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How Putin Changed Russia Forever
President Vladimir Putin has transformed his country and its relations with the world. We asked 11 leading experts to look back at his 20-year reign and predict what the future may bring.
On May 7, 2000, Vladimir Putin was sworn in as president of Russia. It was the first of four inaugurations—and counting. Four months earlier, Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down, elevating the prime minister and former security services head to the position of acting president. When elections were held in late March, Yeltsin’s anointed successor won just over half the votes, a slim majority that prevented a runoff and shifted Russia’s trajectory immeasurably.
In the two decades since rising to the top of the Kremlin, Putin has consolidated power and strengthened Russia’s role on the world stage. Many of these changes, which have come at no small cost, would have been unfathomable at the turn of the century; Putin’s election marked the country’s first democratic change of power. With Moscow now paving the way for Putin to rule until 2036, one of the world’s most powerful leaders may well become one of the world’s longest-serving.
To understand how Putin changed Russia and its place in the world over the past 20 years, and what the future may bring, Foreign Policy reached out to leading scholars, journalists, and experts.
Little to Celebrate in Putin’s Russia
Twenty years ago, if you had asked me or basically anyone whether Vladimir Putin would become the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, the response would have likely been either incredulous silence or uproarious laughter. When he ascended to the Russian presidency while still in his 40s, Putin’s main qualifications for the job, at least based on the many Russians I spoke with during his first years in office when I was the Washington Post’s co-bureau chief in Moscow, were that he was: young, articulate, and, literally, sober. That he was, in other words, not Boris Yeltsin—his sick, aging predecessor, who spent his later years in the Kremlin in vodka-soaked meanderings as gangster capitalism took hold of the realm and his own government. Putin spoke of tax reform, his admiration for Europe, and one day growing Russia’s post-Soviet economy to beat out Portugal. To admirers at home as well as many who misread him in the West, he seemed to represent a different course for Russia—toward becoming a “normal,” more modern, if more modest, country.
Of course, that required overlooking much, even at the time: the brutal war in Chechnya that launched Putin as a political figure, the fact that he had been hand-picked by Yeltsin’s crooked inner circle in exchange for guaranteeing their amnesty, and, especially, Putin’s own background in the Soviet-era KGB and persistent fealty to the idea of a security state.
Two decades on, Russia is once again a struggling petrostate with an aging leader, struggling with an authoritarian tradition that hinders its political development and an unreformed, corruption-ridden economy far too dependent on natural resource extraction. Putin did not restore the Soviet Union or create a new gulag at home. His new normal, however, turned out to be more like the old normal than he would admit. Now, Putin must reckon with cratering oil prices, a poor response to the global coronavirus pandemic, and political overreach that had him schedule, then postpone, a constitutional referendum that could keep him in power for over a decade more to come. May 2020 was meant to be a 20th anniversary party for Putinism, but the party has been canceled.
Russia Has Become Deeply Dependent on Putin
by Olga Oliker
It sometimes seems to me that Russians view Vladimir Putin a bit the way much of the world views the United States. That is to say that they are grateful for what he has done for them in the increasingly distant past; they are ambivalent, and in some cases deeply disturbed, when it comes to more recent actions; and they are trepidatious about the future. On the other hand, they don’t see an alternative.
Putin has seen Russia through economic rebirth and stagnation. He has presided over a notable return of his country to the global stage. But if the methods and available tools have changed over the decades and centuries, the foreign-policy goals Putin’s Russia has pursued are not different from historical Russian, Soviet, and Imperial Russian foreign-policy goals. Nor were the last two decades unique in economic ups and downs and cycles of liberalization and constraint at home. I would say the real change Putin has wrought is to establish a system that appears extraordinarily dependent on him personally, both for its own sustainment and to make decisions and take action. And that, by definition, lasts only as long as Putin remains in power.
Putin Shows Precisely How Much Leaders Matter
Realists argue that states and the balance of power between them drive international relations; leaders don’t matter. Russia emerged from the rubble of the Soviet collapse as a weak state and therefore was compelled to do what the strongest power in the system—the United States— dictated. Russia today has recovered and reemerged as a great power, clashing as such powers always do with other major powers in the world. These confrontational dynamics would have occurred with or without Vladimir Putin.
This theory is elegant but wrong. All explanations of state behavior must begin with assessments of power, but never is the balance of power the whole story. Leaders and their ideas can also influence state behavior. Putin and Putinism have impacted Russia and its place in the world.
Selected by Boris Yeltsin, and then ratified by the Russian people, to become president in 2000, Putin was an accidental leader. His views on governance and foreign policy were not well known. Early in his tenure, however, he made clear his disdain for checks on executive power. Today, Putin has replaced Russia’s fragile democracy from the 1990s with a consolidated autocracy. Over time, Putin has explicitly rejected liberalism and multilateralism and instead embraced and promoted conservative, orthodox, nationalist ideas. The clash between Putinism and liberalism takes place not only between states but within them.
