For over a decade Vladimir Putin has simultaneously charmed and threatened the world and his own people. When he rapidly rose through the ranks at the end of the 1990s, thanks to his patron, the late President Boris Yeltsin, little was known about Putin. Indeed, he was seen as a potential reformer, a closet liberal, a quiet bureaucrat not expected to last long in the cut-throat mafia and oligarch setting of Russian politics. Today Putin is perceived as a ruthless, authoritarian pseudo-tsar who rules with an iron fist. Having secured his position within Russia, recent events have revealed his desire to extend his influence beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.
As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, the failure of Western academics, political observers, policy makers and leaders to properly understand Putin and his motives has been startling. The West’s perception of Putin only soured with the outbreak of the Syria crisis, and even then a selection of sympathisers remained. Nonetheless, few would deny that Putin harbours ambitions that go beyond that of a humble and reactive reformer. Here are ten things we have learnt about Putin in the course of his fifteen-year domination of Russian political life.
1. He is smart. Putin has polarised global opinion. In Russia he remains widely admired, as he is by traditional opponents of the West – ranging from pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian regime supporters in the Middle East to good old-fashioned leftists in Latin America. In the West, too, he has his fair share of sympathisers. One thing is certain: he has proven to be exceptionally shrewd and politically astute. He does not possess the recognised attributes of a great leader: his gait is awkward, he is not an inspirational speechmaker and he does not project warmth or emotion. Yet a certain charm has transpired, in part because power in itself creates an aura of charisma, but also because of his political longevity and the perception that this generally softly spoken and rather miniature man has a steely interior and wolfish eyes that have seen him overcome a sequence of challenges, beginning with the crisis in Chechnya to, most recently, events in Syria where he arguably single-handedly enabled the survival of the Syrian regime and destroyed the hope of a successful revolution. He has always sought to give the impression of total control, something that Russians apparently desire. He has brilliantly grasped the Russian psyche, and arguably shaped it. Rebels or opponents such as the punk band Pussy Riot are denounced by the Kremlin-controlled media as miscreants, alien to Russian norms and traditions. And Putin’s leadership has reached a level at which it can convince Russians of his vision of Russian culture: most Russians are willing to unquestioningly follow his lead without fully understanding his endgame.
2. He is not an economic reformer. Putin rose to power during the 1990s in the context of a paralysed Russian economy. The 1998 banking crisis had set back economic stability, but Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov had that year initiated a series of measures that can be considered the turning point of the economic revival. Primakov also instigated what perhaps has been the most serious offensive against corruption since the demise of the Soviet Union, which ultimately led to his own downfall when investigations reached the Yeltsin family. Putin was chosen by Yeltsin and packaged for the youth which gave the impression that he was closer to liberal reformers like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar than may have actually been the case. He was also initially endorsed by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and his political career had its origins in the Westernised St. Petersburg local government. However, it quickly became apparent that Putin neither understood nor had much sympathy for genuine market reforms. His natural tendency was to centralise and monopolise major economic sectors. He feared genuine creativity and preferred a conservative and steady approach to idiosyncratic inventiveness. His power base became solely reliant on energy and his growing power became closely correlated with the rising prices of oil and gas. The Russian economy did not diversify, corruption remained rife and arguably became a more entrenched yet barely disguised part of public economic life. While living standards for many Russians have improved, it is difficult to argue that Putin has implemented economic reforms that have given the national economy long-term stability.
3. His claim to believe in a state of law is dubious. Putin often refers to his legal background to emphasise his commitment to the rule of law and a more just and balanced society. Putin drove out of the country or imprisoned many of Yeltsin’s ruling oligarchs, including his own political patron Berezovsky. Soon enough though it became clear that he promoted his own set of oligarchs to the fore alongside those under Yeltsin who were willing to switch allegiance and accept Putin’s authority. Violence, including political violence, continues to prevail. The neo-KGB establishment, known as the FSB, reigns supreme in internal matters and can intimidate the most sturdy of judges, although bribery is the preferred method. Indeed, among the main obstacles to foreign investment in Russia, and one of the reasons for the precipitous flight of capital, is lack of faith in the country’s legal system to protect businesses and individuals from the Kremlin’s moodiness.
4. He is determined to defend Russian territorial integrity – most of the time. Putin has often been seen as unwilling to compromise when it comes to the integrity of the Russian Federation or when the borders of the country face an external threat. His rise to fame and reputation was built on his subjugation of Chechen and other Caucasian separatists. He later vehemently opposed NATO and even EU expansion and also ordered the invasion of Georgia, considering it Moscow’s right to intervene in its own backyard. His latest actions in eastern Ukraine simply mark a continuation of this pattern. Putin’s ultra-nationalism has also created intense xenophobia against neighboring people in Georgia, Ukraine and Estonia, as well as against Muslims. However, a cynic would point out that he has not been so animated in his reaction to Chinese infiltration on Russian’s eastern borders that could potentially pose a national security threat in the future or that he has often delegated self-rule in parts of the federation in return for a pledge to be loyal to his pre-eminence which is eerily similar to the Brezhnevite model that ultimately led to the break-up of the Soviet Union.
