On August 9, 1999, when Russian president Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin as his new acting prime minister, the career KGB officer was largely an unknown political figure. His only previous political experience was as adviser to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchek. After Sobchek lost his re-election bid in 1996, Putin had moved to Moscow as the head of the department of presidential property management. Yeltsin subsequently appointed him as head of KGB's successor agency FSB, at a time when the credibility and viability of the Russian security apparatus was at an all-time low.
No one expected Putin to survive for long as prime minister in Yeltsin's revolving-door administration. Three of his predecessors had lasted only a few months. The Russian economy was on the verge of collapse following the financial crash of 1998. The oligarchs close to Yeltsin were busy appropriating Russia's seemingly endless natural resources. Chechnya was imploding. There were chaos and corruption everywhere. And Yeltsin was looking for a safe exit, guaranteed by a strong successor.
A few months into his tenure, Putin demonstrated that he was made of sterner stuff. After a series of apartment bombings which killed hundreds in Moscow, Putin appeared on national television, talking tough, in complete contrast to the drunk and blabbering Yeltsin, and declared his intent to tackle the terrorists. After the Russian intelligence agencies identified Chechen rebels to be behind the attacks (there were also conspiracy theories about the government orchestrating the attacks for political reasons), Putin authorised a massive military offensive, flattening the Chechen capital Grozny, killing thousands of civilians and winning over the loyalty of the Kadyrov clan, which was leading a sizeable group of rebels. It brought a semblance of peace to the restive region. The audacious move helped Putin consolidate his grasp on power and boost his popularity. When Yeltsin gave up office late in 1999, Putin became acting president. He won the 2000 elections and became president in his own right, and has not looked back since.
Putin started off as a pro-western reformer, a technocrat, who was trying to restore order in a chaotic society and usher in economic growth. During the early phase of his presidential career, he was on friendly terms with the west, and there were even reports about him speaking to president Bill Clinton about Russia finding a place in in NATO. A few months before the infamous 9/11 attacks, president George W. Bush and Putin had a conversation after which Bush said he looked Putin in the eye and felt that he was straightforward and trustworthy. “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” said Bush. The friendship prospered further after the 9/11 attacks. Putin was the first major global leader to call up Bush and offer support in the war on terror. He allowed the US to have a temporary base in Central Asia and permitted US Air Force to fly over the Russian airspace during sorties to Afghanistan.
The honeymoon with the west, however, did not last long. Putin opposed the US invasion of Iraq. One of the many reasons behind the break was the western involvement in the former Soviet space, most notably following the Orange revolution in Ukraine. After Moscow-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych won the Ukrainian presidential elections, there were massive protests against the alleged rigging. The supreme court subsequently nullified the elections and Viktor Yushchenko, backed by the west, won the reelection. Putin was unnerved and annoyed by the west's decision to interfere in what he considered was Russia's natural sphere of influence. He articulated the break in clear terms at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. Putin criticised the unipolar world order, lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and signalled the beginning of a new Cold War. “The US has overstepped its borders in all spheres—economic, political and humanitarian,” said Putin, and called for restructuring the global security architecture.
Putin was uncomfortable with the global democracy project of the neocons in the US administration. He had allowed free market policies in the beginning, but a western-style democracy, for him, was an unwelcome intrusion. Putin responded with the concept of “sovereign/managed” democracy, proposed by one of his closest aides, Vladislav Surkov, in a series of essays in 2006. It gave the state sovereign right to define democracy, and Surkov used it to offer a Russian substitute for the western concept of liberal democracy. It called for free and sometimes fair elections, but offered zero checks and balances against unbridled executive power. Managed/illiberal democracy seems to be the preferred system for several regimes across the world now, including that of Hungary and Turkey.
One of the earliest manifestations of the functioning of sovereign democracy was the manner in which the Russian state took down Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his multibillion dollar hydrocarbon enterprise Yukos. Khodorkovsky's downfall came after he started criticising what he called the Putin regime's crony capitalist policies. Yukos was taken over and sold to the state-run oil firm Roseneft and Khodorkovsky was banished to a Siberian labour camp for ten years. He was released in 2014 following a deal in which he promised never to return to Russia. Khodorkovsky is now working to orchestrate a regime change in Russia through democratic means and he still remains optimistic. Some of Putin's other detractors were not as lucky as Khodorkovsky. Double agent Sergei Skripal, politician Boris Nemtsov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya who were opposed to the Putin regime were found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Yet, it did not hurt Putin's popularity in Russia. By the end of his second presidential term, Putin had managed to restore order, the economy was growing, especially with oil prices at a record high, and Russia was being taken seriously yet again at global platforms. After the ignominious years of experimenting with democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians were glad that they enjoyed some sort of political stability. Putin for many of them appeared to be a Tsar-like figure, wielding authority, offering stability and restoring Russia's national pride.
Putin developed a new compact with the Russians by shifting the national polity to the right, invoking memories of Mother Russia's bygone glory, renationalising natural resources, reinstating the primacy of the security services and by co-opting the Russian Orthodox Church. Close association with the church and Patriarch Kirill has been one of the cornerstones of the Putin presidency. The president has lent support to hostile positions adopted by the church against homosexuality and divorce, although Putin himself divorced his wife of 31 years, Lydmila, in 2014. The support of the church is also a helpful foreign policy tool as a significant majority of the population in the Russian neighbourhood, including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania, identify themselves as Orthodox. On the domestic front, it gives Putin sufficient support and legitimacy for his nationalist agenda, and giving a bump to his popularity.
