While maintaining a tight grip on a vast nation that occupies one-sixth of the earth’s surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to bring about an almost miraculous recovery for the Russians since 2000 and after the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
However, he is now facing a new challenge in the shape of the March 2018 presidential elections, and the Russian opposition seems to be rising again as it does before each set of elections. Yet, despite facing opposition domestically, Putin’s popularity is nearly unrivalled in Russia’s modern history, and there is a solid foundation for it even if this may sound implausible to some Western observers.
A riddle to many Western intelligence agencies, Putin’s resolute handling of world affairs, especially concerning Russian interests overseas and protecting its allies, has been forthcoming on many occasions. For nearly a decade, he watched NATO take advantage of the collapse of the former USSR and dismantle the Cold War world piece by piece, including by taking over former Russian satellite states and allies.
However, Putin later managed to stop this advance, starting with the Georgian-Russian War in which Russia invaded the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This marked the first true involvement of the Russian military in an overseas conflict since the fall of the former USSR. The official aim of the war was to protect the ethnic Russian population in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the undeclared goal was to draw a red line against NATO plans to set foot in countries bordering the Russian Federation and especially within former countries of the USSR.
In the same way, after Putin was Russian prime minister from 2008 to 2012 he launched a campaign in Ukraine in 2014 following a Western-backed uprising that ousted the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych who had refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. In response to the ousting of Russia’s ally, pro-Russian Ukrainians backed by Russia organised massive protests in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass that ended in a civil war that has taken the lives of over 10,000 people, including nearly 3,000 civilians.
Russia then annexed the Crimea after a controversial referendum allowing it to join the Russian Federation. The economy and not military conflict was the main catalyst for the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991, since the latter had amassed huge debts as a result of its outdated communist policies. Putin thus established stabilisation funds for the successor state the Russian Federation funded by petroleum revenues, enabling Russia to pay off the Soviet Union’s debts by 2005.
The Russian Federation then joined the World Trade Organisation in August 2012. Contrary to what some Western pundits may claim, Putin’s ambition was never to resurrect the former Soviet Union. In reality, he has been aiming for the glories of Imperial Russia before the Russian Revolution in 1917. His foreign policy is intended to bring prestige and security to Russia and the Russians and not to expand Russian territory.
Putin’s main political skill has been to turn the odds against him into points of strength. This was seen during the Ukrainian crisis when Russia was hit by harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies in the European Union intending to force it to withdraw from Crimea and stop arming pro-Russian militants in the Donbass area of Ukraine.
Many Western pundits naively predicted Russia’s collapse as a result of its strained economy. However, this assessment was wrong, as the nation that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler is unlikely to fall as a result of Western economic sanctions. Within months, Putin had signed the biggest gas supply deal in history with China worth $400 billion. He had also signed billions of dollars’ worth of export deals for arms and other Russian equipment with countries including Egypt, effectively rendering the sanctions null and void.
As a sign of Putin’s determination to reaffirm Russia as a major player on the world scene, he decided to involve Russia in the Syrian Civil War, and in September 2015 he ordered airstrikes on the terrorist groups the Islamic State (IS), Ansar Al-Sham and others fighting the government led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The Russian airstrikes have proven to be the turning point in the war, and on a larger scale they have been a turning point in putting an end to the rise of armed Islamist factions in the Middle East.
The defeat of IS was begun as a result of the Russian intervention in Syria, which led to the near demise of the group in both Syria and Iraq and encouraged the latter to launch its own offensive to reclaim territory lost to the terrorists. While many believe that the US led the international coalition to fight IS and was the key to its success, in fact it was the Russian airstrikes that made all the difference.
Putin is no Jeffersonian democrat, and his tolerance of the opposition in Russia is almost negligible. The country is still seeing many infringements of human rights, especially against dissidents who find themselves jailed on often flimsy charges. But to his credit, Putin has abided by the constitutional limit of two presidential terms, and when this had been achieved he changed places with former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin, a former KGB agent, still keeps up the appearance of a democratic state in Russia by abiding with the constitution, and unless something unforeseen happens he is likely to win the presidential elections in March by a landslide. He has proven to his nation that he is a binding force, since ruling the Russian Federation with its 21 constituent republics requires a high degree of tact and shrewdness – exactly the qualities that Putin has mastered over the years.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly