only did Covid hit Russia later, it didn’t hit with the same devastation as it did elsewhere. Not withstanding the difficulties that this virus caused the Kremlin, it was Russia and not NATO who first got men and equipment on the ground to help Italy. No world leader can fight the virus and win, but Putin has lost less than most and been one of the very few leaders to ensure that others’ losses have also been cut. This virus continues to be a problem, but looking at the manner in which it has been fought to date, it would be a fair assumption that Moscow will remain competent in its efforts.
To conclude his rule to date, we have to look at what he was, what he did and where it leads. He was a relative unknown upon his taking power in 1999 and inherited a country that due to a decade of theft and scavenging added up to little or nothing. His first two terms as president were troubled by the demons created in Russia’s then recent past along with their consequences, yet he had both the insight and acumen to defeat those he could whilst bring those that he couldn’t around to his way of thinking. On two occasions he empowered former enemies to be his ally, and in both cases engineered permanent solutions that kept all parties happy. His stint as PM then came at a time of relative calm. Whilst resistance was growing abroad to Russia’s newly-found independence, this was before it had been put firmly in the western crosshairs where it stayed until today. Washington’s coup in Kiev changed the situation forever, not only in its audacity, but also in the way that Moscow and the public used a mixture of acumen, guile and spirit to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. Russia was then faced by a barrage of vengeful sanctions, this causing the ruble to again drop and making imports of certain items difficult. There was a silver lining however, due to most of Russia’s exports being produced in rubles and sold in dollars. And that’s before we even mention the economic losses suffered by European exporters who lost the Russian market. If Europe wants to take a hit on DC’s behalf, that’s no loss to Moscow. The Syrian conflict and Russia’s involvement there is obviously far less important than it once was, yet the Russian armed forces have gained valuable experience in the role they played. He has stayed admirably quiet as the US has torn itself to pieces since the last election and appears to be doing so going into the next, not that a change in government would bring any change whatsoever in relations with the West. His greatest present worry is the Coronavirus, but as I stated before, few governments have done as well as his. When he took the helm in Moscow, the West had ensured that Russia was a nothingness, a burnt-out pile of ash and only good for its resources. Yet in spite of continued western efforts, the Russian phoenix has risen from those ashes. Through sanctions and accusations, the West has taken potshots at both Putin and the country he’s recreated, yet that phoenix flies higher every year he’s in office. But where does that put both him and his country in the future? There has been recent controversy (in the West at least) regarding the Russian referendum and the changes to the constitution, one of those changes being Putin’s being able to stand for office again. Although he has said he will not run for the Kremlin again, the door is open should he choose to. If there is no candidate to step into his shoes, however unlikely that may be, the constitution change has been made now allowing him to do so. Some have voiced concerns about his age, yet at “only” 67 years old, he’s seven years younger than Trump and ten years younger than Biden. In such dangerous and uncertain times, it is difficult to make predictions, but looking at his twenty-year long stint in office, his proven patience and diplomacy will ensure that he continues to offer Russia and its people the best that can be given. He might be small in stature, but he’s become huge on the world stage. Whoever succeeds him will be stepping into very large shoes indeed…