Once a KGB… always a KGB
First, let us answer the most important question: who is Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia? If I agree with the former Vice President Dick Cheney on one thing, it is in his description Putin: “KGB, KGB, KGB,” Cheney told a visitor. As many aspects of the KGB, the U.S.S.R. equivalent to our CIA, is kept classified, it is hard to know exactly what Putin did do during his KGB career. What we do know is that Putin was a KGB spy and, judging by his frequent promotions, he was pretty good at his job.
After his KGB career, Putin entered politics and quickly worked his way up the political ladder. In 1999, he became the acting Prime Minister of the Government of the Russian Federation. Then in 2000, upon the resignation of Boris Yeltsin (the previous leader of Russia), Putin ran for the Russian Presidency and won with 53% of the vote.
Putin’s presidency promised strong leadership to the Russian people. Putin would be their charismatic and beloved leader who cleaned up corruption and brought back peace and stability to the country. He eventually did follow through on these lofty promises… well sort of.
Putin improved the vast wealth disparity of the impoverished nation of Russia by constructing an “agreement” with top Russian businessman referred by many as the “Russian Oligarchs.” These Russian oligarchs would do as Putin said and would occasionally feed some crumbs to the Russian people in order to keep them satisfied. In return, Putin would allow the oligarchs to keep most of their wealth and power. Disobey Putin like Mikhail Khordorkovsky did and Putin may jail you for fraud and tax evasion. Putin also implemented tough anti crime propositions, which often jailed people for minor crimes without a fair trial. But hey, at least the crime rate went down, (although recently it has gone up). Finally, while Putin has improved Russia’s economy from the mess it was in the 1990s under Yeltsin, it is still not a stable, strong economy. Russia’s biggest export is oil and it is what their economy is based in. While an economy based on oil is good when oil prices soar, it can cause devastation when oil prices dip, as they have been currently.
Say Whatever you Want (as long as it is Pro-Putin)
A big part of Putin’s governorship of Russia is his systematic dismantling of the Russian people’s freedom of speech. “Officially” Russia has freedom of speech, which is weird considering the fact that Russia ranks 148 out of 180 according to the World Press Freedom Index.
In Russia, if you report normal, non-important news everything is fine. You could probably even criticize local small politicians and get away with it, but as soon as you report anything slightly negative about Putin and his administration you can expect to be silenced quickly. Journalists who may be potential threats to Putin’s popularity and his power are often beaten and threatened. While these attacks cannot be, with 100% certainty, linked back to Putin, Putin’s unwillingness to protect these journalists speaks volumes by itself.
Furthermore, Putin has deftly allied himself with the Russian oligarchy who not only control major aspects of the Russian economy, but also control the major Russian media outlets. These oligarchs who control the media make heavy use of censorship to avoid upsetting Putin, a dangerous man to upset if you are a wealthy Russian.
Even if one of these oligarchs put freedom of speech over his own safety and reported the news fairly, it would not matter, given the fact that Putin and his government control the biggest major media outlets. When Putin came to power in 2000, he expanded the state run media of Russia from one major network to three, giving him major control over the flow of information in Russia. Then, when you combine his networks with the networks the oligarchs in Russia control, one can very clearly see why Putin has secured a monopoly on information in Russia.
Unity through Fear
Putin has also skillfully used fear of terrorism and Western influence to unite the Russian people under a Nationalist form of rule. First, Putin has capitalized on terrorist attacks in the Russian province of Chechnya to justify the increasing centralized and unchecked power of his administration. Second, Putin has convinced the Russian people that their economic hardships are a result of Western interference not through their own government.
When one looks at public opinion polls taken by the pew research center, one will notice an alarming trend. It seems as if Putin has convinced the Russian people that he can do no wrong. The Russians overwhelmingly support Putin’s policies. Putin’s most “unpopular” action, his fight against corruption, still has a 60% approval rating from the Russian public.
Russians have an 88% approval rating of Putin, 6 times higher than their approval rating of the United States (15%). Russians also are quick to blame falling oil prices (33%) and Western sanctions (33%) for recent economic woes with only 25% of them recognizing that some of the blame may in fact lie in the Russian government and their economic policies.
Ok, so the Russian people love their leader and country, why does that matter? Well simply put, the Russians love for Putin and his policies is not a legitimate love, but a manipulated one, which can be very dangerous. If Putin really was a great humanitarian and leader then high approval ratings would be fine, but high approval ratings for a dictator whose country, according to the World Freedom Index is less free than Egypt and only barely more free than Cuba and Iran is far from a good thing. If Putin can remain such a popular leader despite his abuse of the Russian people, then odds are his abuse will only grow.
Also, as Americans, we should be weary of the anti-West sentiment Putin has stirred up in his country. If public opinion of the United States and her allies get too bad Putin may be forced to engage in an increasing amount of anti-American actions to satisfy the will of his people and remain popular.
