The Czar of PR: Putin’s 15 years in Power

Can Sochi’s Olympics make Putin the man who restored Russia’s lost pride?

The Wilson Center
Small World, Big Ideas


When, fifteen years ago, Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister under the ailing Boris Yeltsin, few would have thought that he was to become one of Russia’s longest-serving political leaders in living memory.

Fifteen years into his “era,” Putin has reached unassailable heights of prestige, masterly defeating his would-be challengers among street protesters and oligarchs and getting more than a bang for his ruble on the international stage.

The Winter Olympics — set to open in Sochi this week — have offered Putin a glorious stage to bolster his image as the father of the nation who restored to Russia its lost pride. As the country rallies to the flag, Putin’s stature will grow taller.

Putin has plenty of detractors. Some see him as a czar in the making. Yet others argue that he had turned Russia into a kleptocracy, rotten through and through from corruption. Still, Putin has retained his popularity at home and even projects a powerful image abroad — so powerful, in fact, that Forbes recently listed him as the most powerful man in the world.

As he counts his gold medals this week, here is a list of Russia’s five failures, which Putin, by a slight of hand, has turned into personal victories.

One: Putin has failed to revitalize Russia’s economy.

In 2003 he made a public pledge to double Russia’s GDP in 10 years. While the country rode the crest of high oil prices, the goal seemed within reach. But the 2007 financial crisis sent Russia’s economy into recession, and the rosy targets were missed.

Between 2003 and 2013 many countries doubled their GDP, not only the miracle economies like China and India but even the lesser known entities like Belarus and Kazakhstan. Next to their success, Russia has been a notable underachiever.

Putin failed to steer the economy away from dependence on natural resources. Russia’s showcase of technological innovation, the Skolkovo project, has been mired in a string of corruption scandals.

Russian universities, including former powerhouses of Soviet R&D, have slipped to dismal depths in global rankings; Russian scientists, engineers, and doctors flocked to the West in their thousands — few show interest in ever returning.

Failure? Unquestionably. But many Russians measure their country’s economic performance not with reference to what could have been but by comparison with what they had suffered in the 1990s: massive unemployment, wage arrears and runaway inflation.

By this yardstick, Putin fares quite well, and if Russia’s GDP still hovers just above where it had been in 1990, never mind! — things could be much worse.

Two: Putin has failed to establish the rule of law

He tried to project a tough demeanor of a man who would bring order and justice to Russia and put an end to crime and chaos of the 1990s. The hallmark of this struggle was Putin’s campaign against the “oligarchs” who had appropriated state power for their business ends.

It began with the exile of the magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky and, famously, with the imprisonment of Mikhail Khorokovsky. Putin’s measures met with considerable public sympathy, as many of the oligarchs were perceived as scoundrels who had plundered Russia by exploiting their connections to Yeltsin and his family.

But soon Putin ended his campaign, content that he had brought the oligarchs to heel. Indeed, his years in power have seen the rise of a new economic elite — some, like Putin, have come up through the ranks of the security services; others followed Putin from St. Petersburg to assume key positions in his administration and in state monopolies.

Under Putin, corruption in Russia lost its former chaotic quality. It has become much more regularized and systematized.

Like a mighty tree, corruption has planted deep roots and branched out to all walks of Russian life. Want to place your child in a kindergarten? Bribe! Need a surgery at the hospital? Bribe! Participate in a government-sponsored megaproject like the Winter Olympics? Loot!

Putin’s abortive and half-hearted measures to tackle corruption have barely clipped a leaf or two off that tree. These measures have been used instead to target opposition activists like Aleksei Navalny who was recently found guilty of graft on absurd charges.

Failure? Not so fast. Putin has created a closely-knit elite. Their interests occasionally clash, and there is a lot of infighting. But Putin’s cronies depend on him for their survival. They know they can fall any time, no matter how high they sit: former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, now in disgrace, are cases to point. And Khodorkovsky, graciously pardoned in December, is a living reminder that the road from Moscow mansions to cold prison cells in Siberia can be very, very short.

Under Putin, Russia’s government bureaucracy grew more than three-fold compared to the Soviet times. New ministries have been created, and the old ones expanded. National and provincial administrations spawned departments and sub-departments, requiring ever greater budgets and ever higher salaries for the army of seven million bureaucrats.

These people, their relatives, and the relatives of their relatives, all have stake in the system Putin created. They hold Putin on their shoulders.

Three: Solidifying influence among former Soviet States

Putin wanted to shore up Russia’s waning influence among former Soviet republics through overlapping unions: a political union with Belarus, a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and a collective security treaty (military alliance) with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

In 2008 he showed “who is the boss” in the Caucasus by waging a brief military campaign against Georgia. Applying economic leverage, Putin has interfered in Ukrainian politics to assure its pro-Russian orientation.

