by Oliver Bullough
The world was stunned by the Russian intervention in Crimea. But you should? Russian President Vladimir Putin has never made a secret of his intention to restore power to his country. The difficult thing now is to predict how far Moscow will go.
On August 16, 1999, the Russian Parliament (Duma) approved the candidacy of a prime minister. Congressmen listened to his speech, asked him a few questions, and confirmed him in office.
He would be President Boris Yeltsin’s 5th prime minister in 16 months, which led one congressman to misname the new incumbent. The world paid little attention to his speech. The expectation was that he would lead the Russian government for just a few months.
But that man was former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, and today he has been in charge of the world’s largest country – as president or prime minister – ever since.
What few realized in 1999 is that his speech at the time would dictate the direction of all his actions and plans to redefine a country that was on the brink of collapse.
A year earlier, Russia had defaulted on its debt, civil servants’ salaries were behind, basic infrastructure was crumbling. The country’s most important assets belonged to well-connected “oligarchs” who ran the country as if it were their own.
Yeltsin, for his part, was an incorrigible drinker in poor health. The situation was desperate, but Putin had a plan.
“I cannot, in this speech, cover all the tasks facing the government. But I am sure of one thing: none of these tasks can be achieved without imposing order and discipline in the country, without strengthening the vertical chain (of command)”, he told the parliamentarians.
Putin had lived through the golden years of the Soviet Union, after its incredible triumph in World War II. Sputnik, the hydrogen bomb, the Laika, Yuri Gagarin were all proofs of Russian creativity. Victories in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 showed the Soviet strength, in a period of stability, prosperity, and respect for the world.
When Putin spoke to the Duma in 1999, his country was another—and less respected. He spoke like a man who resented certain losses.
“Russia’s territorial integrity is not subject to negotiation. (…) We will take tough action against anyone who violates our territorial integrity. Russia has been a great power for centuries and continues to be. interests abroad, in former Soviet lands and beyond. We must not let our guard down, nor let our opinion be ignored.”
Putin did not speak explicitly, but he was clearly upset by Russia’s failure to prevent NATO (Western military alliance) from expelling Serb (Russian allies) troops from Kosovo a few months earlier.
His domestic policy was to restore stability, put an end to what he called the “revolutions” that had brought Russia to its knees, and regain the country’s place on the international stage. And that’s what’s been driving your government ever since. If he had been heard back then, his actions would not be surprising today.
The beginning of his campaign was in Chechnya, the symbol of the Russian collapse. The Chechens had surpassed Yeltsin and advanced their self-declared independence, but this turned out to be a bitter victory. The war devastated the Chechen people, economy, and infrastructure.
When Putin took over from Yeltsin, the approval rating of the previously unknown prime minister was 70%. And little has fallen since then.
In 2000, the Russian military seized the Chechen capital, Grozny, and took control of 80% of the territory. Putin ended up putting the republic under the direct administration of his government.
Human rights defenders and Western governments accused Putin of disregarding international law in his hunt for Chechen opponents. But that didn’t affect his popularity. The president had begun his mission to restore Russian prestige.
At home, he advanced against the most powerful Russian oligarchs. In 2003, police arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the country’s richest man, whose oil empire was dismembered and partly nationalized. The move was seen by many as building an authoritarian empire.
In the same year’s elections, Putin’s allies won two-thirds of the Duma, in an election questioned by observers.
In just four years, Putin had conquered Chechnya, taken control of the press and oligarchs, and won a Parliament that would do what he wanted, as well as showing that Russia would have a voice in international affairs.
“He’s a nationalist, in the Russian federal sense, not an ethnic one. I think that’s his biggest driving force, more than a hunger for power or personal ambitions,” says Dmitry Linnik, head of the London office of Voice of radio Russia.
Not everyone agrees. “I think he made a number of decisions, very rational from his personal perspective, (so) that this kind of autocratic regime would give him maximum power and wealth,” says Chrystia Freeland, who headed the Russian branch of the Financial Times newspaper. when the president came to power.
Putin also restored Soviet symbols, such as hymns and emblems, and pre-Soviet ones, such as the Russian Orthodox Church.
This trend towards Russia’s own conservatism accelerated after the wave of popular protests against apparent electoral fraud in 2011-12 that distanced Putin from Russian liberals. One of his favorite ideologues is Vladimir Yakunin, who said in a recent interview that Russia “is not between Europe and Asia. They are the west and east of Russia. We are not a bridge between them, but a space between them. separate civilization”.
Yakunin was placed on the list of people sanctioned by the US (for being part of the “inner circle of Russian leadership”) after the annexation of Crimea.
The idea of Russia being separate but equal to the West is convenient, as it allows the Kremlin to reject Western criticism of its elections, judiciary, and foreign policy.
Many of Putin’s friends, even though they despise Western politics, economics, values , and structures, are very attracted to his comfort. Yakunin’s two sons live in Western Europe (England and Switzerland).
Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny accuses Yakunin of building himself a palace on the outskirts of Moscow using imported inputs – an odd thing for a man who advocates a Russian economy independent of the West.
Putin himself defended principles that he later abandoned when they became inconvenient. In the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, he made a defense of international law, which opposed an invasion without UN support. But in 2008 he sent troops to Georgia without even pretending to consult the Security Council.
Last year, an intervention in Syria was out of the question. This year, an intervention in Ukraine is justified and legitimate.
It may be that principle has never been at the heart of the debate – Putin’s aim has always been to maximize Russian power.
It is not easy to redesign a country on your own, and Putin has used the support of a crucial group in Russian society. At the same time that he went against the independent press, businessmen, and politicians, he relied on state officials to ensure that his ideas were implemented.
These officials have been well rewarded: senior officers’ salaries have risen 20 percent last year, four times the overall budget.
Last week, the Interior Ministry said that the bribe paid, on average, by the Russians doubled in 2013, to $4,000. Transparency International ranks Russia 127th in its corruption perception ranking, along with Mali and Pakistan.
“Putin has destroyed all independent sources of power in Russia. He can only rely on the bureaucracy and must nurture it to ensure his loyalty,” says Briton Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire, on Putin’s Russia.
“At some point, the money will run out, and he will find himself in the same position as Soviet leaders in the late 1980s, forced to face political and economic crises as they tried to keep the country together. He is strong today, but the Kremlin holds up on something that Russia does not control: the price of oil.”
Putin has succeeded in rebuilding a version of the country of his childhood, which acts independently in the world and in which dissent is controlled before challenging the Kremlin. But that’s a double-edged sword, as the USSR has collapsed—and recreating it means Russia runs the same risk.
For exiled dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Putin is genuine when he says the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a “geopolitical catastrophe.”
“He doesn’t think this collapse was preordained, so he believes his mission is to restore the Soviet system,” he opines.
As a KGB middle-ranking officer who loved the USSR, Putin did not have the same perspective as the leading officers, who knew the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of their own inefficiency rather than a Western conspiracy, Bukovsky follows.
“It makes Putin repeat the same mistakes. He wants the entire country to be controlled by one person in the Kremlin.”
The president’s decision to invade Crimea was taken quickly and impulsively by a small group of allies. This means that Putin has no one to warn him of the long-term consequences of his actions. And, until he discovers this for himself, he will follow the current path.
It also means that relations with the West will continue to be uncomfortable, especially in geopolitical areas that he considers to be “legitimate interests”.
But we cannot say that we were not warned about this.
*Oliver Bullough is a journalist and Caucasus editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting