By Punsara Amarasinghe
When the red flag was removed from the top of red square followed by Gorbochove’s statement that declared the official disintegration of USSR, the West was erupted in jubilation as the sole winner of the cold war. Political theorists like Fukuyama coined a new political phase “End of History” which affirmed that the world emerged after the collapse of Soviet Union will be based on the interests of West and it’s liberal order and this prophesy seemed to be true at outset as the Russia born out of Perestroika eagerly embraced Western democracy and open economic order things they loathly rejected under Communist rule. Ninety decade was a bad time for people in Russian federation as country was in tatters under Yeltsin’s rule and inflation and rise of crime impoverished people. The mayhem continued till a lesser known figure called Vladimir Putin became new Russian leader in the new year eve in 1999. Perhaps it would be a dramatic statement to say Russia made its tryst with destiny in the dawn of new millennium. Especially, the serious of bomb blasts in Moscow devastated Russian public life which finally paved the path to bring lesser known former KGB officer Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin to zenith of power.
In analysing his first decade in power, the manner he dealt with West, in particular with Washington was impeccable as his moves went beyond the predictions of political pundits in Western think tanks. After his first meeting with George W Bush, US leader had stated that in Slovakia Summit in 2001 “I looked the man in the eye and saw him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”. Indeed, Putin became too much straightforward to West in his actions later. In the first half of his regime, president Putin coped with its rebellious southern republic Chechnya and by 2003 Russian forces could occupy Chechenia after terribly crushing Chechenian rebels, yet fragments remained as seeds of conflict continued to exist in Russian geo political space. As an example, the hostage crisis in Beslan marred his image as the fight between militants and Russian forces in rescuing the hostages finally caused civilian lives including many children. However, he could triumphantly bring the very end to crisis in Chechnya through military means in 2009 and the its capital Grozny which was described by the UN as the most devastated city on earth in 2003 was rebuilt. As a matter of fact, his first decade or till Russia envisaged its military encounter with Georgia, Russian foreign policy with West was much amicable. In fact, president Putin was given a gala reception in the Western states when he made his state visits. In particular, Putin became the first Russian leader to visit Great Britain since 1874. Yet, the honeymooning period with West began to reach its ebb after Georgian crisis in 2008 and which saw its worst nightmare in 2014 when Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
2014 military invasion of Crimea was followed by a serious of EU sanctions upon Russian federation and Russia was expelled from G8 group as well. But, the consistency of president Putin and his political acumen was not affected by any of those external influence as his actions proved his determination to carry out the national interest even if it makes Russian position vulnerable internationally. As an example, when antagonism with West became much severe, Moscow opened to other options like China. Russia ‘s involvement in China ‘s belt and road initiative under Putin is one of notable factors since 2014 which indicates Russia is deviating itself from Europe in order to locate her position in the new rising epi center Beijing. Also, the formation of BRICS as a common platform for emerging world powers further strengthened Russia’s relationship with states outside Europe. It is by no means an easy task to relocate Russia outside Europe, yet the circumstances and the rise of new world economic order under China paved the path for Sino Russo alliance under president Putin.
His flair for cult personality seems to have made him more popular in media than any world political leader. Yet, his persona as a political leader has made him a tyrant before Western mainstream media. Except during 2008 to 2012 (serving as premier to Dmitrij Medvedev) Putin has been holding the helm as world largest states leader despite his political actions have been vehemently criticized by western states. Nevertheless, he could secure 76 % majority in the presidential election held in 2018 March which granted him the power to stay in power till 2024 albeit there has been a huge criticism regarding the transparency of the election results.
In assessing current strategy of president Putin in carving the future of Russia, his intention of restoring its lost glory appears to be the prime task. In his own words “Demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century”. He seems have believed that Soviet Union was crushed as a result of western intelligence service operation. But, his active role in the Middle East has ensured Russia’s entry back to the global geo political game as a key player. Perhaps the current situation in the Middle East would have been unthinkable in the days of Kissinger with his notion of global geo political chess as Russia’s entry into Middle East simply upset the apple cart and her role started to overcome the influence of the USA in the Middle East. Especially, Trump’s decision to pull US forces away from Syrian Turkey border and America’s inability to protect Kurds in have lost its credibility in the Middle East as a reliable partner whereas Russia has proved its worth in Syria by protecting Assad’s regime. On the other hand, Russia has accomplished its foreign military bases under president Putin. Russian naval base located in Tartus and the expansion of its air base in Latakia have increased Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.
The evident truth of Putin’s strategic mechanism is that his devotion to take Russia back to its former glories. Yet, the internal vulnerability of Russia as a demographically weakening state with a stagnant economy can curtail his grand strategy. On the other hand, the vacuum remains in its political space to find a potential successor to president Putin is a crucial factor for Russia as its history has always proven how country can undergo a wretched period after a sudden dismay of a strong authoritarian leader. All in all, his twentieth year in power can be a much significant era as it clearly affects the global political order. The challenges appearing in 2019 have become much complicated than what world witnessed when Putin stepped into Kremlin in 1999. The rise of right wing political ideology around the world and BREXIT crisis are just few global chaos in that modern world faces today. The question remains unsolved is that how would Putin survive the internal problems looming before him while continuing his enthusiasm over restoring Russian pride as a global super power.
Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at Institute of law and politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna. He followed one year research fellowship at Faculty of Law in Higher School of Economics in Moscow.