Yet, Moscow’s gains have been elusive. Although the “-stans” of Central Asia take Putin’s money, Russia has been losing ground to China’s subtle but growing influence.

Putin’s little victorious war against Georgia failed to dismount the fiercely anti-Russian Mikheil Saakashvili who spent the rest of his presidency loudly bemoaning Russia’s colonialism and courting NATO. Moscow’s spoils of war — the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — are a drain on Russia’s resources and a source of friction with Georgia.

The latest setback to Putin’s integrationist schemes was the popular unrest in Ukraine following its leader Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to opt out of signing an association agreement with the European Union. The central square in Kiev was occupied for days by youths waving Ukrainian and European flags and denouncing Yanukovich as a Russian stooge.

The protests, which ultimately fizzled out, were portrayed by the Russian state-controlled media as Western-funded subversion. In reality, they were a vote of non-confidence in all that Putin has come to represent. This is the voice of the anti-Putin generation: silenced in Russia after the Bolotnaya Square crackdown of 2012 but clearly audible in Ukraine.

Putin reacted by offering Ukraine discounted energy prices and credits, which is to say, by buying off the Ukrainian political elites much as he bought up political elites at home.

Failure? No, this is called geopolitics of energy.

By flexing his pipeline tentacles, Putin won points with domestic nationalists and showed those feckless Europeans that Russia has a lot of weight in its own backyard, even if this is just dead weight that is pulling Russia into a bottomless pit of unsustainable commitments.

Four: Putin has vowed to restore to Russia the respectability of a true great power

To this end, he has deployed Cold War rhetoric in relations with the West, cemented ties with China in the co-sponsorship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and enlisted Russia alongside Brazil, India, China and South Africa (the BRICS group) in the service of a more equitable international order.

Few of these achievements hold up to scrutiny.

Cold War rhetoric has — predictably — led to cooling of relations with the West. With his proudly adversarial posturing, Putin spent away the capital of mutual trust that had built up in Russia’s relations with the West since Gorbachev. All he has to show for it is Snowden.

The SCO, though not a paper tiger some thought it would be, has fallen well short of becoming a kind of a counterweight to the West Putin had hoped for. Its main role is to paper over Sino-Russian disagreements in Central Asia.

Finally, Putin’s commitment to BRICS has yielded little other than verbose joint communiques. It could not be otherwise in a club of nations, which have little in common beyond their shared adherence to a vague vision of a multipolar world.

Failure? Aye, there is the rub. Greatness can be achieved simply by acting like a great power, rather than by being one. SCO and BRICS are important for their symbolism, not for what they do or fail to do. Just by talking about a multipolar world, Putin has created one, even if it is more virtual than real.

Putin has mastered the ancient Daoist art of doing by not doing. He has won the laurels of a peacemaker through constructive obstructionism in Iran, North Africa and, recently, Syria and, ironically enough, gained Obama’s gratitude for preventing the US from doing what it had wanted to do.

Five: Putin came to power promising to defeat terrorism

In the wake of apartment bombings in September 1999, he fought a bloody war in Chechnya, ending its quasi-independence and installing pro-Moscow Ramzan Kadyrov as its leader.

Since the end of the war Russia underwrote a massive reconstruction effort in Chechnya to improve the quality of life and extinguish sprouts of religious extremism.

There is little to show for all the effort.

Russia has been engaged in a losing battle against the low-intensity insurgency that has spilled over from Chechnya to Ingushetia and Dagestan. Scores of religious extremists have been killed in “special operations,” but new ones emerged, punctuating Putin’s reign with a string of atrocities: the attacks on the school in Beslan and on the Dubrovka Theater, Moscow metro and airport bombings and, most recently, terrorist acts in Volgograd.

Putin’s war on terror has been an utter failure. Yet, even if Russia is as unsafe as ever, Putin used the terrorist threat as a pretext for consolidating his control.

In the aftermath of Beslan, he introduced presidential appointment of governors (instead of their direct election) in a body blow to local democracy.

More recently, Russia tightened laws against “extremism,” which, Putin’s critics have argued, can be used to prosecute political opponents, a concern substantiated by the treatment of the punk band Pussy Riot, jailed after an anti-Putin protest.

In December Putin dissolved the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. Its place was taken by a mouthpiece for the regime under the fire-breather West-basher Dmitrii Kiselev, marking a new milestone in Putin’s relentless advance on the freedom of press.

Recent bombings in Volgograd are likely to lead to further expansion of security services and to curtailment of civil liberties in Russia.

Whatever message the terrorists sought to deliver, the one Putin received was that, as he announced in his New Year address, all of Russia must “unite as one.”

He has made it clear who that “one” is.

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Written by Sergey Radchenko, Public Policy Scholar with the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program.

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