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Putin was initially chosen as a future puppet because he fit the bill: the strongman persona was exactly what was required. Then he distanced himself from those who had praised him, reserving for himself the persona he had created and the power he had accumulated, writes Aleksandar Đokić.
As Russia prepares for the presidential elections scheduled for March next year, Vladimir Putin is playing willy-nilly and has not yet announced his candidacy for re-election.
However, the current president’s apparent indecision is nothing more than a farce and, barring divine intervention, he will rule Russia for another six years. And, as illogical as it may seem to outside observers, the current large-scale invasion of Ukraine has only helped to consolidate its tight grip on power.
Indeed, Putin’s entire carefully crafted political image in Russia is based on the notion that he is an unyielding male god of war, against whose onslaught no opponent can stand.
This is the core of his political personality. His other social guises are reserved for various echelons of power within Russia, the inner and outer circle, as well as foreign heads of state, whether antagonists or partners (in crime).
This, however, is the guise Putin puts on specifically for the Russian public, who seem willing to back him to the core once again, no questions asked.
A byproduct of times of chaos
The fact that Putin has not chosen to base his political personality on his personal charisma, his administrative astuteness or his intellectual prowess is due in part to the late Boris Yeltsin era, in which he managed to stab his way up the corrupt ladder. policy.
It was a time of chaos, not because of liberal and market reforms, but because the reformers themselves left the changes halfway, once they became convinced that political and economic power was firmly within their reach.
Changes in Russia at the time were dictated by decree from above, and there was no large grassroots pro-democracy opposition political movement that could force reforms.
Therefore, once political power was distributed and economic wealth was acquired, it was not the opponents, but those who initially proposed the reforms, who stopped them in their tracks.
On the other hand, it was not a period of idealistic democracy in Russia, but rather a period of weakness in the federal center of power. Freedom, a by-product of this state of affairs, was never really desired; it had to be tolerated.
The Chechen cause becomes an existential threat
The two Chechen wars gave purpose to both Yeltsin and Putin. In theory, Russia was in danger and they would fight to protect it.
However, the truth was that during the Soviet era, the Chechen people were subjected to one of the most horrendous state crimes: they were forcibly relocated en masse to Central Asia.
The elderly and newborns were crammed into cattle trains and sent far to the east. Many of the most fragile social groups lost their lives during the trip.
Only with the decline of central power in Moscow were the Chechens able to return to their ancestral land. Thus, the Chechen struggle for independence was a logical consequence of Russian dominance over the territory once the Soviet Union had definitively disappeared.
But the masters of Moscow, such as Yeltsin and Putin, chose to turn the Chechen cause into an existential threat to Russia itself, just as they did with Ukraine almost two decades later.
This is how, by the very nature of the war path already laid out, Putin’s political personality became the war dictator that we know and detest today.
Give the puppet the strong man personality
There is much speculation – which will last long after Putin leaves this world – about the apartment bombings in September 1999, attributed to the Grozny government, which justified the Second Chechen War in the eyes of the Russian public.
The fact is that the Russian central government had already chosen war as a political instrument of cohesion to achieve total control and stifle nascent Russian federalism even before Putin was in the limelight.
And whether the terrorist attacks were staged or not, Putin had already been chosen by the Yeltsin clan and the few oligarchs who wielded enough power to decide who would be Russia’s next president, including Boris Berezovsky (who was later murdered in the United Kingdom) and Yeltsin’s son-in-law, Valentin Yumashev (who remained loyal).
Yeltsin’s war strategy once again invigorated the battered security apparatus, which terrorized the country during the Soviet era.
Putin was chosen as the future puppet because he fit perfectly: the strongman character was exactly what the recipe indicated…
It wasn’t just Putin who needed a war; the reborn Russian autocracy too. Perhaps it was the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) itself that organized it, or perhaps it was the Chechen Islamic extremists, who were not under the control of the Grozny government, who provided the necessary casus belli. In any case, the difference would not mean much in the eyes of Russian public opinion, which has already been sold the narrative.
The need for war as an instrument of government already existed. The Second Chechen War shaped Putin’s political image to such an extent that he could never get out of it, even if he wanted to.
From Chechnya to Transnistria, and then to Syria
In the end, the narrative was very effective, giving the impoverished Russian masses a sense of collective power once again.
Along with the terrorist attacks in Russian cities that continued for years as a backdrop to the Chechen wars, the Kremlin’s tirade also helped rally the population around the harsh paternalistic figure that Putin had become.
Meanwhile, Putin ended up separating himself from those who protected him and had praised him, keeping both the character and the power he had accumulated.
Then, in 2008, came the Georgian War: a small, quick victory for Russian forces that eclipsed the Georgian Army several times over. It was a turning point, since it constituted a foreign war, much more direct and larger than Yeltsin’s interference in the Moldovan region of Transnistria years before.
Russia was formally an empire again. Also encouraged by the stability of oil prices, which incessantly filled the coffers of the Russian State, Putin was at the peak of his real popularity, not the empty one he has today when any alternative is practically banned.
It was the Syrian adventure, very similar to the 19th century colonial interventions of European powers in the region, that once again placed Russia on the world map. Together with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military aggression in the Donbas region, it revitalized Russia’s image as a military superpower.
The mask may have cracked, but the dictator of war will prevail
During Putin’s last period, his image began to crack, and not only because he was unable to achieve a decisive victory against Ukraine in 2014.
He had been in power too long, rapid economic growth had ended, and the semblance of basic political freedoms was beginning to disappear. Meanwhile, Kiev became a double danger for Putin: it was perceived as a threat to the stability of the Moscow regime if left unchecked, and yet it offered a great opportunity to strengthen Putin’s dominance if its control was quickly achieved. .
A new war, a “great war”, that would go down in Russian history, mark Putin’s legacy and cement his power in his lifetime.
After nineteen months of war, victory never came. But, despite this, the regime had found a new way to prolong its stay in power: an eternal war of lower intensity.
In some ways, it is now a war being fought with just enough resources to keep it going, but not enough to cause civil unrest.
A dangerous impasse
Western leaders, from their point of view, see this as a containment strategy: it is about denying Russia victory, emptying it of its resources, but not trying to provide enough aid to Ukraine to defeat it for fear of what might happen. come next: a chaotic breakup of Russia, an all-out war, or even a nuclear holocaust are several realistic possibilities.
The opportunity to restore a totalitarian regime in Russia
At the same time, Putin and his inner circle see all this as an opportunity to reestablish totalitarian rule in Russia itself, securing their position for years to come, while hoping that Ukraine will eventually crumble under the pressure.
And Putin, the war dictator, although battered, will prevail.
Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with articles in Novaya Gazeta. Previously, he was a professor at RUDN University in Moscow.
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