It is widely believed, especially by the Western World, that Russia is under the personal rule of its President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Russia is an advanced industrial nation but there are no lasting political parties which can organize its 142 million citizens and respond to the preferences of the voters. It is postulated that the massive secret police, the tame yet extensive military, the mass media, and the money spinning hydrocarbon sector are all in the pocket of one man. The economy of Russia is mostly used as one person’s fiefdom.
Many experts from Russia and other nations have come to the conclusion that Russian people understand and accept that ‘If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.’ After the Soviet Union was dissolved in early 1990s, there began a search for a national idea for Russia. With the rise of President Putin, Russians believe that the search is over and that the national idea of the nation is Vladimir Putin.
The World Bank has classified Russia as a high-income economy. The unemployment is low at 5 percent, internet penetration is better than even some EU countries, life expectancy is increasing, and consumer spending was expanding at over 5 percent per annum till recently. However, the country is now under the grip of high inflation, economic stagnation, deterioration of the once-highly-regarded school system, abysmally low labor productivity, and widespread corruption. There is abuse of power by Moscow’s central authorities, revenue streams are being systematically criminalized by even state and regional bodies, there is proliferation of local vigilante groups, and basic nominal public services are lacking across several large territories in the country. Officials all over the country who assumed positions by paying large bribes have teamed with organized criminals and friendly judges and prosecutors to annex and extort rivals. The well-known stability offered by President Putin has now turned into violent spoliation. Putin has been in power for nearly two decades and it seems he may continue in office for many more years.
President Putin used different methods to correct the dysfunction and corrupt system that took over after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, those methods have resulted in just another dysfunctional and corrupt state. The President has formerly stated that only 20 percent of pronouncements and decisions get implemented, while the rest are circumvented or ignored unless there is forceful intervention by Putin via his functionaries and interest groups. It is however not possible for Putin to directly intervene the work of every official, governor, etc. in the nation. There are many how use the name of the President and do what they desire. Personal rule or dictatorship do come with increased power in terms of cash influx control, secret police, and other strategic aspects of authority and influence; but these eventually become self-defeating and ineffective.
The Rise of Vladimir Putin
Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad and grew up in a tough neighborhood. He learned martial arts and later graduated from Leningrad State University with a law degree. He then began working for the KGB and in 1985 got posted to Dresden in East Germany.
In 1990, the Berlin Wall was destroyed and Germany became unified once again. Putin came back to Leningrad and started working with Anatoly Sobchak who later became the city council chair and then the Mayor, with Putin serving as his top assistant/deputy. After Sobchak lost the re-elections in 1996, Putin lost his job and became unemployed. However, a year later, he moved to Moscow and started working as part of the presidential administration.
In 1998, President Yeltsin overlooked other high-ranking officers and appointed Putin as the head of the FSB which had replaced the KGB. A year later, he was appointed by Yeltsin as an acting Prime Minister and later as the acting President. It can thus be said that Putin’s rise to the highest office in the land was actually a selection by ‘one’ person.
In the presidential elections of March 2000, Putin got 40 million votes and won the race with 53 percent of votes that were cast. This was a clear majority and he thus avoided a runoff. It was said that the victory was assured by Putin via control of Channel One, the main TV station in the country; access to incumbency perks; unbridled manipulation and propaganda of a threat by Chechen terrorists; and some fraud as alleged by reports.
Putin had little or no effective authority when he took office. The media and the cash-rich oil and gas industry were in private hands and the 89 regions of Russia were ruled by governors who did not answer to anyone.
However, slowly but surely, Putin regained control of the center over the different levers of power inside the nation. He used stealth and every known trick, dirty or otherwise, in the book to reassert central authority over the gas industry, the TV stations, the regions, and the oil sector. The act of state rebuilding was a cunning and amazing feat marked by well-designed appeals and calls for patriotism, hyped fears of dissolution of the Russian state, and humbling of certain elites and oligarchs.
It was necessary to create fear of the authority to undo the severe lawlessness that the country had descended into. The persona and history of Putin helped him instill such fear. An example of the methods employed by Putin is the arrest of Khodorkovsky on his private jet and him being dragged away into custody; this was repeated many times on Russian television. These methods however were not the only things that helped Putin rise into one of the most dominant and powerful figures in not just Russia, but around the world. The most important aspect of Putin’s rise was the surprising economic boom in the country.
The economy of Russia grew at a rapid pace of 7 percent per year from 1999 to 2008. This helped double the GDP. Real income growth of individuals was even faster and it increased by 2.5 times. Due to the appreciation of the country’s currency over time, the effect on the GDP was spectacular; it went from the lowest point of $196 billion to about $2.1 trillion in 2013. The economic boom resulted in the birth of a new and grateful middle class, which at 30 million were a sizeable lot. There was complete transformation of the Russian society. Unemployment dropped to 6.3 percent from 12.9 percent; mobile penetration became 100 percent from 0 percent; pensions were readily given; wages increased; poverty rate dropped to 13 percent from 29 percent; and the huge national debt accrued by previous administrations was paid off in full. The stock market in Russia increased twenty-fold and foreign investors made a killing.
Skeptics have stated that the boom was a result of luck and large reserves of fossil fuels in Russia. A detailed analysis however proves that only 40 to 50 percent of the growth in GDP can be attributed to the oil and gas industry boom. The rest can be credited to the policies of President Putin who created a lot of value in the country during his regime.
