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Originally, Putin was picked as a future puppet because he fit the bill — the strongman persona was exactly what the doctor had ordered. Then he ended up cutting loose from his patrons, keeping the persona and the power he accrued all for himself, Aleksandar Đokić writes.
As Russia prepares for the presidential election scheduled for March of next year, Vladimir Putin is playing a game of will-he-won’t-he and is yet to announce his bid for reelection.
Yet, the incumbent president’s apparent hesitance is nothing more than a charade, and — bar an earth-shattering act-of-God event — he is set to rule Russia for another six-year term. And, as illogical as it may seem to outside observers, the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine has only helped solidify his ironclad grasp on power.
In fact, the entirety of Putin’s carefully crafted political image in Russia is based upon the notion that he is an unbreakable masculine god of war, against whose onslaught no opponent can be left standing.
This is the core of his political persona. His other social disguises are reserved for various echelons of power within Russia, the inner and outer circle, as well as foreign heads of state, be they antagonists or partners (in crime).
This one, however, is what Putin wears specifically for the Russian public, who seem to be willing to back him to the hilt yet again, no questions asked.
A byproduct of times of chaos
The sole fact that Putin didn’t choose to base his political persona on personal charisma, administrative shrewdness or intellectual prowess, was partially determined by the late Boris Yeltsin era in which he managed to backstab his way up the corrupt political ladder.
It was an era of chaos, not because of liberal and market reforms, but because the reformists themselves stopped halfway with the changes, once they were convinced that political and economic power was firmly within their grasp.
The changes in Russia at the time were issued by fiat from the very top, and there was no great grassroots opposition political movement for democracy which could force reforms.
As such, once the political power was distributed and economic wealth acquired, it was not the opponents, but the initial proponents of reforms who stopped them dead in their tracks.
On the other hand, it was a period not of idealistic democracy in Russia, but of the weakness of the federal centre of power. Liberty, a byproduct of this state of play, was never truly desired; it had to be tolerated.
The Chechen cause turns into an existential threat
The two Chechen Wars gave both Yeltsin and Putin a purpose. As the setup went, Russia was in danger and they would fight to protect it.
The truth was, however, that during the Soviet era, the Chechen people were subjected to one of the most horrendous state crimes — they were forcefully relocated to Central Asia en masse.
The elderly and the newborns were crammed inside cattle trains and shipped far to the east. Many of the most fragile social groups lost their lives during the trip itself.
Only with the decay of central power in Moscow could the Chechens return to their ancestral land. Thus, the Chechen struggle for independence was a logical consequence of Russian rule over the territory once the Soviet Union was gone for good.
But, the Moscow overlords of the Yeltsin and Putin variety opted to turn the Chechen cause into an existential threat to Russia itself, much like it was done with Ukraine almost two decades later.
This is how, by the very nature of the already set war path, Putin’s political persona was streamlined into the war dictator we know, and loath, today.
The planned puppet’s strongman persona
There are many speculations — set to remain long after Putin leaves this world — about the apartment bombings in September 1999 blamed on the government in Grozny, which provided justification for the Second Chechen War in the eyes of the Russian public.
The fact is that the Russian central government already chose war as a cohesive political instrument in order to achieve total control and stifle nascent Russian federalism even before Putin was in the spotlight.
And whether or not the terrorist attacks were a setup, Putin was already picked by the Yeltsin clan and the few oligarchs who wielded enough power to make the choice of who the next president of Russia would be, among them Boris Berezovsky (who was later assassinated in Britain) and Yeltsin’s son-in-law, Valentin Yumashev (who remained loyal).
The war path strategy of Yeltsin invigorated once more the heavily battered security apparatus, which terrorized the country during the Soviet era.
Putin was picked as a future puppet, chosen because he fit the bill — the strongman persona was exactly what the doctor had ordered.
It wasn’t only Putin who needed a war; the reborn Russian autocracy did, too. Maybe it was set up but the FSB itself or perhaps it was really the rogue Chechen Islamic extremists, not under the control of the Grozny government, who provided the needed casus belli. The difference would not amount to much in the eyes of the Russian public already sold on the narrative, anyway.
The necessity of war as an instrument of rule was already in place. The Second Chechen War shaped Putin’s political image to such an extent that he could never transition beyond it, even if he wanted to.
From Chechnya to Transnistria, and then onto Syria
In the end, the narrative was highly effective, and it gave the impoverished Russian masses the feeling of collective power once more.
Together with the terrorist attacks in Russian cities which went on for years as a backdrop to the Chechen Wars, the Kremlin’s spiel also helped rally the people around the tough paternalistic figure Putin had become.
In the meantime, Putin ended up cutting loose from his patrons, keeping the persona and the power he accrued all for himself.
Then, in 2008, came the Georgian War — a small and quick victory for the Russian forces overshadowing the Georgian army many times over. This was a turning point as it constituted a foreign war, much more direct and bigger than Yeltsin’s meddling in Moldova’s Transnistria years back.
Russia was formally an empire once more. Further encouraged by stable oil prices, which steadily filled the coffers of the Russian state, Putin was at the peak of his actual popularity — not the hollow one he has today when any alternative is practically outlawed.
It was the Syrian adventure, much like the 19th-century colonial interventions of European powers in the region, that put Russia back on the global map. Together with the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the military aggression in the Donbas region, it revitalised Russia’s image as a military superpower.
The mask might have cracked, but the war dictator will prevail
During Putin’s late period, his image began to crack, and not only because he was unable to achieve a decisive victory against Ukraine in 2014.
He was in power for too long, the fast economic growth was over, and the semblance of basic political freedoms was beginning to disappear. In the meantime, Kyiv became a double jeopardy for Putin — it was perceived as a threat to the stability of the regime in Moscow if left unchecked, and yet, it provided a great opportunity to strengthen Putin’s rule if it was quickly overpowered.
A new war, a “great war”, one that would go down in Russia’s history, would mark Putin’s legacy and cement his power within his lifetime.
After nineteen months of war, the victory never came. Yet, despite this, the regime had found a new way of prolonging its stay in power — a forever war of lower intensity.
In a way, it is now a war waged with just enough resources committed to keep it going, but not enough to cause civil unrest.
The Western leaders, from their perspective, see this as a containment strategy: it’s all about denying Russia victory, draining it of its resources, but not attempting to provide enough aid to Ukraine to defeat it out of fear of what might follow — a chaotic breakup of Russia, total war, or even nuclear holocaust are all realistic possibilities.
At the same time, Putin, and his inner circle, see all this as an opportunity to bring back totalitarian rule in Russia itself, securing their position for years to come, all the while hoping that Ukraine would eventually crumble under the pressure.
And Putin the war dictator, albeit battered, will prevail.
Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. Formerly, he was a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.
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