Through the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, there has remained very few constants in international politics. However, since 1999 (now 23 years ago, but don’t think about that too much), Russia has seen just one head of state: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Though he has bounced between the roles of President and Prime Minister, it is safe to say that he has solely held the reins over the Russian state since before this writer was born.
This of course begs the question: how in the 21st century has Putin managed to stay in power for so long?
Before his political career, the Leningrad native rose through the ranks of Russian counterintelligence forces. Beginning as a KGB spy and later head of the FSB (the agency that succeeded the KGB), Putin established himself as a man deeply committed both to Russia and to personal power. After relocating to Moscow, he climbed the political ladder just as quickly as he rose through the ranks of the FSB.
Friend and confidant of the infamous Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Putin was appointed by Yeltsin as deputy Prime Minister, assumed the role of acting Prime Minister, and announced his candidacy for President, all on the same day. Despite never participating in a national election, he was quickly among the favorites to replace the ailing Yeltsin. There was just one problem: Putin was virtually unknown amongst the Russian people.
Putin needed to garner support, and he needed to do it quickly, so he devised a plan: a war.
In September 1999, a series of apartment buildings were rocked by multiple explosives in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk. More than 300 were killed and over 1,000 injured. Vladamir Putin, then Prime Minister, was quick to blame the Chechens, a people who had been in a long-standing feud with the U.S.S.R. and later Russia. His handling of the crisis, as an embodiment of Russian law and order, raised his popularity immensely, allowing him to secure the votes for President. It is widely believed that Putin was behind the attacks, take this testimony from American journalist and Soviet expert David Satter:
“With Yeltsin and his family facing possible criminal prosecution, however, a plan was put into motion to put in place a successor who would guarantee that Yeltsin and his family would be safe from prosecution and the criminal division of property in the country would not be subject to reexamination. For “Operation Successor” to succeed, however, it was necessary to have a massive provocation. In my view, this provocation was the bombing in September 1999 of the apartment building bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk. In the aftermath of these attacks, which claimed 300 lives, a new war was launched against Chechnya. Putin, the newly appointed prime minister who was put in charge of that war, achieved overnight popularity. Yeltsin resigned early. Putin was elected president and his first act was to guarantee Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.”
Putin’s first term saw him reach a deal with the men many today call the Russian Oligarchs. In exchange for their unyielding support for the Putin administration, they were allowed to maintain and even expand upon their de facto power in government. Ever since the early 2000s it has been difficult to find a Russian media outlet not controlled directly by one such oligarch, and therefore indirectly by Vladamir Putin. It was this near monopolistic control of the media that allowed Putin to cruise to a second term as Prime Minister with over 70% of the vote. Moreover, several independent commissions reported instances of improper use of government resources, ballot stuffing, and local instances of voter intimidation.
Despite the problems described in the 2004 election, Putin faced the first real challenge to his power at the conclusion of his 2004-2008 term: the Russian Constitution. The Constitution expressly prohibits a President to serve more than two consecutive terms. Putin therefore endorsed loyalist Dmitry Medvedev as the candidate to succeed him. After an election rampant with the very same problems of 2004, Medvedev won in a landslide, winning a majority in every single voting district of Russia. Medvedev’s first act as President? The appointment of Vladimir Putin to the office of Prime Minister, where he maintained near total control of the government.
It goes nearly without saying that at the conclusion of Medvedev’s term in 2012, Putin was “reelected” as President. This of course meant that he could stay in power until 2020 before having to return to Prime Minister. Except this time, Putin had an even more daring plan that culminated in the 2020 Russian Constitutional Referendum.
The referendum proposed sweeping changes to the Russian Constitution, placing it above international law, banning same-sex marriage, expanding the social safety net, and most importantly for our dictator in question, allowing Putin to run for two more six year terms, which if passes, would all but ensure his stay in office until 2036. As you can probably guess, the referendum passed in a landslide, this time with much international condemnation after claims of vote manipulation at every step in the electoral process.
The only legitimate challenge to Putin’s
throne office came in the form of Alexei Navalny who had been an outspoken critic of Putin and his regime. Navalny challenged Putin in the 2018 Presidential election but was barred from running by the Kremlin. When Navalny criticism of the Kremlin and Russian government at large did not end there, he was poisoned in 2020 by a Novichok nerve agent–all but certainly by direction from Putin.
The reign of Vladimir Putin reads almost as a case study on the modern dictatorship. Putin, in addition to hostile takeover of the media and limits on legitimate political challengers, has systematically weakened other branches of government to ensure the power of his own, and used large scale propaganda campaigns to maintain support amongst his base. Despite criticism from the international community, little action has been taken to stop Putin’s unending quest for unchallenged power. The world is now left to deal with the repercussions of this as the Russian invasion of Ukraine wages on.
This does a good job at summarizing the rise to and maintenance of power for Putin to the outside observer. It would seem that Putin serves as an example of the overgeneralization that there is a certain degree of stability to authoritarian, law-and-order dictatorial countries, as Putin’s deep government ties and vast personal wealth allow for a fairly iron-clad grip on power.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post! In the wake of the crisis that is happening in Ukraine, how do you believe this will affect Putin’s power in today’s time? There seems to be a lot of prominent individuals who have not approved of Putin’s actions especially in regards to what is happening in Ukraine, so do you think that the public will challenge him and end his power and control?
This is quite an interesting perspective describing Putin’s undemocratic rise to power. The popular claim of Putin being behind the attacks of the apartment buildings in major Russian cities does not come to me as a surprise. The world has seen that Putin has little to no regard for human life in the wake of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and attacks on innocent Ukranian civilians.
Additionally, the way in which Putin so strategically had his most popular opponent, Navalny disqualified from the election, as you mentioned, could fall into Varol’s ideas in Stealth Authoritarianism; Putin made an effort to prosecute Navaly for non-political crimes in order to remain in power. Putins tactics have raised costs to the opposition who threaten his power, through undemocratic channels. International actors will have to step up if the world would like to see any remnants of democracy preserved in Russia.