None of this was inevitable. In the last 30 years, after all, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and even Dmitry Medvedev to a lesser degree have embraced more liberal ideas and sought greater cooperation with the West. Had Yeltsin chosen Boris Nemtsov to succeed him, Russian democracy might have survived, and Russia’s cooperation with the West might have continued.
Because leaders matters, Russia and the West are not destined for confrontation forever because of the balance of power in the international system. A new leader in Russia might change Russia’s path. It happened before; it can happen again.
Russia’s Youngest Generation Has Been Deprived
The most significant change Putin has made in Russia is that young Russians who grew up under Putin don’t know what free discussion is or what democracy means. A society where one can make money only by not interfering in politics and not criticizing the authorities forces people to give up all options beyond their personal life and work. There is enormous anxiety in Russian society, which is only growing as the coronavirus and economic crises worsen.
Operating roughly, but consistently on the world stage, Putin has demonstrated that Russia can violate the human rights of its citizens and others without serious consequences from the European Union or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In spite of the discontent of the United States and the EU, Russia sent troops to Syria and resurrected its influence in the Middle East, without spending as much money and resources as the Soviet Union did. Russia also won military contracts with Turkey, a NATO member state, bypassing the United States—something that would have been impossible to imagine 20 years ago.
Greed Has Won the Day
After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was a country that had hope and the potential to become a part of the civilized world. It has none of that now. Putin promised to “Make Russia Great Again” in exchange for the loyalty of his subjects. He annexed foreign land and injected a hybrid war in the neighboring country. As a result, Russia didn’t become great or even respected as a regional power. Instead, it is feared by its close neighbors and distrusted or disgusted by the larger world for its policies based on lies, assassinations, and unpredictability.
If not for Russia’s vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, the world would likely try to forget about its existence for the foreseeable future. Russia would be little more than yet another example of rampant corruption, greedy elites, and their inability to see long-term gains out of the common good. Did Russia have a chance? Yes, it did. So who “lost” Russia, as was commonly asked in the United States? Not the U.S. Democrats, nor U.S. Republicans, nor anyone else. Only we Russians of the educated class are responsible for our inability to see Russia succeed on the road to democracy.
Little to Offer Beyond Deadlock and Stagnation
Vladimir Putin delayed Russia’s moves toward becoming a developed market economy for decades. When he first came to power, Putin declared aspirations for engagement with the developed Western world and warned against government interference in politics, civil liberties, and the economy. If Russia had followed the footprint of reforms promised in the early Putin era, it could have been a totally different country by now—a responsible, respected player on the global stage.
Twenty years on, Russia has reached a complete domestic, political, and economic dead end. Since 2008, the GDP has not grown—Putin’s economic model is not working. Even his loyalists admit Russia needs political changes, but Putin is fiercely resistant and seemingly wishes to serve as a lifetime ruler, prolonging the deadlock indefinitely. Contrary to Putin’s rhetoric of “restoring Russia’s greatness,” Russia is increasingly isolated and faces unprecedented international sanctions that exclude its future positive economic development. The only way Russia can make itself visible in international affairs is through disruptive behavior and through siding with China and other dictatorial regimes to counter the international liberal order. We have nothing positive to offer to the world except threats, disinformation, and disruption—sadly, that’s the face of Putinism.
In Putin, Everyone Saw What They Wanted
When Vladimir Putin took on the mantle of Russian president 20 years ago, many in the West had long written off any notion that the Russian security services could be a force to be reckoned with. The West was still high on its apparent Cold War triumph. NATO and the European Union were expanding ever eastward. After nearly a decade of upheaval under Boris Yeltsin, Russia seemed irreversibly weakened. In Putin, everyone saw what they wanted to see.
For the Russian oligarchs and much of the West, Putin was the president who would help secure the fragile gains of Russia’s market transition. For most of the Russian population, he was the leader who would help bring order to a country riven by chaos. Putin appeared to be a Russian Everyman, a seemingly nondescript midlevel former KGB officer who pledged to restore the Russian state. But he was a chameleon, and therein lay his power. Behind him stood a ruthless caste of security men. Instead of strengthening democratic institutions, these men usurped them to shore up their own position. Then, once they’d taken over the country’s economy and legal system, Putin’s men sought to rewrite the rules and undermine the West.
The tactics are the same as those deployed by the KGB in the 1970s and ’80s—using illicit funds to buy off and corrupt Western politicians and institutions. The only difference now is that they have been funded by a much deeper well of cash, enabling them to penetrate much further into Western markets. Russia has succeeded in exacerbating weaknesses and divisions in Western society. Compared to 20 years ago, Western liberal democracy is under siege. But Putin and his men are no more than warped relics of an earlier era who have yet to learn that without building a strong competitive economy in their own country the outcome of such short-term power games can only be the same collapse.
A Clear Strategy for Global Power May Have Met Its Limit
by Angela Stent
Under Putin, Russia has become a centralized, authoritarian state and has returned as a global player, competing with the United States for influence and aligning itself with China to try to create a post-West global order. In 2000, Russia was a pluralist but economically struggling state that had largely retreated from global ambitions. Putin was determined to restore Russia to its rightful role, as he saw it: as a great power. He was able to accomplish this both because he, unlike the United States, had a strategy and because he has been what I call the “judoist”—adept at seizing opportunities presented by a divided and distracted West.
