What is the best way to describe Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

March 18, 2016
A Tu-160 heavy strategic bomber flies during the Victory Day parade above Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe on Saturday with a military parade, showcasing new military hardware at a time when relations with the West have hit lows not seen since the Cold War. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1C7AV

A Tu-160 heavy strategic bomber flies during the Victory Day parade above Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2015. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

In January of this year, a British judge, Robert Owen, said that Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, was ‘probably’ a murderer. The victim, nearly a decade before, had been Alexander Litvinenko, a former Soviet, then Russian, intelligence officer who had defected to the UK, became a part-time consultant to the UK’s MI6 foreign intelligence service and had been poisoned by two other former Russian intelligence officers in a London hotel.

Owen had been tasked with doing a report on the murder. His flat statement that Putin was likely to have been the instigator went further than expected, and brought some relief to Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, who — with her husband — had always believed that the president had marked out the former spy for punishment.

As Luke Harding recounts in his thriller-like history of the murder, Marina called on Prime Minister David Cameron to expel all Russian spies from the UK, and for a range of economic sanctions and travel bans to be put on several figures close to the murder. The list included the Russian president himself.

“It is unthinkable that the prime minister would do nothing in the face of the damning findings of Sir Robert Owen,” as Harding comments, but “the unthinkable was entirely thinkable.”

A few weeks later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Cameron asked rhetorically if Britain had to carry on “some sort of a relationship” with Russia, to find a solution to the crisis in Syria – and answered himself, “Yes we do, but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”

Most hearts are cold toward Russia now, from President Barack Obama’s, early rebuffed in a first-term attempt to “reset” Russian-U.S. relations, to recently close allies like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enraged by Russia’s military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The country has few close allies who are not also dependencies. Even Cuba, a Soviet and Russian client, is now seen as drifting into the U.S. sphere.

The cold-hearted calculation in many of the world’s foreign ministries is whether to wait Putin out or confront him. A democratic leader would long ago have faced a challenge: incomes continue to fall; inflation rises as the rouble declines; sporadic strikes and small demonstrations break out more often. But the president remains mostly untouched. Vladimir Putin is making Russia great again – a spectacle staged in some form or another every night on the TV news.

Putin hasn’t much of an ideology, but that which he has, is ferociously pursued. He thinks the West, led by the United States, is out to get him and diminish Russia. He is determined to push back against the West, and emphasise that Russia is not just a state, but a separate civilization. Gleb Pavolovsky, a former presidential aide, now a critic, says that Putin strives to place the West in the box of the aggressor, while he defends truth and global justice.

The opposition to this may be growing, but it remains weak and much of it is in exile (if not necessarily safety, as Litvinenko’s fate shows). At a gathering in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius earlier this month, some 400 members of the opposition, most living abroad, debated in what state Russia now finds itself. Some, according to the writer Masha Gessen, one of the participants, thought it a “hybrid,” combing dictatorship with small doses of democracy. Others, including Gessen, saw it more as a “mafia state,” defined by the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar, as one governed by a “family” headed by a “patriarch,” who “disposes of positions, wealth, statuses, persons.”

Patriarch Putin has drawn a small, tight group around him. Alexei Venediktov, head of the still-operating liberal radio stationm Ekho Moskvy, says only two really count: Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, and Sergey Ivanov, head of the Presidential Administration, both former intelligence officers. “They are close to him both educationally and mentally. The more years pass by, the more influential they become.” To have such narrow influences indicates that the course is set, and won’t change.

In this system, everything depends on the tsar-patriarch-president. In testimony to the U.S. Congress in February, Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe and a formidable expert on Russia for two decades, said that he and his team have “worked very hard to increase (their) tactical advantage by making the Russian President — and thus the Russian decision-making system — as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible… No-one outside the inner circle is supposed to know what is going on.”

This close secrecy surrounding the insiders’ deliberations means that the pullout from Syria was a surprise to all: a nasty surprise to Assad, one could guess. Assad had talked grandiosely of re-taking his entire country, but needed Russian firepower to do so. That may have been a prompt to Putin to get out, before being dragged into a war likely impossible to win, and certainly draining of already depleting resources.

His initiative also secured him respect and status, one of his main aims. The most propagandist, and among the most popular, of Russian TV’s presenters, Dmitry Kiselev, crowed in February that “Finally America has swayed towards us. This is definitely a Russian victory,” which demonstrated that victory is measured, in important part, by the depth of American respect.

It was, definitely, a Russian victory. It was achieved with Putin’s now familiar tactical skill, playing on the confusion and divisions in the West over how to deal with the Syrian crisis. Yet, the long-term question remains. How long can the president, and the economy, last without a serious challenge? How secure would he be in that event? And if insecure, who is next?

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

More Putinphobia…..
Mr. Putin seems to get under every Westerners skin. What has he done that a US President has not done?????????

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

@No_apartheid – “What has he done that a US President has not done???”

