MOSCOW: To the West he is public enemy number one: snatching land from his neighbours, interfering in foreign elections and unveiling weapons that he says render Washington’s missile defence systems obsolete.
But despite – or because of – his reputation abroad, Vladimir Putin is still widely popular in Russia and is all but guaranteed to win a presidential election this week with a landslide.
In part this is because over almost two decades in power he has cracked down on dissent and consolidated Kremlin control over the media.
The president’s most vocal opponent is also barred from appearing on the ballot on March 18 owing to a criminal conviction.
For millions of Russians, however, Putin is the man who brought stability after the political and economic chaos of the 1990s, as well as restoring Moscow’s standing on the world stage following the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Putin is a mirror and everyone can see in him what they want,” independent political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.
“For some he is the man who got Russia back off its knees, got the army and defence back on track. For others he raised the quality of life and made sure pensions were paid on time,” he said.
For those abroad, Putin – who in recent years has been variously portrayed as an octopus, The Terminator, Hitler and Batman’s nemesis The Joker on the cover of Western news magazines – means something else entirely.
“But being the West’s main enemy is an acknowledgement that he is the number one politician. If they’re scared of you, it means they respect you,” said Kalachev.
The US and Europe hit Russia with sanctions in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s backing of rebels in Ukraine’s east.
Since then Russia’s support of the Syrian regime in a bloody civil war, allegations that Moscow interfered in US presidential elections and the discovery of a state-sponsored Olympic doping programme have further hurt the country’s reputation abroad.
Putin often frames negative foreign coverage of his leadership as a sign that Russia is under attack from a West uncomfortable with the country’s new global role.
As he unveiled what he called “invincible” new weapons in his state of the nation address this month, he reminded the audience of the time in the early 2000s when “no one listened to us”.
“Listen to us now,” he said before playing video montages that displayed the weapons’ capabilities.
The Russian moderator of a televised discussion last year jokingly told Putin he was the “pole of evil” around which Western powers “consolidate and mobilise”.
“Can you imagine how they would manage without you?” the moderator asked an appreciative president.
While support for Putin in Russia has dipped slightly in recent months, according to official polls, around 70 per cent of those who are planning to vote say they will back the current president.
His closest competitor, Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, is projected to garner less than eight percent of the vote.
“(Putin) expertly exploits all the fears and the complexes of the population,” Kalachev said, adding that the greatest fear was a return to the instability of the 1990s.
“People are afraid of losing what they already have…and this fear is especially strong in the provinces, where it is hard, but still possible, to live,” he said.
Despite Putin’s campaign promises when he returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after four years as prime minister, his last term was marked by recession and a fall in living standards.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has called for a boycott of the polls since he was barred from standing, rejects the idea that Putin retains real support in the provinces.
“They say there: well alright, Putin, there’s nobody apart from Putin, I’ll vote for him! That’s the only reason why he gets any votes,” Navalny told AFP in a recent interview.
At a recent campaign rally in Moscow, supporters of the president expressed a similar sentiment.
“I do not see another candidate who could be our commander in chief,” Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov told the 100,000-strong crowd. “He’s the only one. Putin is our president.”