For Vladimir Putin the discipline and control of Soviet Communism combined with the economic advantages of Russia’s style of capitalism is the best of all worlds. The strength of the Russian economy, mostly due to high oil and gas revenues, has made their president appear a political and economic genius to the Russian people. The balancing act — some would say illusion — of democracy and central control of key industries is about to be tested one year from now when the former KGB foreign intelligence officer gives up his presidency and returns to private life.
There has been considerable speculation regarding Putin’s true intentions, but it is now generally expected that he will step down as the Russian constitution requires in March 2008. What role he may continue to play, however, is up to question. One thing is clear: Putin will be leaving while still exercising considerable power. A seventy percent public approval rating has guaranteed that.
Meanwhile the Kremlin has launched a major $190 billion dollar new military buildup. Under the guidance of the tough minded Defense Minister, 54-year-old Sergei Ivanov, one of the candidates to replace Putin, Russia is once again returning to international arms competition with a heavy accent on advanced weaponry.
It was a surprise last week when Putin chose the annual Conference on Security Policy in Munich to launch an attack on the U.S. as taking “unilateral, illegitimate actions” making international problems worse. According to the Los Angeles Times, he implied further that “vulnerable nations had been forced by the global instability to seek nuclear weapons” — an obvious reference to Iran. Perhaps this was Putin’s ploy to explain away the new massive Russian expenditure on defense.
The “control” side of Putin’s leadership showed itself unambiguously on February 6th of this year at a meeting of Russia’s cabinet ministers and heads of major companies held in the sumptuous St. Catherine’s Hall in the Kremlin. Commenting on the money laundering charges that extended the prison sentence to twelve years of the former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin said to the gathered businessmen, “I hope you now appreciate the benefit of following strict rules and tax discipline.”
The dictum set forth by Putin in 2000 for Russia’s new tycoons remains threateningly in place: pay the taxes, follow all laws, and stay out of politics. Khodorkovsky and some lesser but still important fish currently residing in Siberia are the ever-present reminders of what happens when those basic guidelines are not followed.
The candidates to replace Putin early next year will continue to be vetted for some months to come. He has not yet indicated a preference, though the two principal aspirants at this juncture appear to be Ivanov and Dimitry Medvedev, 41. The latter, Putin’s former chief of staff, is now responsible for Russia’s “national projects” overhauling education, healthcare, housing, and agriculture. Both Ivanov and Medvedev are first deputy prime ministers and their combined portfolios touch the key elements in Putin’s plan for Russia’s growth.
Medvedev’s recent star performance at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, in January initially stimulated speculation that he would be Putin’s “anointed one.” This has faded fast as Putin quickly rebalanced the political equation through his emphasis on defense rather than domestic issues during his own headline appearance at the security policy conference in Munich. It is clear that Putin may be leaving the job of Russian president, but he has no intention of handing over power one moment before it is necessary, and perhaps not totally even then.
Vladimir Putin has chosen in his final year in power to challenge Washington’s international political leadership. It is a very calculated move based on his perception that American foreign policy during the later Bush years has so alienated the rest of the world that the time has arrived where Russia once again can become the second superpower — this time without the Communist ideological strictures.
The Cold War mentality suits best the longtime professional intelligence officer that is V.V.Putin. He is far more comfortable intellectually with the United States as a principal opponent rather than a friend. It’s a move only a former Soviet stakhanovite chekist could pull off.
It’s a clever but dangerous tactic in the game of realpolitik chess. But the man who once was called “Little Putka” has already shown he is adept at the unexpected gamble. It might be well for him, however, to study the possibility that what he has judged as a chess match may turn out to be Russian roulette.