5. Putin considers sovereignty an inviolable notion – sometimes. Not unrelated to the last point, cynics would point out that despite the rhetoric espousing the absolute sanctity of sovereignty in international law, which was among the main arguments offered in defence of his support for the regime in Syria and against intervention in Libya, Putin has not hesitated in supporting separatists in Georgia or Ukraine and has turned a blind eye to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Clearly, the robust promotion of the notion of sovereignty is for Putin intended only to prevent external interference and criticism of the running of what he considers his country. This has led to at times ridiculous legislation such as naming non-Russian NGOs that often perform urgent charitable functions that the Russian state has failed to provide as foreign agents. The pro-sovereignty language thus has in many respects become a guise for growing isolationism at home and to protect like-minded undemocratic allies from Western criticism and action.
6. His claim to support a genuine peace in the Middle East looks shaky. Russia has long claimed to be a supporter of a genuine and comprehensive peace in the region. This has included Moscow’s claim to be a fair referee in the complicated Palestinian-Israeli conflict that recently reached new lows. But Russia has also readily armed and given cover to groups that openly declare to seek the destruction of Israel, and the states that sponsor them. At the same time Russia has offered only words in support for the Palestinians and has been notably coy when it comes to criticising settlement expansions at a time when even in the West there have been calls from unions and other groups for boycotts. Putin has been more pragmatic and sees advantages in developing ties with Russian Jews, in particular the potential economic benefits of good relations with the wealthier members of the community. Russia also kept a rather bashful low profile during the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza. Putin is, in reality, rather satisfied with the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict since it provides Russia with a foothold in the region. This is in stark contrast to the Yeltsin era when Russia for the most part made it clear that any party that serves as an obstacle to peace would not receive Moscow’s backing which in turn helped attain many of the agreements that were signed in the 1990s, including the Jordanian-Israeli peace deal, still in effect.
7. Putin does not shy away from acting as a spoiler. Nothing has better illustrated the true character of Putin than the way Russia acted during the Syria uprising. While the international community was on the whole desperate to end the fighting as quickly as possible and to prevent the rise of extremism and the spread of the conflict, Putin remained ruthlessly cool. It became clear that both Putin and the Russian leadership were little moved by the massacres in Syria, the gross human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons in one of the most grotesque conflicts of the modern era. The likes of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin smirked and gleefully connived their way through public and private diplomatic sittings with the intention of prolonging the conflict for the sole purpose of humiliating the West, painting Putin as a strongman in the process. In the short term, events in Syria worked in Russia’s favour and Putin has doubtless lost little sleep over the terrible human tragedy and the sinister turn the conflict has taken with the rise of brutal Takfiri militias. Already, however, there are signs Putin may be at the receiving end of some of the consequences of his actions in Syria.
8. He is not overly keen to join the Western family. The early rise of Putin’s political career in St. Petersburg under the reform-minded Anatoly Sobchak and his initial rhetoric—including his goals of G-8 membership and political and economic partnership with Germany as well as support for the United States against Islamic extremism—created the impression that Putin was inclined to side with the West. Yet Putin’s actions have proved otherwise. He cut Europe off from crucial gas supplies during cold winters; he supported both violent anti-Western groups and states; he has built Asiatic coalitions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in a bid to form multipolar fronts: all intended to show Russia’s detachment from the West, never mind outright hostility which has become increasingly typical in the mainstream media.
9. The mask of humility and modesty is slipping. Despite the stern exterior and authoritarian streak, many early Putin sympathisers in the West considered Putin an ultimately humble, well-meaning and most importantly incorruptible nationalist who was merely looking out for his country’s interests. Over time this image has faded. Aside from the comical photographs portraying Putin as a tiger-taming, high-flying, deep-sea diving muscleman, it has become apparent that Putin enjoys opulence. His personal weakness for expensive watches and pens appears to belie what his opponents claim is a massive personal fortune. Some, such as once rising star Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov, have hinted at anything between $40 to $80 billion based on leaked data from finance and banking sources. While this is yet to be proven there is little doubt that Putin’s inner circle of friends and allies have amassed dazzling fortunes.
10. He is not infallible. Despite the fact that Putin appears untouchable, enjoying great authority in Russia and on the world stage, there are threats on the horizon, many of his own making, including his failure or unwillingness to introduce genuine economic and social reforms but also a gradual change in attitude at home towards his foreign policy. Putin’s drift towards a more ambitious foreign policy and openly hostile attitude towards the West began in 2004 but the Russian leader was still initially careful not to cross lines of no return, and to seek compromises and settlements. This changed, first to some extent with the invasion of Georgia, but most dramatically in Syria and Ukraine. Ordinary Russians are already timidly wondering if it is worth alienating the international community, putting the Russian economy in danger and causing investments to flee for the sake of shoring up Bashar Asad’s power in Syria, or keeping a tenuous grip on Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Putin’s once lauded strategic intelligence is now increasingly doubted.
Talal Nizameddin has been studying and researching Russia and the Middle East for twenty years. He is the author of Putin’s New Order in the Middle East.