The rise and rise of Putin

President Putin’s grip today on Russia is stronger than ever

Muhammad Ali Ehsan March 18, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin. PHOTO: Reuters

Russia is going to the polls today (March 18th) and the person who has turned his country’s fortunes around is most likely to be re-elected as its president. As per the Russian Constitution, the president of Russia who was previously directly elected for a period of four years can now be elected for a six-year term (under an amendment incorporated in the Constitution in 2008 during Dmitry Medvedev’s administration). According to Article 81 of the Constitution, the president of Russia cannot serve more than two terms consecutively. Vladimir Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008, was reelected again in 2012 as the country’s president. He is now seeking his second six-year term through elections in Russia, which will signify not a change of power but its retention.

Who is this man and why has he caught the world’s attention? Why does the outside world hold him in such deep political contempt and grudge even though domestically he remains a popular leader? He may be the outside world’s number one geopolitical and geo-economics foe but for the people of Russia President Putin is someone who continuously and consistently leads the resurgence of Russia and most sincerely acts upon the last advice given to him by the man he took power from — Boris Yeltsin who walking in his office for the last time at the end of 1991 told him “Beregite Rossiyu” — “take care of Russia” or “preserve Russia”. And isn’t he doing a good job?

Keep secrets, tell lies — that is all political parties and governments do, some lie more than the others but the practice very much exists. So when Britain ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on a Russian former double agent, the diplomatic act reverberated loud round the world and reminded everyone about the Cold War times and the long history of spying between the Soviet Union and the American-led Western world. This may be the ‘biggest single expulsion in 30 years’ but as far as Russia is concerned these are desperate attempts by the Western world to keep rising powers like Russia under check and contained. For its part, Russia has denied any involvement and even offered to help in a joint investigation but anybody who knows President Putin would know that there would soon be a quid pro quo and the British diplomatic staff may also be soon packing their bags for a return journey to their homes.

A populist and nationalist leader, Putin presides over a country that saw its political, social and economic order overturned and where there was only one big country, it disintegrated in 1991 to put 15 other countries on the world map. The 15 countries that left the Soviet Union still remind the Russians of their loss. Putin can no more back-paddle history and change it but he is doing everything that he can to ensure that states sharing the Russian borders remain within the orbit of the Russian influence (Ukraine, Baltic states) and Nato’s expansion eastwards is kept under check. Even his intervention in Syria is designed to reinforce the image of Russia as a global power. The West may look at the use of Russian influence and military power abroad — wars in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, the largest military exercise ZAPAD in Baltic region, allegations of interference in the American presidential elections and lately the spy scandal in Britain — as instruments designed and employed for achievement of its political goals but for Russia these are necessary forms of self-defence driven with an explicit need to deter the West. President Putin’s grip today on Russia is stronger than ever and without doubt he remains the most popular leader since Stalin.

In Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History period Putin is hardly the world’s only autocrat. Populist and nationalist leaders rule countries like Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan), India (Narendra Modi) and China (Xi Jinping). It is the supremacy of ‘gosudarstvo’ — the ‘Russian State’ that Putin as a leader is after. For the next six years also the gosudarstvo will remain for him the ultimate source of political power and authority. Despite the curtailing of the civil and political freedoms, for the past 20 years Russia has been the freest than it has been in its entire history. Russia is not likely to become a Western-style European state nor will it ever subscribe to the Western-style democracy. There is least likelihood of a liberal democratic order to prevail and to inevitably bring about a West-desired social revolution. After his reaffirmation as president, Putin is most likely to continue to ride the public popularity will and as much as his approval ratings shot up from 60% to 80% in 2014 when he annexed Crimea he is most likely to continue to retain for his entire presidential period favourable and enlarged approval ratings. This because the West will continue to do everything possible to hinder Putin’s rise and ascendancy in global geopolitics and the more the West will do, the more resolute it will make the Russian president to advance Russian primacy and with it the geopolitical and geo-economics returns for the people of Russia.

Lastly, something must be said about cyber the newest form of the geo-economics instrument being used by Russia to advance its geopolitical ends. According to Robert D Blackwill and Jennifer M Harris who stated in their book War by Other Means — geo-economics and statecraft that “estimates by private security researchers place the annual cost to the global economy from cybercrime (both state sponsored and ordinary criminal activity) at more than $400 billion with the US losses accounting for one quarter of this figure.” The book quotes an interesting example of how Russia fights back against sanctions utilising cyber warfare. In 2014 when JP Morgan the bank complying with the US sanctions blocked payment from the Russian embassy, its electronic systems came under cyber-attack. The breach at JP Morgan touched 76 million American households and seven million small businesses. The attackers penetrated 90 of JP Morgan servers. The question that Americans asked then was “Is this Putin retaliating?”

For most part of the coming six years of Putin’s presidency, “Is Putin retaliating?” most likely will remain the West’s political buzzword — for if nobody is noticing, the Cold War 2 has already begun.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2018.

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