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Who Is Vladimir Putin (And What Does He Want?)

The inscrutable Russian President – aka the most powerful man on the planet – can reflect on a year in which he outmanoeuvred the west, stamped out opposition at home and laid the foundations for another decade in power. The question is: what does he plan to do with it?

Who Is Vladimir Putin (And What Does He Want?)

On 31 December 2013, as Russians prepared to bring in the New Year, Vladimir Putin celebrated the anniversary of his rise to power with perhaps greater satisfaction than usual. He outmanoeuvred the West on Syria, quelled domestic opposition and displaced Barack Obama at the top of Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful.

It was also the year he pulled off what was regarded by many as a PR masterstroke, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution, with a new wide-ranging amnesty law – releasing from prison the anti-Putin protestors Pussy Riot, as well as the Greenpeace activists known as the Arctic 30, among many others.


Pussy Riot were jailed for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" (Photo credit: Kommersant Photo Agency/REX)

Next month, he will also fulfill his long-standing personal ambition when he plays host to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The view from the Kremlin will rarely have seemed better.

It was 15 years ago, on the last day of the last century, that Boris Yeltsin announced his surprise resignation as President of Russia along with his equally surprising choice of successor. Although little known to most of his compatriots, let alone the outside world, Putin’s arrival seemed to chime with the needs of the moment.

To ordinary Russians and foreign leaders alike, this uncharismatic and slightly austere ex-KGB colonel provided a welcome contrast to the chaos and drunken buffoonery of the late Yeltsin period. To Yeltsin himself, along with the coterie of relatives and political insiders known as “the Family”, the new President offered immunity from prosecution in the first official decree to carry Putin’s signature.

Yeltsin, at least, got what he wanted. For everyone else, the results have been more mixed. Most Russians certainly look back on Putin’s first two Presidential terms as an era of rising prosperity and restored national self-confidence after the calamitous decline of the immediate post-Soviet years. It mattered little that democratic standards were in retreat because salaries were paid on time and there was food on the table.

But the fear today is of a return to stagnation, both economic and social. Shrinking growth rates – a consequence of Russia’s over-reliance on a faltering energy sector – now combine with a wider sense that the authoritarian controls imposed by Putin have put a cap on the aspirations of the country’s expanding middle class. Hence the emergence of a new opposition.

Russia’s neighbours and Western partners felt the downside of Putinism much earlier. The initial hope was that Yeltsin’s handpicked successor would stick to the path of democratic reform, albeit in a more orderly fashion. Measures to restore the “power vertical” failed to dent this optimistic assessment until constraints on media freedom, the exiling and imprisonment of political opponents, and the rigging of elections became impossible to ignore.

Putin, likewise, felt spurned in his efforts to find a working accommodation with the West and interpreted NATO enlargement, US missile defence plans and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine as efforts to encircle and weaken Russia. A gas war with Ukraine and a real war with Georgia followed. By the time dissident Russian intelligence office, Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in London, the talk was of a new Cold War.

Already one of the longest serving leaders in the developed world, Putin continues to surprise and exasperate his Western counterparts in equal measure. A year ago the mass street protests that marked his controversial re-election suggested that the Putin era might be drawing to a close. Today it is more common for pundits to forecast another decade in office.

What is the secret of his political survival? What does he hope to achieve by staying in power? Why has he rejected the westernising policies of his predecessor? Is he a mere throwback to the Soviet past or a new kind of Russian leader? Why does he seem to oscillate between pragmatism and conflict in his relations with the West?

There is no single answer to these questions. They are bound up with Russia’s national story and the formative experiences of a President who, more than anyone, embodies his country’s fears, ambitions and resentments. They are reflected in the different and often contradictory roles that Putin has felt it necessary to adopt during his decade and half in power.

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1 | The Secret Policeman

“There is no such thing as a former Chekist,” Putin once remarked, using the term for KGB officer taken from Lenin’s original secret police, the Cheka. From monitoring dissidents on the streets of Leningrad in the 1970s to running operations against the NATO from East Germany in the 1980s, no life experience has been more important in shaping his attitudes to politics and power. It gave him the skills, contacts and sense of injured entitlement needed to win and keep power.

Putin briefly served as head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, before being promoted to Prime Minister. Soon afterwards he joked at a gathering of former intelligence colleagues: “I want to report that a group of FSB operatives, sent to work undercover in the government, is successfully carrying out the first stage of its mission.” The joke acquired a darker edge after Putin became President and his administration filled up with so-called siloviki or “men of power”.

According to one reliable estimate, by the end of Putin’s first term 58 per cent of his inner circle and around a third of government officials overall were drawn from various branches of the intelligence and security services. In addition to values of loyalty, discipline and patriotism, they shared with Putin a sense of grievance at their loss of status following the end of Communism. Who better to save Russia from those who had brought the country to its knees while making themselves rich?

