A few days ago, Russia marked the 20th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s first presidency: While he became acting president in December 1999 with Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, he was not formally sworn in until May 7, 2000. In these two decades, the man who had been a mid-ranking KGB officer in Soviet times and a lowly mayoral aide in post-Soviet Russia has arguably changed history, and not only in his own country. But does his career show the importance of individual leadership, or reflect larger historical forces? Has he been brilliant or lucky?
To Putin fans, in and outside Russia, he is nothing less than the savior of the country: the energetic leader who took over from his ailing and frequently drunk predecessor, rebuilt both Russia’s economy and its international prestige, restored order, ended the threat of separatism by bringing the Chechen Republic back into the fold, and defeated terrorism. In other words, he made Russia great again.
To Putin haters, he is the man who strangled Russia’s infant democracy in its cradle, rolled back freedom of the press and hard-won civil liberties, imprisoned or even murdered critics and political opponents, subdued Chechnya through a horrifically brutal war and a deal with a local warlord, invaded two neighbors (Georgia and Ukraine), revived Stalinism at home, and turned Russia into a sponsor of subversive far-right populism abroad.
I believe the second version is largely true. But the story of Putin is also more complicated.
Putin is not the strategic visionary his admirers imagine him to be. While there is no question that Russians saw a substantial improvement in their living standards after 2000, much of this was due to rising oil prices and the growth in natural gas exports; Russia’s economy continues to be extremely dependent on these exports.
Putin is also not quite the crafty Machiavellian villain imagined by his detractors, carefully plotting his revenge against the West until it finally paid off in our present-day chaos. From the vantage point of the new Cold War, it’s easy to forget that Putin began his rule as a West-friendly figure who craved acceptance as an equal from other Western leaders.
Many blame American arrogance for Putin’s anti-Western turn. But while the United States may have made its share of mistakes, the real problem is that Putin wanted to be welcomed into the family of advanced liberal democracies while steering Russia’s domestic politics in a more authoritarian direction and restoring its dominance over neighboring ex-Soviet countries.
The squelching of independent Russian media in the early 2000s, the arrest of politically active oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the bully tactics employed in 2004 to strong-arm Ukraine into electing a pro-Kremlin president were major factors in the souring of relations with the West. Putin, who has often let on that he sees liberal democracy as little more than a smoke-screen for powerful cliques, saw Western condemnation of his tactics as a cynical attempt to undermine Russia. From his point of view, the Kremlin’s election-meddling and disinformation-spreading in the United States and Europe are simply a form of fighting back.
And yet it would be laughably simplistic to see the rise of Western populism and the proliferation of fake news as Putin’s doing. At best, he has capitalized on already-existing trends.
Today, at age 67, Putin is poised to preside over a constitutional referendum that would allow him to become de facto president for life. But he also faces a mounting COVID-19 epidemic, an imperiled economy, and declining poll numbers. The next year may tell us whether his luck has run out.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.