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Putin: The ultimate global leader of our time

Russia's President Vladimir Putin on vacation. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS - Credit: Tass/PA Images

Troubling as it may be, Putin is the politician best attuned to the state of the world today, says JAMES RODGERS.

All around was in ruins. It was an early spring day, and the air had just started to warm: the sting taken out of the North Caucasus winter.

Among the rubble of the Chechen capital, Grozny, people were going to vote in improvised polling stations. Two wars in five years had left parts of the city looking like Second World War pictures of Stalingrad.

Far to the north, Vladimir Putin, the man who had founded his political reputation on launching the second of those wars, would soon be elected as president of Russia, That was in March 2000. In a few weeks, Vladimir Putin is set to win another six-year term as Russian president. That will take his time as Russia’s most powerful man to almost quarter of a century (four of those years were spent as prime minister, rather than president, while his ally Dmitry Medvedev nominally filled the top job).

During an age of unpredictable change, Putin has emerged as the perfect politician for the 21st century: his leadership admired by Donald Trump and some Brexiteers – the winners in today’s political world.

Yet the world in which this former KGB officer took his first steps as a politician was very different. Everything which Putin had admired and sought to serve had been swept away. The Soviet Union had collapsed; the wars in Chechnya were part of a drive to stop Russia itself breaking up, too. Putin’s former ideological foes were gleefully proclaiming ‘the triumph of the West, of the Western idea’ as the academic Francis Fukuyama had put it. The Cold War had ended without a nuclear war, and a new era of global cooperation lay ahead.

That was not the way that Putin saw it. In 2005, having won a second presidential term by a landslide a year earlier, he described the collapse of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. While western elites celebrated the ‘end of history’ – Fukuyama’s other famous phrase – millions of citizens of the former Soviet Union decried the end of certainty and security which they had known. While a certain section of Russian society was ready to embrace new ideas and new opportunities, many others were not.

Putin understood that. As his political career progressed, he came to anticipate the arguments increasingly heard now: foreign contacts and globalisation were not necessarily good news – unless they were done solely on your terms. As a journalist in Russia in the early post-Soviet period, I heard the same from diplomats and business people – from anyone involved in negotiations. The idea that something could be mutually beneficial seemed alien.

As the country grew richer and stronger with soaring energy prices in the first decade of this century, many ordinary Russians, especially in the big cities of the west of the country, began to feel the benefits. Moscow’s wide avenues soon became clogged with cars that had never previously been affordable.

As president, Putin took much of the credit. As a politician, he shows remarkable versatility. He can be serious and statesmanlike with international leaders. He can swear like a soldier to show he can also be ‘one of the lads’.

In a country where alcoholism and smoking have long been factors in relatively low male life expectancy, he steers clear of the Farage-style fags-and-booze man-of-the-people act. His action man summer holidays may be mocked in the West (and on parts of the Russian internet, too) – but a healthy, sporty, 60-something man is not without appeal to women voters fed up with mopping up after a husband’s vodka binge.

Fishing trips to Siberia, taking the traditional sub-zero plunge in January’s icy waters to mark Russian Orthodox Epiphany – all these resonate with the people in a way that today’s western ‘elite’ politicians just cannot. Think of David Cameron’s mix-up over which football team he supported if you want an example of someone who was out of touch.

Amid the humiliation which many Russians felt during the ‘end of history’ era, one western policy stood out as an insult seen as a threat: the eastward expansion of NATO. You can argue for, or against, the case for the alliance’s growth since the end of the Cold War.

That Putin has been adept at exploiting it for domestic popularity is beyond dispute. A decade ago, both Georgia and Ukraine were spoken of as possible future NATO members. Armed conflicts over the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008 and, later, in Ukraine, have put paid to that.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea attracted huge criticism in the West. Changing borders by military force was supposed to belong to an earlier era in Europe – and yet there is no sign it can be reversed. For many Russians, it was the righting of a historic wrong – the assertion of a new, proud, national identity.

Putin understands that nationalist populism will bring him the domestic authority he needs. Abroad, in his warm relations with Silvio Berlusconi and the former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, he has shown an ability to try to divide a European Union which has become increasingly critical of him.

Putin’s opponents will point to the fact that his muzzling of Russia’s once lively post-Communist press has made his popularity all the easier to secure. He won’t even pronounce the name of his most prominent political opponent, Alexei Navalny. He has a criminal record which his supporters say was conveniently created to hamstring his ambition, so he cannot run for president anyway. Ahead of March’s election, his supporters are reduced to campaigning for a low turnout.

While Putin’s position may seem secure for the moment, there is one weakness: no tolerance of rivals or opposition also means no clear successor. Once Putin’s 25th anniversary in the Kremlin draws closer, this is an issue which may come to haunt Europe, too: a lack of clarity over the direction Russia may take when Putin is no longer president.

For now, though, Putin’s success is the rejection of the ‘western idea’ which Francis Fukuyama so boldly declared had triumphed at the end of the Cold War. There is no ideology as clear as the Marxism-Leninism which the USSR strove to export around the globe. This is more about undermining than asserting. The aim is ably assisted by Russia’s skilful use of traditional and social media: western platforms which have been successfully turned against the west. The technique is to sow confusion, to make people unsure of what they thought they could count on: to ‘Question More’, as one of Kremlin-backed TV channel RT’s slogans so aptly has it.

You might not want to try questioning too much in today’s Russia. The country languishes in 148th position in Reporters without Borders’ most recent press freedom index. Yet for all Putin’s critics may cry foul, he remains genuinely popular. His ability to do so, and the way in which it is done, makes him the global leader who best represents our times.

James Rodgers (@jmacrodgers) is a former BBC Moscow correspondent, and the author of three books on journalism and war. He lectures in International Journalism at City, University of London.

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