Putin was so confident about his appeal that at the end of his two presidential terms in 2008, he chose not to tinker with the constitution, which barred a third consecutive term. Instead, he got his protégé Dmitry Medvedev elected as president, and worked with him as prime minister till 2012, when he returned as president. During Medvedev's term, the presidential term was extended to six years, which took effect from the 2012 elections.
Upon his return to the Kremlin, Putin was decidedly more hawkish, especially in his foreign policy. He embarked upon an anti-western course and became more and more close to China under Xi Jinping. In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. However, more than territorial ambitions, what perhaps forced Putin's hand was the fact that Ukraine was looking to evict Russia's Black Sea Fleet from its base in Crimea's Sevastopol. It was also a pointed message against NATO's expansion, especially into what Russia considers its sphere of influence. The west imposed sanctions on Russia and Putin, in response, banned the import of food and agricultural products from countries critical of Russia.
Putin also chose to challenge the western narrative on Syria, offering support to the embattled president Bashar al-Assad. It officially launched its airstrikes in Syria in 2015 and over the past four years, Putin has managed to stay the course in the country. With President Trump in a hurry to give up on Syria, Assad has largely regained control, reinforcing Moscow's influence not just in Damascus, but also in the larger Middle East. Russia enjoys close working relations with regional powerhouses like Turkey—the S-400 deal is on despite sustained American pressure, Iran, Israel and the Gulf states.
Relations with China have been another key defining feature of Putin's foreign relations after his return as president. He enjoys warm personal ties with Xi. The sanctions after the annexation of Crimea have given Russia an added incentive to work more closely with China. It has replaced Germany as Russia's largest trading partner. China is the biggest consumer of Russian hydrocarbons. The traditional Russian wariness of sharing sophisticated military technologies with China seems to be on the wane. Russia and China are likely to get even closer in the days to come as sanctions and tariff war continue to hurt their economies. Russia is undoubtedly worried about the long-term threat posed by China. The demographic disadvantage that Russia is facing is too dire. Although Russia is six times the size of India, its population is only a little more than a tenth of India's population. As it shares a 4,000km-long border with China, the world's most populous country, Russia faces a real threat of demographic invasion, especially in the far east. Moreover, Russia no longer enjoys the technological edge it once had vis-à-vis China and it could soon be reduced to a supplier of raw materials even as China floods its markets with finished products.
Notwithstanding the threat perceptions, Putin seems to have resolved that short-term tactical cooperation with China is inevitable to ward off immediate concerns. The two countries are now partners in multiple fields from trade to technology. In his 2019 Annual Threat Assessment, the US director of national intelligence warned that increasing Sino-Russian cooperation would lead to economic, political, counterintelligence, military and diplomatic challenge to the US and its allies. The American political system is yet to get over from the shock about the alleged Russian subterfuge in its electoral systems. While Putin categorically denied any involvement, the FBI has recorded hundreds of attempts at cyber-infiltration into various American electoral systems, processes and databases from servers located in Russia. With the US entering the presidential election season, it could be a major cause for friction.
Putin's present six-year term will run till 2024. There have been a few anti-government protests of late, but Putin has survived several bigger challenges in his two-decade long political career. The sinking of the submarine Kursk (2000), the Moscow theatre hostage crisis (2002), the serial apartment bombings (1999), the Beslan school attack (2006) did nothing to hurt his popularity. Putin easily weathered several allegations of corruption, too, ranging from the Panama Papers (2016), the 2014 report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, embezzlement of funds for the Sochi Winter Olympics and allegations about the ownership of the billion-dollar Gelendzhik Mansion on the Black Sea.
Over the past few months, Putin has been facing yet another wave of anti-government protests. Resentment has been brewing across Russia because of the ongoing economic crisis, and the Kremlin's decision last year to raise pension age has added to it. The government's highhanded ways to manipulate the Moscow city council elections have brought more people on to the streets. The city council does not have any real power, but the ruling United Russia party of Putin has become so unpopular that many potential candidates quit it, opting to run as independents. The government has responded by disqualifying a large number of anti-establishment candidates, further intensifying the protests. Putin, perhaps, is dealing with a new demographic cohort here, which is not enamoured by his record. Those who were born after Putin became president have reached voting age and they do not remember the chaotic days and humiliation from which Putin saved Russia. Their aspirations and the political grammar they follow seem to be different from what is offered by Putin and the existing Russian political system. And, they hardly ever watch Russian television, robbing the administration off one of its most powerful propaganda tools.
Putin, however, has proved to be a past master in weathering crises and staying on top. His two decades as the undisputed leader of Russia bear testimony to his unmatched survival skills and his uncanny ability to sense the popular mood and stay a step ahead. The system of governance that he has created appears durable and is unlikely to collapse easily. Even as he faces a worrisome wave of anti-government protests, Putin's personal popularity is at a healthy 66 per cent, although considerably down from the post-Crimea high, which had nearly touched the 90s. He has time till 2024 as president and what happens next is anybody's guess. He could amend the constitution and stay on, could do a 2008 by putting a close ally as president and take up the PM's post, or could cede presidency but retain power by creating a new position for himself. Putin is likely to walk away into the sunset only after he feels confident about his post-retirement future as well as the safety of his inner circle.