Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: The Once and Future Czar

Vladimir Putin Election Photo

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on September 24 surprised political observers with what many believed was an early announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be the regime’s candidate for president in the March 4, 2012 elections. "I think it would be correct,” Medvedev told a United Russia Party Congress, “for the congress to support the candidacy of the party chairman, Vladimir Putin, to the post of president of the country.” And so, to thunderous applause, nothing in Russia changed.

On cue, Putin reciprocated: "I propose that the list of United Russia for the State Duma elections on December 4 be headed by the head of state, Dmitry Medvedev.”

Continuing with the script, Medvedev said, "If the party wins the elections, and I am almost certain of it, if we continue working just as well, then I am ready to continue doing real work to modernize the country."

Under changes to the Constitution of the Russian Federation made during Medvedev’s presidency, the new president could be elected to two six year terms. In other words, Putin could constitutionally rule Russia until 2024—a quarter century in power! And for now, the tandem, as the Putin-Medvedev combination is known, will remain the format of that rule.

The only surprise at the Luzhniki Stadium party congress was the timing—most observers believed that the two would put the December Duma elections behind them before declaring the tandem format for the March presidential elections. The announcement was likely advanced by Medvedev to preclude a move on the premiership by Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.

(After the party congress, Kudrin made a scene of it, declaring that he would not serve in a Medvedev cabinet, and he was summarily sacked.)

Nonetheless, Medvedev aficionados—domestic and foreign—expressed chagrin. “Yeah, well, there is nothing to be happy about,” tweeted Medvedev adviser Arkady Dvorkovich. Meanwhile, western scribblers are spilling gallons of ink analyzing Moscow developments.

But Moscow reality is pretty simple. Putin runs Russia. Medvedev is Putin’s man. Putin wanted to observe the letter of the constitution, so he headed over to Byely Dom for four years while Medvedev occupied the Kremlin. Next year, they will again trade places. And Putin will still run Russia.

During the four year flip-flop—despite different styles and maybe even a bit of real tension—Putin has not disapproved of Medvedev policies, including those out of which western analysts spun a wild yarn about an emergent modernizing faction in the Kremlin. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even wrote, “I met no Russian in or out of government who doubted that some kind of redistribution power is taking place.”

Nor during the next phase of the tandemocracy will Putin object to Medvedev’s apparent reform program, his drive to bring high technology to Russia or any appeal he may continue to have in the west. They are both rebuilding the Russian Empire.

There is no fundamental disagreement in the tandem. If there were, the United Russia Party Congress would have been the perfect moment for Putin to thank Medvedev for his services to the nation and name Kudrin, also a long-time Putin buddy, or another figure, as the party’s standard-bearer for the December election. He did not do that.

But, some persist, perhaps Medvedev was sending a much nuanced message when he told the United Russia delegates, “What our country must not be…Our country must not be weak, poor or ineffective; it must not slide toward disintegration; it must not suffer from technological backwardness, from bureaucrats’ abuse of power, from corruption or from terrorism; it must not be isolated.”

Putin would applaud every word. Of course, his regime is literally defined by corruption and abuse of power, but Putin also routinely rails against malfeasance in office. Well he would, wouldn’t he?

The only real differences in the tandem are of emphasis and style. Medvedev is an organizer and Internet denizen. Putin is the leader and tiger hunter. Will US President Barack Obama invite President Putin for a hamburger at Ray’s Hell Burger? It is very likely. Obama will invite him because, in the words of US National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor, “We are quite confident that we can build on the progress made during the Obama Administration.”

And Putin will accept the invitation because, as Ralph Peters writes in the September 27 Washington Post, “He sizes up interlocutors with the deftness of the skilled [KGB] agent handler he was in the bad old days.” Only Putin, no doubt, will order his hamburger cooked a bit rarer than Medvedev’s.

Frankly, seeing a bit more of the snarling, red meat-eating Putin as head of state might have the salutary effect on the west of spotlighting the failures of reset policy. “All the restart policies or renewals of relations should now be locked in a deep drawer with a simple note attached: ‘here rest expired and naïve dreams,’” Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius told Lithuanian Radio in reaction to the Putin-Medvedev announcement.

Of course, some westerners will cling to naïve dreams, making themselves easy prey to the guiles of the Moscow tandem. Some will point to Medvedev’s lingering smile, even as the man fades like the Cheshire Cat. Others will invent an alternative, jocular, hamburger-eating Putin. This will be particularly so in Washington where the Obama Administration must tout the benefits of reset policy at least until the November 2012 election, despite growing doubts, even among the policies erstwhile avid supporters.

But with Putin back in the Kremlin, it will be difficult to ignore Peters’s assessment in the Washington Post. Putin, he writes, “Returned Russia to great power status—largely through bluff. He steamrolled a one-sided New START Agreement over American negotiators who desperately wanted a deal. His manipulation of Europe has given him virtually every pipeline agreement he wanted while sidelining NATO’s new members in the east and keeping Ukraine weak and disunited. He dismembered Georgia but paid no price for it. He has even achieved a grip over supplies for our troops in Afghanistan.”

And Russian foreign policy during the week after the announcement of Putin’s candidacy picked up from where it had left off the week before. In Moscow’s perennial campaign to derail US and NATO ballistic missile defenses, Dmitry Rogozin, Russian ambassador to NATO, threatened to scuttle the May 2012 NATO-Russia Chicago Summit if Russia does not get its way.

So, it would be great if the cheers emanating from Luzhniki Stadium help to awaken the west.

All that said, Putin’s second presidency will not be a carbon copy of his first. He faces two big challenges: a tough economy and growing unrest in the North Caucasus.

Russia is an economic shambles and, Peters continues, “If Putin has a weakness, it’s his disdain for economics.” The Russian economy is almost totally dependent on the price of oil, measured by the cost its chief product, Urals Crude. To pay the bills, Moscow needs a price of about $110 per barrel. Last week, the price was about $105, but that could plunge if the world economic recovery falters, something altogether out of Moscow’s control.

If the price of oil plummets, the Russian Ruble will fall and prices on staple goods will rise, leading to social unrest. In most countries, that would be an argument for economic diversification. However, economic diversity would spawn social diversity and a variety of power centers, undermining the economic control and vast corruption by which the tandemocracy is governed.

How Putin—with his man, Medvedev—manages the Russian economy will be a major determinant in the success or failure of his second presidency.

The other—and not unrelated—challenge is growing unrest in the North Caucasus. If the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000 consolidated Putin’s power in Russia, what effect will a third, broader North Caucasus war have? And recall that any analysis of this question must take into account the looming 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi.

The danger for Russia’s neighbors is that if the Russian economy sours, Putin could follow the time-honored Russian tradition of lashing out at imagined enemies such as Georgia or the Baltic countries. And a conflict in the North Caucasus could easily spill—accidentally or purposefully—into Georgia.

Nor should the west discount the possibility of diversionary Russian obstreperousness in the Middle East or polemics with NATO. Moscow is skillfully setting the stage for either.

Regrettably, aggression will likely be Putin’s default instinct.

And Putin is the once and future czar of Russia, no matter what western columnists write or democratic politicians want. We need to stand up to the uncooperative behavior of Putin’s Russia and press it, when possible, into cooperative behavior. But that cannot be done with unrequited concessions, dalliances with imaginary reforms from Prime Minister Medvedev or inventions of a kinder, gentler Putin. It can only be achieved by a realistic understanding of Putin and his—and it is his—Russia.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This article originally appeared in the Weekly Magazine Tabula.

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