It would be irresponsible to leave out one interesting development regarding Putin’s steadfast popularity. It appears that Putin’s 2014 interference in Ukraine may actually be something that the Russian people believe he handled unsuccessfully. 2015 polls indicate that 37% of Russian believe his actions lead to worsening international opinion of Russia, while only 27% of Russians believe his actions improved international opinion of Russia. Time will tell though if this poll is an outlier or an indication of Putin losing his grip on the Russian people.
A Democracy lacking a Democratic Process
Based on Putin’s previous actions, it may come as a surprise to no one that Putin has also undermined the Democratic process of elections in Russia. The Russian Constitution already had a base in a strong Russian presidency, but Putin has taken it a step further and essentially made his authority uncheckable.
First, the Russian Duma, Russia’s equivalent to our Congress, provides only a rubber stamp to Putin’s policies and rarely questions his authority. Why is this? Well the Duma is overwhelming controlled by Putin’s United Russia Party. The reason why Putin’s party is so overwhelmingly in control is partly due to Putin but also partly due to a lack of unity among Putin’s political opponents.
The other major parties of Russia are not so major and don’t pose much of a threat. The biggest party besides Putin’s United Russia Party is the Russian Communist Party and Russians are unlikely to embrace Communism, a system of government, which led to economic hardship for the country in the 20th century.
Russia’s upper house also provides no check to Putin due to the fact that Putin has a major influence over how these Russian senators are selected. Each Russian region has two senators, one appointed by the governor and one elected by the people. In 2013, Putin passed a law that made it so he must approve the list of candidates for Russian governorship (essentially meaning that only governors loyal to Putin even have a chance to get elected). As a result, these Putin-loyal governors only appoint Putin-loyal senators, creating an obvious conflict of interest.
Putin has also bypassed the two consecutive term limit set out in the Russian Constitution by selecting a puppet in the form of Dmitry Medvedev to serve from 2008-2012 before Putin returned to the Presidency in 2013. During Medvedev’s term, Putin was Prime Minister of Russia, but still essentially carried out the duties he had been doing as President.
As far as elections go, Putin is so popular and has such a grasp over the Russian government that he does not even need to interfere with the vote tallies to ensure his victory. That being said, I can ensure you that Putin definitely has a system in place to ensure that he will still win in the off chance that the election might not be going his way.
What are his Intentions?
Putin is a complicated man so it is often vain to make an attempt to predict exactly what his ultimate goal is.
Possibly Putin could just be a dictator intent on maintaining his power and wealth (estimated at 200 billion dollars) through whatever means possible. This possibility would probably be the better one as far as the United States is concerned as it means that Putin is not looking to cause any trouble and start fights, as this would lead to a loss in his assets.
A second explanation could be that Putin is just a crazy egomaniac with no necessary “goal.” This explanation would mean that Putin does what he does simply because he enjoys the power and fame that comes with his position. Personally I find this explanation lacking, as if Putin really was just an irrational narcissist he would not have been able to so skillfully take control of his country in the way he did.
The third explanation, and the one I find most likely, is that Putin is a dangerous man with a vision to return Russia to greatness as the world’s leading superpower. The collapse of the U.S.S.R.’s Communism and the success of the United States’ Capitalism was an embarrassment to Russia who now found themselves as America’s lesser in almost every sense of the world. Similar to how Hitler united the German people against the world in the 1930s, Putin may be looking to unite the Russian people against a world, which has wronged them.
While comparisons of world leaders to Hitler is often overused. it is hard not to see the similarities that Putin shares with Hitler. Putin has used fear to strip the Russian people of their rights and now Putin’s 2014 invasion of the Crimeria is chillingly similar to Hitler’s seizer of Czechoslovakia.
The one difference Putin has with Hitler is the one that I think may make him more dangerous than Hitler. Putin, unlike Hitler, appears to be a lot more cold and calculating. Based on what we have seen in Putin so far, it seems unlikely that Putin would make such devastating mistakes on par with Hitler’s premature invasion of Russia or Hitler’s plan to use the first jet ever created as a bomber instead of a fighter plane.
What the United States should do about it
Foreign policy is complicated and it would be relatively pointless (and extremely time consuming) to write out, in detail, how the United States should handle Russia diplomatically.
Simply put, what we as citizens and as a country should do is just simply remember who Putin is. We should not get naïve as it appears Donald Trump has been, and proclaim Russia as our friend. Putin’s Russia is not one, which has the United States’ best interests at heart and that is something we should recognize.
We should not invade Russia and cause a nuclear war, but we should instead deal with them as caution and not an ally. Am I advocating a new cold war? Unfortunately, in some aspects, yes. As long as Putin is in charge of Russia it looks like a cold war may be our best option. The good news is that unlike the previous cold war, Russia’s antagonistic approach to the West is a result of Putin not the country itself. Perhaps Putin’s successors could lead to better relations. I am not saying that we should question every little action Russia makes. Instead, we should do as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s and “Trust but verify.”