This week Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in the headlines. Don’t worry, he hasn’t invaded anywhere else, but he’s alleged to be at the centre of a major money laundering scheme, as exposed by the so-called “Panama Papers”. Yep, it turns out that being the all powerful President of a country is also profitable business.
Who knew that a President who likes to take what he wants using force, and who will happily shakedown small countries would also be involved in money laundering?
So perhaps it is a good time to take a closer to look at Putin, who has become a pantomime villain on the world stage and ask… should we really be scared of him?
Who is Vladimir Putin?
Putin is the President of Russia. He came to power on December 31st 1999 just as the world was counting down to celebrating the new Millennium. He spent 16 years as a spy in the KGB, serving for some time in East Germany, before retiring and entering politics in Saint Petersburg, where he grew up. He then worked his way up, moving to Moscow and eventually became Prime Minister under the administration of the significantly more eccentric and less sober President Boris Yeltsin.
Since then, he has served as President, aside from a brief interlude between 2008 and 2012 when due to limits set out in the Russian constitution limiting candidates to only two contiguous terms as President, he was unable to stand. So instead, his Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev became President, and he went back to being PM - before the two swapped back again in 2012.
How powerful is he?
Though Russia, on paper, is a democracy, the reality is far from that. Putin rules Russia through what has been described as the “Vertical of Power” - a top-down system of government where Putin and his allies get to make all of the major decisions.
A good example of this is what Putin has done with Russia’s regional governors. Russia is a massive country and like the US, each constituent part of the Russian Federation has its own leader. Previously governors were directly elected by the people who lived in each state (or ‘oblast’), but Putin changed the rules to make them directly appointed by Moscow instead - making him more powerful in the process as he now has the power to hire and fire governors, so he can appoint people loyal to him.
Even when he was merely Prime Minister under Medvedev, he was still the person who was really in charge.
What’s also interesting is Putin’s political party. On paper, he is the head of United Russia, but this isn’t a party in the sense that we would understand it. Whereas our parties are underscored by specific beliefs - for example, the Conservatives like free markets and the Labour Party like redistributing wealth - United Russia’s only ideological lynchpin is “Hey, that Vladimir Putin chap is great!”. Essentially, it’s an extended patronage network designed to enable Putin’s supporters to divvy up the best jobs and associated cash. The only way to progress in the party is through loyalty to Vladimir Putin.
So in terms of political institutions, Putin is fully in control. But what about people outside - the activists and campaigners who make up Russian “civil society”? That isn’t great either.
What’s annoying for his opponents is that new laws have been passed that could conceivably make it harder to share information and organise any opposition to Putin himself.
Not unlike proposals in the west, according to Bloomberg Putin has passed laws to “protect children” and “stop piracy” - but perhaps inevitably, these laws have already been deployed for other reasons: Wikipedia was briefly blocked for hosting an article on marijuana, and GitHub was blocked after someone on there posted a joke about suicide.
In 2014, a separate law was passed requiring any blogger with more than 3,000 daily readers to register their blog with the authorities, and in September last year a law was passed requiring Russian companies to keep their data on Russian citizens inside the country.
During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, all internet traffic from the area was recorded for analysis - in a mirror to what is being carried out in America by the NSA.
Oh, and finally… the other problem for his opponents is that, umm, completely inexplicably they often end up dead. Most recently one of Putin’s most high profile critics, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was shot four times in the back just outside of the Kremlin walls.
Essentially, what this all means is that Putin is very powerful - because of the lacks of checks and balances, and through the nature of how power in Russia works, the entire system is geared towards loyalty to Putin.
What does Putin actually want?
Reading Putin’s ultimate objective is hard to do but it certainly appears that his goal is, to paraphrase another unlikely politician, Make Russia Great Again.
As someone who loyally served the Soviet Union, he will have seen Russia decline in stature at the end of the Cold War - and many of his foreign policy moves have reflected this. For example, the 2008 invasion of South Ossetia in Georgia, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine can be viewed as an attempt to re-establish a geographically “greater Russia”. (Historically, Russia has claimed even more territory than it has at the moment, with the Russian Empire also incorporating what is now Ukraine, the Baltic states, Belarus and the central Asian ‘stans.)
He wants Russia to retain its “sphere of influence” in the countries surrounding it - and moves by countries in this sphere to turn towards the West unnerve him. (It all kicked off in Ukraine after it signed a trade deal with the EU).