Putin’s administration introduced many liberalizing and anti-inflationary measures. Business licensing was simplified leading to entrepreneurship boom; incentives to hide income were reduced; investment poured in due to sensible macroeconomic policy; tax cuts raised motivation to work; and land was converted into a saleable commodity.
All the above mentioned Putin-backed pro-market reforms coincided with the rise of China. The devaluation of Russian currency in 1998 made exports from Russia a lot cheaper and thereby more competitive. China’s growth caused the prices of Russian products, like chemicals, fertilizers, cement, metals, etc., to rise across the world. Legacy industries from Soviet era were revived to meet the heavy demand from China. Unprofitable factories and mines were shut down, and there was significant rationalization of coal, steel, and other industries. Global outsourcing and a rise in local demand also resulted in the birth and growth of new sectors such as food processing, retail, software, and biotechnology. All of this occurred with Putin in power.
Character Sketch of Vladimir Putin
After close to 17 years in power, the policy makers in the US are well aware of President Putin. He however still remains an enigmatic and slightly misunderstood world leader. Such misunderstanding can be said to be one of the reasons for the continuous and heightened tension between Russian and the Western nations, particularly the US. Such tensions have increased the risk of more war and conflict.
Allegations of certain events in the past, such as Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential elections in the US, cyber attacks by Russia, and Russian military action in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad have brought into focus one key thought, i.e., One may have to purposefully analyze the political psychology of Putin to be able to better understand his political actions, particularly in the area of foreign policy. The dictum is based on the presupposition that the humanity, sensibility, and many faces of President Putin have a deeper meaning and sense. It is also essential to understand what keeps him going and what allows him to stay in power.
There are many different profiles of Putin, but none of them have offered a concrete factual assessment of the President’s psyche. Many commentators have labeled him as a bully or a thug, or they see him as a tool of higher power structures in Russia, like the military, the Siloviki, the intelligence agencies, and the police/law-enforcement/judicial system. Uses of such assessment to understand the political behavior of Putin has often resulted in incorrect predictions about the actions of Russia, or lead to increasingly emotional and wrong predictions about military conflict between the West and Russia or a new Cold War.
On the other hand, a sober and careful assessment of the interviews, writings, and speeches of Putin will provide a huge tranche of factual information which can be further analyzed to understand Putin’s life as a leader, intelligence officer, politician, diplomat, and martial artist.
As discussed above, we all can clearly see the role played by President Putin in the economic growth of Russia and its people and the rebirth of the country as a global power.
Several analysts and political commentators have failed to notice the President’s revanchist and strong sense of restoration of Russia’s pride and its right place in the world, and the fact that this has immense emotional, social, and psychological appear for Russians. This is also one of the reasons for the extremely highly political popularity ratings of nearly 80 percent for Putin during his time in the office. No Russian politician has ever been able to match this kind of popularity. His management style may reek of authoritarianism, but he can be termed as the De Gaulle of Russia with great abilities to gather together several economists, politicians, military, diplomats, and intelligence people into the power structure for the benefit of Russia.
Putin has respect for discipline, strength, and control and he displays it as a prominent leader of the world. This aspect of Putin is easily visible during his news conferences and meetings with other global leaders. For example, when a journalist asked Putin about the most preferred foreign nation, he promptly replied that the country was Israel. He clarified that the country was founded and built from nothing and on a desert. Putin stated that Israel had also resurrected a language that was dead.
The media in the West typically see the President as being an unemotional man with excess discipline. But there have been many occasions when Putin has shown his emotions. A point in example was his Presidential victory speech of 2013 when he was all tears in front of his core base of supporters.
Putin’s work as a KGB officer had had a profound effect on his sense of identity, his skills, his professional life, and his ethos. Instead of downplaying or vilifying his record at the KGB, it is better option to analyze the manifestation of his former job.
Most think the President to be a tactician and not a strategist. This thought is not right. Labeling him as being dichotomous prevents understand of the adaptability of Putin with regards to foreign policy tests like Georgia, Ukraine, China, Syria, the US, India, and Europe. There have been many occasions when Putin has exuded masterful flexibility, moved priorities and reversed course, while staying true to key areas of strategy and his sense of national pride and interest. During the course of his entire tenure, Putin has shown remarkable diplomatic skills and the capacity to form valued, close, personal relationships with other leaders around the world.
In these globalized times, good relations with Russia is in the best interest of all. In fact during the 2011 state visit, former Vice President stated that a prosperous and strong Russia was in the US’ national interest. Engaging in an old-fashioned and very-personal style of diplomacy with increased emphasis on mutual strength, respect, national interest, and appreciation of the deep history of Russia is a better way to get to better understand President Putin.
The lack of knowledge about Putin and what makes him tick is what may have triggered the new sanctions against Russia. The US sanctions bill was passed by the Congress due to the 2014 Crimea annexation by Russia and its supposed interference in the US elections of 2016.
President Putin’s prompt response to the new US sanctions was to make the American diplomatic mission in Russia to cut its staff by 755 employees. Putin said that this reduction in diplomatic staff was a response to the “unlawful” behavior by Washington.
Putin stated on the Rossiya 1 TV channel that the American administration had made a move which was not provoked or instigated by anything and that it would only result in worsening of Russian-US relations. He further told that the sanctions include unlawful restrictions and attempts to manipulate other states around the world, including the allies of Russia, who are interested in keeping, developing, and furthering relations with Russia.
The new sanctions and the subsequent backlash by President Putin are going to create a new crisis in the diplomatic, military, and economic relations between the two nations.