Rationale: The loyalty of this network remains Putin’s ultimate guarantee against domestic opposition.

2 | The Liberal Reformer

In the early stages of his Presidency, at least, Putin presented himself as a pragmatic moderniser willing to complete many of the economic reforms begun by his predecessor. The West was reassured by the fact that he cut his political teeth in the early 1990s as deputy to the pro-democracy mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and included among his advisers a group of liberal economists and lawyers he worked with in that period.

Under their guidance, Putin’s early economic programme included ambitious tax reforms that reduced costs for business and introduced a flat rate income tax of 13 per cent. Although this seemed to confirm Putin’s reformist credentials, his motives were not quite what they seemed. With tax evasion widespread in the Yeltsin years, the new President recognised that lower and simpler taxes would be easier to collect.

Reform was a means of restoring state authority. Even so, Putin feels little nostalgia for the command economics of the Soviet era. He sees Russia as a capitalist country, albeit one that, like China, combines capitalism with authoritarianism.

Rationale: A return to some version of market reform remains an option if Putin begins to see economic stagnation as a threat to his hold on power.


Russia's transition to capitalism brought severe hardship to its citizens (Photo credit: Alexander Timoshenko / Kommersant / eyevine)

3 | The Saviour of Russia

It’s impossible to understand Putin’s domestic appeal without appreciating the trauma Russia suffered in the 1990s during the transition to capitalism. Think Greece on a continental scale: hyperinflation, economic depression, shrinking living standards and almost half the population plunged below the official poverty line. Add to this the deep sense of national humiliation that accompanied the break up of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the rouble and the need for an international bailout.

Most Russians put the blame for this on the oligarchs, westernising politicians and foreign advisers who pushed through the “shock therapy” reform programme, some of whom became very rich. The West, in particular, was thought to have taken advantage of Russia in its moment of weakness.

Putin is credited with rescuing the country from a decade of crisis, although the steep rise in global energy prices that coincided with start of his Presidency provided the main impetus for recovery. Justified or not, it has given him a freer hand to take a tough line with domestic opponents and foreign governments alike.

Rationale: In moments of crisis, Putin will invoke external threats as a reason for cracking down on dissent.


Oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed by a vengeful Putin (Photo credit: © MAXIM SHEMETOV/Reuters/Corbis)

4 | The Hammer Of The Oligarchs

Putin rose to office under the sponsorship of pro-Yeltsin oligarchs, like Boris Berezovsky, who expected him to do their bidding and protect their wealth. But Putin wasn’t about to share power with anyone and within weeks he was building his popularity among ordinary Russians by promising to put an end to the oligarchs “as a class”.

The first to experience the new President’s ruthlessness was the media mogul, Vladimir Gusinsky, followed shortly by Berezovsky himself. Both fled to exile and had their assets seized after publicly falling out with the Kremlin. The message from Putin to the oligarchs was clear: you can keep your fortunes, but stay out of politics.

One who chose to ignore him was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of Yukos Oil. A major funder of the opposition, he was arrested in 2003 and had his company broken up and taken over by the state. After two court cases, widely condemned as show trials, Khodorkovsky remains in prison as an example to the others.

Rationale: The release of Khodorkovsky is often touted should Putin want to win over domestic critics and foreign investors.

5 | The Godfather

When Wikileaks released a confidential US diplomatic cable branding Russia a “virtual mafia state” it laid bare an assessment of the Kremlin’s inner workings that had long been a feature of expert discussion. Less a state, even in the old one-party sense, its structures and practices resemble those of an organised crime syndicate with a ruling elite comprised of a series of clans motivated by financial gain and constantly fighting for a share of the spoils. These clans find their power bases in government ministries, state enterprises and big business where formal power overlaps with private influence and opportunities to use public resources for personal gain are maximised.

A good example is the way that a group of Interior Ministry officials effectively managed to steal three holding companies belonging to Hermitage Capital and use them to claim a fraudulent tax rebate of $230m. Groups like this retain control of their turf and the protection of the state as long as they pay tribute to those above them. In this analogy Putin plays the role of Boss of bosses, carving up territory, settling disputes and making sure that everyone gets their take, including himself.

Rationale: What happens to this wealth and the groups that have accumulated it could have a bearing on how the Putin era comes to an end.


Putin's rugged image is carefully managed by his PR team (Photo credit: Polaris / eyevine)

6 | The Master Of Spin

Managed democracies don’t manage themselves. Consent has to be manufactured and Putin has done this with the help of what Russians call “political technology”, a curious blend of Bolshevik-style dirty tricks and Western PR methods. Its techniques include careful image management, like the photo shoots of a bare-chested Putin on horseback, the use of the internet to disseminate pro-government propaganda, the establishment of fake political parties to create the illusion of pluralism and good old-fashioned ballot-rigging.

