July 31 (UPI) — President Vladimir Putin’s own version of history casts himself as modern Russia’s bulwark and champion.
According to this narrative, Putin has sturdily held back waves of foreign and domestic adversaries and simultaneously restored Russia to greatness.
Although these breathless tales of Putin’s heroics may still resonate among Russians who’ve been spoon-fed a rich diet of disinformation for years, informed observers will view them on a spectrum ranging from embellished to the absurd.
Future historians are unlikely to treat Putin kindly. He has ruled through a combination of fear and favor, cynically upending Russia’s proto-democracy by making dissent a crime rather than a crucial part of political life. Russia has become a nation under the thrall of Putin’s singular idea, instead of a healthy contest between competing ones.
He has progressively sickened Russian society, creating a toxic culture that celebrates xenophobia, nativism and violence.
And by launching a foolish war of imperial expansion in Ukraine that his much vaunted modernized military has proved incapable of winning, he has inadvertently revealed the fragility of his own power structure.
Putin’s political ascent began once he took over as head of the Russian Security Council in March 1999, long seen as a likely pathway to executive leadership. He then assumed Russia’s prime ministership, and, soon after, its presidency as an increasingly infirm Boris Yeltsin sought to anoint a successor.
Putin’s willingness to protect the interests of “the family” — the network of cronies and oligarchs comprising Yeltsin’s inner circle — made him an obscure but nonetheless logical choice.
A struggle for order and stability has been a consistent leitmotif in how Putin has portrayed himself. He played up this theme during Russia’s presidential election in 2000, which followed the crippling 1998 Russian financial crisis and was held amid Russia’s second war in Chechnya.
In his debut campaign, Putin offered little beyond a vague promise to restore order and make Russia a great power again. He faced little opposition once two leading political figures — Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov — pulled out of the race. Russians elected him with 53% of the vote, more out of a sense of relief than enthusiasm.
Upon assuming the leadership, Putin set about stabilizing the economy. He amended Russia’s tax code, replacing an arcane system of loopholes and tax breaks with flat rates to boost compliance. In 2004, he effectively renationalized the oil and gas industries after the forced breakup of Yukos, which controlled around 20% of Russia’s oil production.
This sent both an economic and a political message: Russia’s future prosperity would be driven by energy revenues, and Russia’s oligarchs would only prosper at Putin’s pleasure. Such has been Russia’s reliance on energy that by 2021, taxes and dividends from oil and gas companies accounted for 45% of Russia’s federal budget.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent U.S.-led global war on terror, Russia’s economy rebounded considerably, aided by high energy prices.
Between 2000 and 2007, average disposable income increased considerably. Inflation fell and the economy grew by around 7% a year, although real wages declined. While the economy suffered a recession as a result of the global financial crisis in 2008, growth was swiftly restored.
Annual household income rose to an estimated $10,000 per capita in 2013, but by 2022 had contracted to only $7,900. Hence Russians have, on average, been worse off over the last decade.
This is partly due to Western sanctions imposed after the country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Later, following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia defaulted on its foreign currency debt (for the first time since 1918), and the economy entered recession in November.
Significant structural problems in Russia’s economy and society have persisted under Putin. Wealth is unevenly distributed, concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in Russia’s regions it’s highly centered on local elites.
On average, Russians have shorter lives than Iraqis (70 years) and only live marginally longer than citizens of Eritrea (67 years) and Ethiopia (65 years).
Kleptocrats, meet autocrats
Bribery and institutionalized corruption have been just as much a hallmark of Putin’s rule as his predecessor’s.
Despite fanfare about clearing out the oligarchs, Russia has scored consistently poorly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2022, Russia was ranked 137th out of 180 nations. By comparison, after Putin had finished his first term as president in 2004, Russia placed 90th.
Putin’s rule is also the story of Russia’s slide from a “managed” democracy to an autocratic regime. This was a gradual process, justified by the need for new laws to protect society.
It began in 2003 when Russian media were barred from political analysis during elections. By 2012, Putin’s imposition of new laws that criminalized foreign agents, protests and criticism of the government saw Russia ranked 148th out of 176 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. This year, it has slipped to 164th out of 180 countries.
After the Ukraine invasion, Russians convicted of “discrediting the military” have faced jail terms, fines, beatings, social ostracism, loss of income and benefits and even psychiatric confinement.
Legacy of ostracism, fragility
Putin’s Russia is a society in which enemies abound. With respect to perceived external adversaries — NATO members and the broader West — Putin sees regime security as being synonymous with national security. As a result, his primary fears are personal, not geopolitical.
It’s not NATO expansion that concerns Putin, but what an alliance of largely democratic nations may bring with it: the prospect of “color revolutions,” in which populations seek to wrest control from the hands of corrupt dictators.
By invading Ukraine, Putin has actually succeeded in enlarging NATO further, with Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. He has prompted Germany and other overdependent European states to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. And he’s ensured Russia will remain a Western pariah for the foreseeable future, while bequeathing Russia’s next generation the lasting hatred of Ukrainians.
Russia faces an uncertain future. Instead of Putin’s vision of a Euro-Pacific great power, it seems destined to be little more than a nuclear-armed raw materials appendage of China.
Even worse for Putin, his rule now looks increasingly tenuous. His failures in Ukraine have proven impossible for Russia’s compliant state media to fashion into a story of triumph.
Putin’s response to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s dramatic mutiny in June added to the perception of weakness. It initially took him several hours to appear in an emergency broadcast, in which he spoke of a potential civil war and promised to liquidate the Wagner traitors.
But once a hasty deal with Prigozhin was struck, that strong statement was walked back only hours later by Putin’s press secretary, who was forced to paint the Wagner forces simultaneously as both heroes and enemies of the state.
Later, in an address to Russian soldiers, Putin thanked the military for saving Russia, even though it hadn’t confronted the revolt.
The equally apathetic response by the general public (indeed, nobody tried to lie down in front of a Wagner tank to protect Putin) was also telling. So, too, was the fact Wagner operatives were able to escape the mutiny unpunished, while ordinary citizens face jail terms for even short silent protests.
Putin’s Russia is starting to look like Tsarist Russia: a state that collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, as British historian Orlando Figes put it. Russia now looks even more fractured than it did when Putin took over, ostensibly to save it from turmoil.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Putin’s near-quarter century at the helm, then, is that he has come to personify the chaos he has long professed to abhor.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.