Putin has also continued to reassert his country on the global stage, most recently sending troops into Syria.
Putin’s motives can also be inferred from his powerbase. Though Russian democracy leaves plenty to be desired (it would help if they were free and fair, for a start), Putin is genuinely popular in Russia. If they held a fair election, he would probably win with a landslide. But who would vote for him? Much of Putin’s support is drawn from poor, rural voters - people who have suffered since the end of Communism, to whom patriotic appeals about restoring Russia would appeal. Not coincidentally, these tend to be the same people who are socially conservative and not receptive to change. This explains why whereas under Yeltsin in the 90s, the world was hopeful of Russia and the US playing nice, Putin has gone the opposite way and rejected rapprochement with Europe and the US, and has implicitly rejected progressive European values, and has cracked down on gay rights while the rest of Europe has liberalised.
It appears that Putin doesn’t simply look like a Mafia don, he appears to want what all Mafiosi want: Respect.
Can he get what he wants?
Finally, some good news! Though Putin has big ambitions, Russia itself isn’t in great shape, which will limit its ability to project its power and achieve Putin’s goals.
Surprisingly, though shale-gas extraction (fracking) is hugely controversial in the West due to the terrible environmental impact, it has meant that oil prices have fallen as supplies have risen. Since 2011 the price of Brent Crude has fallen from around $120 per barrel to around $60. Terrible for the environment, as it makes it cheaper to buy petrol, but also terrible for Russia, because exporting oil is one it’s largest sources of income.
The country is also in the midst of a long term “demographic crisis” with the population falling from around 148m in 1991 to 143m in 2013. The fall isn’t as dramatic as some of its smaller neighbours (Lithuania has lost roughly a quarter of its population), but this is bad news as it means there are less people working and paying taxes to support the state - and there will be a disproportionately large burden on the people who are working to support the older population.
The sanctions slapped on Russia by the US and European Union following the Ukraine crisis have also hurt Russia’s economy.
But this isn’t to say that Putin is completely screwed. While he may not be able to achieve the level of domination he’d like if he had unlimited resources, he can still cause problems for the West - as demonstrated when the definitely-not-secret-Russian-troops rebel forces in the Ukraine with their suspiciously shiny new weaponry, or by “helping” in Syria by bombing moderate rebels rather than ISIS.
Is he likely to do anything completely crazy?
Though Putin has made bold and unexpected moves, he hasn’t done anything suicidally crazy. For example, his support of breakaway regions in Georgia and Ukraine at least made a sort of logical sense, as the regions were full of people who preferred Russia and were minorities in countries where most people wanted to face West. So he could argue that he was protecting the minorities.
So what would be completely crazy? The fastest route to a doomsday scenario would be if Putin were to invade one of the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. These countries all have sizeable Russian populations, but crucially, these countries are also all members of NATO, along with most of the rest of Europe, the US and Canada.
What this means is that under Article 5 of the NATO constitution, an attack on one member is attack on all. So if Putin was crazy enough to send his tanks rolling into Latvia, he would essentially be starting a war with America and the rest of Europe too.
So.. Umm… will he go away soon?
Now the bad news. Putin is only 63 years old and, as endless photos of him doing manly things while topless can attest, he appears to be in good health. So assuming he can retain his iron grip on power, there’s no reason to suspect he doesn’t have a couple of decades left in him.
And politically, while the Russian constitution does limit Presidents to two contiguous terms, it wouldn’t be surprising if he does the same switcheroo again for four years. So Putin should be an international fixture for a while yet.
And if he did go? Well… given the lack of functioning democracy, when he does finally go there is a risk that whoever he picks to succeed him won’t be able to command the same levels of support, causing a power vacuum. Which could potentially be even worse for both Russians and people on the outside as the elites fight over who gets to be in charge.
Have you got a funny song about Putin you could show me?
Gosh, this is worrying, right? So here’s a song that aired on Slovenian TV when they picked their Eurovision entry. Sadly this isn’t the song that will be going to Stockholm to represent the country, but you have to admit that it’s catchy.
So should we be scared?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably “yes, a bit”. Though he’s not insane, Putin is ambitious, has an iron grip on power, and his perceived independence from the west is a key part of his appeal to ordinary Russians. Which is a recipe for continued international frostiness. Don’t expect him to play nice any time soon.
But hey… even if Putin is terrifying demagogue with little respect for rules and norms we can at least look to America to show us how democracy should be done… er, right?