Last year, the Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged as a world leader. The European political class admires him; they say that all French presidential candidates, whether from the left or from the right, want better relations with Russia. In the Middle East he is seen as the strong man who wields his air force and navy, does not hesitate to bomb cities to dust and mark victory, like the recent one in Aleppo. Even in America he is seen as a powerful, although much feared figure; they say that his orders to manipulate the elections and therefore contributing to the defeat of the democratic candidate and the victory of Donald Trump. In a time political elites elsewhere are seen as losers, Putin, evidently, is the big winner.
This is not a small achievement. His return to the presidency in 2012 did not go well. For the first time he was faced by relatively large demonstrations (December 2011) by Russian citizens angry at the “musical chairs” played between Dmitri Medvedev and Putin. The Russian urban middle classes felt they were mature enough for a real electoral choice, which Putin-Medvedev “tandem”, and the opaque Russian ruling elite behind them, was not offering them. The protests sparked fears of an “Orange” Revolution in Russia itself.
The return of Putin to presidency started by a bad omen. More trouble was to come. Oil prices dropped dramatically in 2014, which threatened to unravel Putin’s popularity during his first two presidential terms (2000-2008): the economic stability of the Russian middle classes. In his first two terms in the presidency, Putin’s popularity was fueled by constant expanding of the Russian economy, thanks to Russian success in revitalizing its oil sector and becoming the first oil-producing nation, and to favorable global oil prices. All that seemed to be threatened in 2014.
And the biggest of all problems, again in 2014, was the explosion of the situation in Ukraine. EU attempts to bring Ukraine under its wings with its proposal of “association” package exacerbated power struggle between Moscow and Brussels, and eventually led to the 2014 revolution. After the overthrow of Victor Yanukovich (February 2014), Putin decided that Ukraine was “lost”, and he went forward to annex Crimea, and support a separatist war in Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
The confrontation between Moscow and Kiev had major consequences, which continue to impact both Slavic countries. The most important is on the efforts of the Kremlin to reorganize the post-Soviet space into a new formation, the latest version of which was framed as “Eurasian Union”. Such an alliance without Ukraine is void of any content, and Russian occupation of Crimea means that no leader in Kiev can accept to enter in any new alliance with Moscow. The other consequence of the annexation of Crimea was international sanctions that severed Russian economic ties with its major partner the EU.
The contrast between Russia in 2014, isolated and punished, into Russia in 2016, victorious and influential, is amazing. Putin did manage to turn the tables and impose himself on the international scene. What is his secret to success? The loss of Ukraine, the end of the dream of a revamped-USSR, has propelled Putin to play a larger game on the global scene, with active intervention in Europe, Middle East, and even US presidential elections.
Unlike what many American pundits write, there is no contrast between the Yeltsin years in the 1990’s and Putin era. The portrayal of Yeltsin as a “democrat” contrasted with Putin representing KGB reaction is imaginative and a-historical. If anything, Russian experimentation with democracy ended with October 1993 Yeltsin bombing the Russian parliament, with full benediction of all Western “democrats”. Between the first and the second Russian presidents there is clear continuity, and not a break. Wasn’t Yeltsin the one that carefully handpicked Putin as his successor? What contrasts between Yeltsin and Putin is the weakness of the first conditioned by the struggle around Soviet property distribution, and the role of the second to bring stability to the newly formed Russian capitalist class, after decades of internal power struggle.
In this sense, Putin represents the consensus within the Russian elite for stability. In essence, Putin is a conservative in the sense that his aim is to preserve the newly acquired privileges of Russian capitalist class and its interests. The Russian political class has gone through two sets of ideological deception – the fall of socialism, and the deception in democracy, which make them very profoundly cynical and believe in power relations without ideological wrapping. For them, American talk about democracy is hypocritical and European talk about human rights naivety. It is also a political class that is deeply traumatized by political instability because of their experience in Soviet collapse, and fear to loose their own hegemonic position through an “orange Revolution” type revolt.
The Russian elite around Putin also learned how to copy Western policies and harness them to serve their hegemonic power. First, through the media, a sector that Putin brought under his control in the first year of his presidency. Then the usage of the military in foreign interventions, the first of which was in Georgia in 2008 to stop NATO expansion to the Caucasus, and the most recent was in Syria profiting from the paralysis of US Middle Eastern policy to project Russian power. And lastly accusations to Russia of having illegally hacked servers accessing private messages of the democratic candidate sounds hollow coming from Washington who for decades sponsored an extended state-sponsored program to systematically and illegally record private communication, including that of German Chancellor Angel Merkel nominally a US ally.
Putin’s secret to success is that it is behaving like the west in the name of power and stability, and not democracy and human rights. And in an age of global war on terror Russian propaganda is more effective.
Putin has his own Achilles’ heel, which is the Russian economy. In 2015 Russian economy was shrunk by over 2%, and estimates put Russian economic development in 2016 at -2.2%. But that is another story. And who knows may be unraveling events in 2017 will give us enough opportunity to come back on that.