I agree. By himself, Putin has done every lowly act that US presidents have done separately. He lied like Clinton, cheated like Nixon, surrounded himself with a corrupt cabinet like Reagan and killed innocent civilians like Bush and Obama (he hasn’t reached Truman levels of carnage, and let’s hope he never will).

One thing that US presidents have never done though is imprison their political opponents and silence the press. Perhaps Trump will take care of that.

Posted by anton_carpati | Report as abusive

“What is the best way to describe Vladimir Putin’s Russia?”

Well…to start with…here’s this whole new research paper.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?a bstract_id=2747764

Posted by MrMaitra | Report as abusive

Sir Robert Owen’s pre-determined conclusions are a major source of embarrassment at the way Britain’s justice system can be manipulated to serve political ends. The following links to an extended article, intended to provide a viable alternative interpretation of the available evidence (‘Russia’s bad rap’ is followed by ‘All Berezovsky got was this lousy T-shirt’ and further entries): www.only9sixty.blogspot.co.uk

Posted by Solidarnosc | Report as abusive

@anton_carpati, lets hope Trump does not win.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

“What has he [Putin] done that a US President has not done?????????”

What doesn’t Putin do? For starters, Putin doesn’t promote Racism and Hate in Russia, like Obama does in the US.

Posted by jjaj1998 | Report as abusive

@jjaj1998 “Putin doesn’t promote Racism and Hate in Russia”

Indeed, you can stroll right through Moscow without a fear in the world. Unless you’re Tajik, Tatar, Jew, Vietnamese, Dagestani, Georgian, Armenian, Ukrainian, Black, Muslim or gay. If you’re not any of these things, then Putin made a pretty safe environment for you to keep being sad and drink yourself to death.

Posted by anton_carpati | Report as abusive

That is so funny. When Russia was weak and going downward. When people where poor and dying of alcohol, drugs, criminality etc. the west and USA was so happy. Russia wasn’t a threat. They praised Russia and president for how democracy is winning all across Russia. Yeah. They were like hyenas, waiting for the best moment to finish dying Russia. Then Putin came in and their dream and opportunity flew away. And they are so mad. Now they make up scary stories about Putin and blaming him for everything. Well. Thats what losers do.

Posted by Dimonchik | Report as abusive

>the West, led by the United States, is out to get him and diminish Russia.
Is Putin the only one who thinks so? What would be an opinion on this issue of a reasonable third party observer?
I keep being surprised how public opinion manipulators expect that people in the so-called “West” would not really invest any thinking in answering the very questions they pose. The system’s reliance on people being brought up with an attitude “do not think, trust what you’re told” however is in a deep crisis right now. And the Trump’s triumph and Bernie Sanders’ impressive performance are all indicators of just that. People are sick and tired of being intellectually castrated. They are rebelling.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Putin is showing all nationalists globally that nationalism in the modern world is a losing strategy.

Posted by SeniorMoment | Report as abusive

The biggest terrorist countries Saudi Arabia, Turkey , Qatar, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of them are US allies or US protectorates. We all know what is happening in those countries but somehow Russia is the biggest treat to US now even that 4 year old knows that direct confrontation between the two will newer happen. Can anyone point to a single Russian terrorist in the US except the Boston bombers that had Chechen origin and FBI was warned one month ahead by the Russian FSB but did nothing to stop them. Erdogan put all the secular Army generals in jail, imprisoned thousands of journalists, openly supports ISIS through trade and weapons supply and Russia and Mr Putin are bad. Most of the money that the terrorist groups get is from Saudi and Qatar governments ,the radical Islam what you call Wahhabi originates from Saudi Arabia. The most radical Islamic schools are in Cairo spreading evil with the help of the Saudis. Most of the 911 hijackers Saudis some with Bosnian passports and initial flight training in Bosnia. Any terrorist attack in Europe has connection with Kosovo or Bosnia. Us needs to reset the relations with Russia as soon as possible and set on fire all of the Russophobic books written by Mr Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Come on Mr Lloyd your better than this, a number of comments below are more honest and factual. How about an article on the recent speech by the Hungarian PM condemning Brussels and the Nazi attitude of the EU?

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

What is the best way to describe Putin’s Russia?

Irrelevant. Failing. Losing influence. Awesome?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Hilarious to see that B-1 bomber copy flying over Kremlin! LOL! hahaha!

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

It’s so strange that Russia thinks anyone cares about them! Yes, nukes. Not like they can ever be used, so what good are they? I think Putin is onto something, that Russia is a separate culture, that should not make pretenses at being an extension of Europe. Of course, such a “Bastion Russia” would be pretty inconsequential, and Putin can’t deal with that. But Putin and his predecessors have failed to make any kind of great leap forward, let along a modest stride (the way China has, of course.)

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

” He thinks the West, led by the United States, is out to get him and diminish Russia. ”

He is exactly correct, and that is a prime driver of US policy, to Isolate Russia and overthrow Putin, this is no secret.

Posted by Yusif005 | Report as abusive