The man credited with creating the Putin brand and the tools of managed democracy is Vladislav Surkov, an aspiring theatre director turned corporate advertising executive who ended up as the Kremlin’s chief political fixer. Known as the “Grey Cardinal”, Surkov created the controversial pro-Putin youth movement Nashi and coined the phrase “sovereign democracy”. Edged out of power after the rigged 2011 parliamentary elections provoked widespread protests, he has recently been brought back as a Kremlin adviser, suggesting that political technology may have an important role in Putin’s future plans.


Putin ensured a burnt-out village was rebult to win over suspicious residents (Photo credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

7 | The Good Tsar

In order to achieve separation between his public image and the failings of the system he has created, Putin has adopted the role of the Good Tsar, a familiar figure in Russian history. He is the benign, good-hearted leader let down by his malevolent or incompetent underlings. This image is sustained through populist TV stunts in which he publicly upbraids government officials for their mistakes or gives his watch away to an admiring factory worker.

On a visit to a village burned down during a wildfire in 2010, he was confronted by a group of local woman who wanted to know if their houses would be rebuilt. They didn’t trust local officials to carry out the work without demanding bribes. Putin not only promised to rebuild their homes, but said he would install CCTV in order to monitor progress from his office. It conveys the message that whatever frustrations Russians experience in their dealing with the state, Putin at least is on their side.

Significance: Whether the Good Tsar image would survive a serious downturn in Russia’s economic fortunes has to be doubted.

8 | The Emperor

Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”. Although he understands that putting it back together would be impossible, the ambition to create a sphere of Russian influence within the former Soviet territories remains a major goal of his leadership.

The Russian elite is particularly sensitive to the status of Ukraine, a country with a large Russian-speaking minority that was home to the first Russian state, Kievan Rus. This is what Putin had in mind when he told George Bush that Ukraine is “not a proper country”. From the Orange Revolution to the association agreement with the EU, efforts by Ukraine to take a Western direction have been treated as hostile acts directed against Russia’s interests. Putin wants to reintegrate it and other neighbouring countries within Russian-led institutions like the Eurasian customs union. Former Soviet countries resisting these efforts have faced diplomatic hostility, cyber attacks, energy cut-offs and trade restrictions.

Significance: With Ukraine deeply divided over its future direction, it remains the most serious potential flashpoint in Putin’s relations with the West.


Putin resents Western interference but wants to be seen as a statesman (Photo credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

9 | The Statesman

Putin mainly wants two things from the outside world – a free hand in Eurasia and recognition of Russia’s great power status. Provided he gets them, he is willing to be quite pragmatic. He was among the first to offer support to America after 9/11 and was willing to ‘reset’ relations with President Obama by being more co-operative on issues like Iran and Afghanistan. Relations sour when he feels that Western governments are using human rights and democracy promotion to intervene in his domestic affairs or weaken his influence over neighbouring countries. In his view, NATO’s decision to expand to Russia’s borders broke an implicit understanding. Prestige matters enormously to the Russian President and he is acutely sensitive to any perceived slight, a personality trait he has carried since his youth.

Playing a prominent role in international diplomacy, such as the recent G20 summit is important to his self-esteem and the status of Russia, as are events like the Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. Like his diplomatic coup over Syria, the message he wants to send is clear: “Russia is back and you must do business with us on our terms.”

Rationale: Despite the antagonism of his relations with the west, what Putin wants most of all is recognition as an important statesman.

10 | The Former President?

Despite boasting that he works “like a galley slave”, some who have studied Putin closely say that he dislikes the exertions of office and would gladly retire if he could. Now past 60, recently divorced and said to be romantically attached to the 30-year-old MP and former gymnast, Alina Kabayeva, it would be understandable if Putin wanted to spend more time enjoying his $1bn “palace” on the Black Sea and the $40bn fortune he is alleged to have amassed during his time in office.

The question is whether he can step down safely. Ideally he needs the kind of immunity deal he gave to Boris Yeltsin in order to legitimise his wealth and enjoy a secure retirement as a respected elder statesman. His decision to return to the Presidency suggests that he doesn’t yet think that the conditions needed to make such a deal stick are in place. He therefore needs more time. The success or otherwise of his effort to find a way out is likely to define Russian politics in the years ahead.

David Clark is chairman of the Russia Foundation and a former Foreign Office special advisor.

(Photo credit: © CAMERA PRESS)

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand. Get your copy today by downloading the Esquire UK app to your iPad and either buying an individual copy for 99p or taking out a three-month, six-month or year’s subscription (all of which include digital copies of the monthly magazine).