“Power is not a means, it is an end”, George Orwell had said in 1984. “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” For 21 years, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has ruled Russia with an iron hand, as President or Prime Minister, never letting loose his absolute grip on power. He has ruthlessly used the force of blunt repression against opponents, manipulated the constitution and public opinion at home to keep himself in power, while meddling in democratic elections in other countries. He is the second longest-serving European president, after Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, another ruthless dictator he is in cohorts with.
Workers of the world will perhaps never unite, but dictators are automatically united by their ways. In April 2021, Putin amended the Russian Constitution that otherwise limits presidency to two consecutive terms to allow himself to seek re-election twice more, virtually extending his presidency to 2036, when he would turn 84. A close parallel is Xi Jinping, aged 68 years who, like Putin, also amended the Chinese Constitution to become President for life and like Putin remains the single man to embody a nation’s destiny.
Under Putin, between 1998 and 2008, powered by a five-fold increase in the global price of oil which accounts for 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and 30 per cent of its GDP, the Russian economy grew twofold after years of chaos and impoverishment following the disentangling of the USSR. Real wages trebled and poverty and employment halved. Prudent economic and fiscal policies saw Russia’s geopolitical power rise along with the nation’s self-esteem which was reinforced by his annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia, the hegemon in its neighbourhood, became a member of the G-8 in 1997 and a partner at the NATO-Russia council in 2002, though both were suspended since 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. It also joined the WTO in 2012. As a member of the P-5, it already has a seat at the global decision-making table. Putin used all this masterfully on the promise of restoring Russia’s great power status to increase his own popularity and power which is now absolute.
The world once believed that Russia would become a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs by being integrated into rule-based international institutions, which did not happen. Instead, it threatened the sovereignty of neighbours like Georgia and propped up dictators in Libya, Syria and Venezuela. To avoid sanctions by USA and NATO, it has forged closer ties with Beijing. To silence the opposition, it resorted to their assassination, sometimes even on foreign soil. And now, being unsuccessful in eliminating his fearless opponent Alexy Navalny through poisoning, Putin has put him in prison on bogus charges, brutally crushed his supporters’ protests and outlawed all groups founded by him, branding them as ‘extremists’ ~ thus muzzling all critics ahead of the parliamentary election in September 2021. He apparently has nothing to fear now, except the fear that always lurks in the mind of every dictator and makes them use repression and propaganda with increasing force.
The days of soaring oil prices, oil-fuelled growth and high living standards are behind him now. International sanctions have deterred foreign investments, while tight state control and re-nationalisation of key sectors of economy has suppressed innovation and modernisation. Infrastructure is crumbling and corruption and cronyism by oligarchs are rampant. Citizens are restive and protests are breaking out spontaneously. As many as 53 per cent of 18-24-year-old Russians want to emigrate. Putin’s popularity has nosedived as real household income has been falling continuously since 2013. The Russian economy grew only by only 1.3 per cent in 2019 before the pandemic and the consequent free fall in oil prices contracted its GDP by 3 per cent in 2020.
Putin has, as Timothy Fry said in Foreign Affairs, “weakened institutions such as courts, bureaucracies, elections, parties, and legislatures so that they cannot constrain him, meaning that he cannot rely on them to generate economic growth, resolve social conflicts, or even facilitate his peaceful exit from office.” Repression is the only tool he has, and he is running what Fry calls a “personal autocracy” to stifle opposition, like Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela and most Central Asian countries that once were part of the USSR. As history testifies, autocrats, once they relinquish power, usually end up in exile, jail, or before the firing squad. To quote Fry again, repression has a ‘self-reinforcing momentum’, whose increasing use only signals that his other tools are failing and his absolute hold over power is weakening. Putin is now waging a war upon his own people, presiding over a fiefdom of crony oligarchs.
But Russia still remains a formidable military and economic power and a nuclear superpower. In terms of military capacity, it ranks as the third most powerful country in the world. It is the 11th-largest economy in the world and sixth in PPP terms, with per capita income higher than China’s. Its major weapons though are oil and gas – about a quarter of Europe’s oil and gas comes from Russia and most European countries are overwhelmingly dependent on Russia for their energy. The dependence varies from 100 per cent for Finland, Slovakia or Estonia to 80 per cent for Czech Republic, Bulgaria or Lithuania to 60 per cent for Austria, Hungary or Greece. Even Germany gets about half its energy from Russia. This gives Russia tremendous leverage in the foreign policies of these countries, because prices depend on relations with Russia. Major investments in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber-capabilities have enabled Russia to pose serious threats to US and NATO, as the USA has recently learned the hard way.
Putin by no means can be said to be presiding over a declining power, and he is a deft politician who knows how to play his cards. Russia is not yet a dictatorship like China though very close to it, and Putin is yet to face a major popular backlash with potential enough to unseat him. With important economic sectors placed under state control, he has enough economic resources at his disposal to pursue an aggressive foreign policy agenda. Earlier this year, he had sent more than 100,000 troops to the Ukraine border, the largest number since 2014, and his navy threatened to block the Kerch strait, cutting off parts of Ukraine from the Black Sea. Though the troops were pulled back in April, Russia has the capability to engineer trouble in Ukraine and other neighbouring countries any time. It supports separatists in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where at least 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula inhabited by mostly ethnic Russians, its economy was in deep trouble because of plummeting oil prices, and Putin needed to boost his popularity which indeed soared sky-high as the annexation was perceived as reuniting Crimea to Russia to which it rightfully belonged.
Crimea has a complex history ~ once it was part of the Ottoman Empire from which Tsarina Catherine the Great annexed it to the Russian Empire in 1783. The strategically located peninsula has given Russia huge leverage by providing access to the Black Sea through Sevastopol, the only warm water port that Russia controls and where it maintains a major naval base that hosts its Black Sea Fleet. Now, seven years later, the situation is uncannily similar – Putin’s popular support is sinking, and Russia has seen the largest protests in a decade when Navalny was arrested in January. Resentment against him is growing at home, and his protégé in Belarus, Lukashenko, has become so insecure after stealing an election by spontaneous revolts in his own turf that he had to send a military jet to bring down an international flight that was carrying one of his critics, Roman Protasevich, in what is being termed internationally as “state sponsored hijacking”. Faced with protests at home and revulsion outside, Putin may again resort to some adventurism, like in 2014.
Ambassador George F. Kennan wrote 75 years ago in his “Long Telegram” to the Secretary of State: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Even though the Soviet threat exists no more, the words perhaps remain true. Indeed, territorial expansion has remained the Russian game-plan throughout the course of history, which is a threat even now. Russia has always been wary of a belt of democratic, prosperous states around itself; and Putin also fears, rightly, that such a belt might pose a direct challenge to his leadership and kindle true democratic aspirations among Russians. This explains his actions in Ukraine and Crimea and in supporting the authoritarian regimes in his neighbourhood. He knows that only Russians ~ not other powers ~ will decide his future and to that end he has effectively defanged all opposition. But being a student of history, he should draw some lessons from it.
(To be Concluded)