It was August 16 1999 when a new prime minister was sworn in by the Duma, Russia’s parliament. He was the fifth to be appointed in a mere 16 months and nobody expected him to last any longer than his predecessors. Vladimir Putin has been in high office ever since.
The then President Boris Yeltsin was a drunk who had been presiding over disaster after disaster. In 1998 he led a country that had defaulted on its debts. People were not getting paid. The army had lost the war with Chechnya, a country with fewer citizens than the once great Russian army had soldiers. Many former allies of the Warsaw Pact had joined NATO. The country’s infrastructure was falling apart and a bunch of wealthy oligarchs held the real power. Russia was on the brink of total collapse.
The man sworn in that day had a plan to change all that, and he outlined it in his inaugural speech. At that time, the former KGB officer made little impact on his colleagues. One of them even got his name wrong, declaring he gave his support to the candidacy of Stephashin, the predecessor who had just been sacked. If they couldn’t even get his name right, they didn’t expect much from him. Yet in that speech he set out a template for turning Russia around, and he has stuck to its blueprint for nigh on 15 years. In all that time his approval ratings at home have never dropped much below 70 percent, over peaking over 80. Even during the mass protests prior to his 2012 re-election.
Putin survived the siege of Leningrad, the only child of his parents to do so, and grew up tough and street-wise in the communal apartment blocks. It couldn’t have been a “happy” childhood, he shared one room with his parents until he was 25, and yet he still managed to be “spoiled.” When his mother won a car in a state lottery, she gave it to him, rather than buy their way into a better home. It was the tail end of the Soviet Union, but it was also a time of prosperity and peace. Soviets had a strong sense of identity, with their successful space program, and had squashed the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Czech revolt of 1968, affirming military strength. It was still a long way ahead that the USSR would cease to exist (1991). Putin’s world he grew up in was a robust and resilient Soviet one, and he has never ceased to wish for it back. As writer Oliver Bullough has said of him, he “yearned for lost certainties.”
In that acceptance speech of 1999 he made this very clear. He was out to regain nothing less than total world respect. “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so” he told the Duma. “Russia’s territorial integrity is not subject to negotiation.” He went on,”We will take tough action on anyone who infringes upon our territorial integrity.” Regarding Russia’s “legitimate zones of interest” he promised they would not “drop our guard..neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.”
He sought first to re-establish stability and stop what he called the “revolutions” that were keeping everybody trapped in poverty as “there is no such thing as a thriving state with an impoverished population.” As for the rest of the world, his foreign policy was single-minded, to put Moscow back at the centre as a major world player. At home and abroad, he had one stated aim, to restore to Russia the prestige he felt it deserved, the prestige it had enjoyed as he was growing up.
Bullough contends, that if anyone had been listening to him back then, none of his actions since, even the most ruthless, would have come as any surprise. He is known for saying that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” but what has perhaps not been so well-known is how this belief has underpinned all of his time in power.
Tapping into patriotic paternalism, he saw that for the long-suffering, getting food back on the table was the first essential concern, and in rhetoric awfully akin to an old-style landowner, he declared that “millions of peasants” would be assisted, by default, with aid to the agrarian sector. Reversing the day to day fortunes of his fellow countrymen and women by ensuring they were fed and got paid, has no doubt contributed to his consistent approval ratings, no matter what the rest of the world may think of him.
He began his campaign to restore “Russian territorial integrity” In Chechnya and continues it to this day. Some have called him the man “hidden in plain sight” because his intentions are so clear to do anything, at any cost, to maximize Russian power. Biographer, Masha Glesson, in her book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, thinks he makes no distinction between the interests of the state and his own self-interests.To Glesson, he behaves like a “godfather of a mafia clan” and therefore no form of corruption or lawlessness is an impediment to getting what he wants.
His inconsistency fits this critique. When the US and the UK were so gung-ho to go into Iraq in 2003 he cautioned with admonishment about international law and insisted that UN approval was an absolute necessity. This was promptly forgotten when he took troops into Georgia in 2008.
In 2013 he repeatedly stood steadfast over Syria saying that intervention was unthinkable. This is in stark contrast to his attitude and actions in Ukraine. Principles are a slippery subject for Russia’s leader but the end game is always the same. He will defy the West in his understanding that Russia is mighty and cannot be “swept into a corner” as he said in a speech last week when he announced the annexation of Crimea. The very idea of Western interference is anathema. If they see him backsliding on what they consider to be democracy, that is their problem, not his. The speech was interesting in that it repeated many points of that inaugural speech of 1999. “If you compress the spring all the way back to its limit” he added with undisguised threat “it will snap back hard.”
In 2005, in his state of the nation address, he had already boasted that Russia’s form of democracy would be decided at its own “pace, terms and conditions.”
Consistently, he has been working towards the rebuilding of the nation of his childhood, an independent strong force in the affairs of the world, one where any dissent is tightly controlled (or suppressed) and one where the Kremlin is the fount of all power, controlled by one rather feared person, him.
It has been suggested that he maybe forgets that the Soviet Union fell apart and re-creating Russia in its image can only lead to the same conclusion. His mission is so single-minded that he has only one objective and does not consider the longer term. Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire, thinks Putin has “painted himself into a corner” by relying on an increasingly tiny portion of his bureaucracy, who need higher wages to keep them loyal. He may look strong, says Judah, but in fact he is totally reliant on one commodity, oil. That is a price he cannot control. A Russia recreated to resemble the Soviet Union will be just as susceptible to crisis when the oil money runs dry.
“Our Western partners” said Putin in his Crimea speech “prefer not to be guided by international law…but by the rule of the gun.” There are echoes of his 1999 championing of “territorial integrity” when he complains that they “cannot decide the destinies of the world” especially in zones of “legitimate interests” and it is not the case that only they “can ever be right.” Back then, as he was sworn in, he said he would not “allow our opinion to be ignored.” He has stuck to his words.
Western criticism, becomes, in a sense, water off a duck’s back, as in, who are “They” to tell “Us” what to do? They may throw their weight around, but Russia is every bit as important and does not need lecture on elections, foreign policy, court cases of former oligarchs, gay rights, or anything else. The kid who spent his childhood fighting with fists in the communal yard is always prepared for a scrap.
The world may have been stunned and shocked when Putin invaded Crimea, but as per his speeches, he is doing what he said he would do all along. His intention to revert the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” continues unabated. There is no point trying to uncover some sort of “false bottom” in his statements, says Dmityr Linnik, of Voice of Russia Radio, “there isn’t one.”
President Obama may therefore have it bang on the nail when he opines that Putin is operating from a deep-seated grievance over the “fall of the Soviet Union.” Obama said he felt that a combination of nationalism and a sense of being taken advantage of by the West in the past had fuelled the annexation of Crimea, and the build up of forces in Ukraine. The American president cannot understand why Putin would not want to move forwards, and instead, go back to the practices of the Cold War era.
For Putin, if it boils down to backwards or forwards, be has plotted since 1999 to go back to the future. Vladimir Putin longs to be back in the USSR.
By Kate Henderson