How did Vladimir Putin, the president who promised Russians stability when he first came to power in 2000, become today’s high-stakes gambler, presiding over an economy in crisis and the war in Ukraine? Why do his priorities now center on his political survival, even as the price he is making ordinary Russians pay for it grows out of all proportion?
To understand how Mr. Putin evolved one must look back to the traumas that shook Russia in the 1990s, and how his predecessor dealt with them. When Boris Yeltsin became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1991 he surrounded himself with intellectuals — political and social scientists, market economists and journalists. But the failure to implement his progressive agenda and his near-defeat in the 1996 election brought him up short. Unbridled corruption and mounting economic, political and social instability forced Mr. Yeltsin to recognize that he needed people who — he hoped — would be able to put things right.
In 1997 he appointed a relatively obscure former foreign intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, as head of the Main Control Directory, which keeps close watch on spending by government officials and records their activities, much as the K.G.B. had done in Soviet days. Another security specialist, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Patrushev (now secretary of Russia’s Security Council), succeeded Mr. Putin in that role in 1998. Gen. Nikolai Bordyuzha (now general secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of post-Soviet states) became head of the presidential administration in 1998.
Mr. Yeltsin saw these and other K.G.B. alumni as a bulwark against corruption. But they worked in exactly the opposite way that he intended; instead of defeating corruption, they put it in their service. In August 1999, Mr. Yeltsin chose Mr. Putin, out of a number of possible candidates, as prime minister, and eventually endorsed him as his successor.
As the new century unfolded, Mr. Putin followed a similar path, one that emphasized economic growth and restoring Russian greatness. Too a certain extent, both men were lampooned in the international media, Mr. Yeltsin for public drunkenness, Mr. Putin for shirtless publicity stunts. But there is a key difference between them: Though both sought to present themselves as the embodiment of the Russian state, Mr. Yeltsin realized that this would set a dangerous precedent and stepped down. Mr. Putin, on the other hand, insists that he and the Russian state are one.
At a rally in the spring of 2012, after being elected to his third term as president, Mr. Putin declared that his victory was a defeat for those who are attempting to destroy the Russian state. “The battle for Russia continues,” he declared at another gathering. “The victory will be ours.”
Histrionics aside, the 2012 presidential election had not exactly been mortal combat: Mr. Putin’s rivals were all carefully selected for their personal loyalty to him. And yet he returned to the presidency a changed man, full of messianic fervor and eager to pick a fight.
Perhaps this was because he had spent the previous four years as prime minister to his own protégé, President Dmitri Medvedev. On the surface, it was a cozy arrangement: Mr. Putin retained a key voice in crucial decisions. But even if he was secretly still No.1 in the Kremlin pecking order, he must have felt insecure being officially regarded as No.2. How it must have rankled him when President Obama and Angela Merkel were especially careful to defer to President Medvedev. The German chancellor even hinted during Mr. Medvedev’s visit to Hanover in 2011 that she preferred him to Mr. Putin as a candidate in the approaching presidential race.
That was bad timing. In the Middle East a number of strongmen had been ousted, or were about to be, in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. And Mr. Putin, wary of the “color revolutions” that swept Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet states, returned to the presidency determined to bring his fight for political survival to a new level.
A more rational leader would be busy making sure that the economy was growing and that his base of supporters was happy. But for Mr. Putin, the real cause of Russia’s problems was foreign meddling. In his mind, it was the West that had fueled the color revolutions, just as it had stoked the angry protests over rigged parliamentary elections in the winter of 2011-12. Almost immediately, he pushed through a law regulating nongovernment organizations financed from abroad.
Today Russia continues turning inward. For Mr. Putin, competing with the rest of the world means playing by Western rules; if you don’t, the West freezes your assets and hits you with sanctions. He is fighting back by instilling his country with a war mentality. Russia’s plunging economy is presented as the price of pursuing a noble cause: standing up to America, fighting “fascism” in Ukraine and winning recognition for Russia as a global power.
Why my countrymen seem so receptive to this warmongering is an open question. Mr. Putin has certainly succeeded in clouding Russian perceptions and distorting Russian thinking. No one knows how long this strategy will succeed, but of one thing there is no doubt: For many Russians, Mr. Putin has turned himself into a kind of noble cause.
“So long as there is Putin, there will be Russia,” the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, declared last fall. “Without Putin there is no Russia.”
Perhaps some day the Russian people will snap out of their lethargy and realize that the state and the person leading it are not one thing.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.