While Russia’s relations with the West have sharply deteriorated since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in southeastern Ukraine, much of the rest of the world regards Russia as a large, authoritarian state with which they can do business. Nevertheless, Russia’s ability to continue extending its global reach may be constrained in the coronavirus era. High oil prices from 2000 to 2008, and their rebound after the financial crisis, enabled Putin to consolidate power and expand Russian influence. The collapse of oil prices and the sharp decline in economic growth may well limit Russia’s ability to project power going forward.
A Suspicious, Aggressive Russia
Putin made Russia both suspicious and aggressive. In just few years of Putin’s being in power, Russia became adamantly distrustful of outsiders. It developed a deep-rooted distrust of foreigners and foreign countries at large. Inside, the country adopted a similar view toward everybody who happened to be not within the state, including experts, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition parties.
The Kremlin also discovered aggression as the way to react to any international or national crisis. When the dissatisfied middle class took to the streets in Moscow, Putin’s people said that “protesters who hurt riot police should have their livers smeared on the asphalt”; when Ukrainians took to the streets in Kyiv, the Kremlin attacked Crimea.
In the larger world, Putin made an even more significant shift. Before Putin, the country was, politically speaking, part of the history of Eastern Europe’s difficult democratization. Mikhail Gorbachev was judged against the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall; Boris Yeltsin’s wars in Chechnya were seen through the prism of the wars in Yugoslavia.
Putin changed that. He shifted the country further East, to a traditional place occupied by Russia for centuries. It’s not Eastern Europe anymore; it’s only Russia, the powerful, aggressive, totalitarian Russia it has always been. Many Russia hands have expanded their historical references—it became common to invoke the tsars as a way to explain Putin’s foreign policy. Some reviews of our recent book on Russian political emigration criticized us for failing to mention Ivan the Terrible’s policy toward exiles. And this is exactly what makes Putin’s contribution so damaging: It undermines the hope that Russia could ever become a rational, normal country.
A Strongman Brand Others Can Emulate
For the past 20 years, Putin has been driven principally by his desire to maintain power. To this end, he has weakened the state, eliminated competition, and personalized Russia’s political system. While an older generation of Russians credit Putin for helping Russia overcome the turmoil of the 1990s, in reality he has turned the country into a kleptocracy that does not work for ordinary Russians. As he has grown more paranoid about threats to his power—internal and external, real and imagined—Putin has suppressed the freedoms of Russians, increasingly through an arsenal of digital tactics.
Despite Russia’s internal weaknesses, Putin has boosted the country’s global standing. The lack of constraints on his power, his investment in modernizing his military, and his ability to exploit asymmetries of interest between Russia and the West have allowed Putin to seize opportunities, even those that violate international laws. Today, Russia has a role in most global issues of consequence. But Putin also understands the limits of Russian influence. He has therefore sought to undermine Western democracies to improve Russia’s relative standing. His tactics and strongman brand have created a model that anti-democratic leaders emulate. As Putin has alienated Russia from the West, Russia’s place in the world is increasingly alongside the regimes of Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Rouhani, Nicolás Maduro, and Xi Jinping. Much can be told from the company one keeps.
20 Years Lost, Democratic Trajectory Could Yet Be Regained
In 20 years, Vladimir Putin has managed to take Russia from imperfect democracy to perfect authoritarianism at home, and from a respected partner to near-pariah in international affairs. By 2000, Russia had competitive elections, a vibrant free press, a pluralistic parliament, and a growing civil society. On the world stage, it was a member of the G-8, the prestigious club of industrialized democracies, and had recently ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, bringing its citizens under the umbrella of Europe’s strongest oversight mechanism. To be sure, there were many problems—and many mistakes—in both political and economic spheres, but the trajectory was the right one.
After two decades of Putin’s rule, Russia is a country where all major media are controlled by the state; where elections are meaningless rituals with predetermined outcomes; where parliament—in the words of its own speaker—is “not a place for discussion”; where peaceful demonstrators are beaten by police; and where political opponents are imprisoned—or worse. Abroad, it has been kicked out of the G-8, faces crushing economic sanctions, and, for the first time in decades, has unrecognized international borders. It will take time and effort to undo this damage once Russia has a democratic government that respects the rights of its own people and behaves responsibly on the international stage. Sooner or later, that day will come.
Yevgenia Albats is a Russian investigative journalist, political scientist, author, and radio host.
Catherine Belton is a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and the author of Putin’s People, to be published in June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Irina Borogan is a Russian journalist and a co-author of The Compatriots.
Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and the director for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @AKendallTaylor
Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, publicist, economist, and energy expert, and an economic advisor to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Michael McFaul is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, a professor of political science, and a Hoover Institution senior fellow, all at Stanford University.
Olga Oliker directs the Europe and Central Asia Program at International Crisis Group.
Andrei Soldatov is a Russian investigative journalist and a co-author of The Compatriots.