Vladimir Putin is the most tactful political leader of our time. While some may gawk at his strange leadership style, including a growing string of “Putin Action Man” photos as representative of a clownish leader, Putin’s ability to project a strong foreign policy and maintain control over a great power should be taken very seriously. Most recently, Putin has been able to uphold Russia’s interest in Syria while projecting himself as a world peacemaker as the U.S. recovers from a massive political fumble. This is no easy task, even for a former KGB man. On the home front, he has consistently bent the rules to empower himself – and his regime – at great cost to his own citizenry. Over the past decade, he has purged political opponents, denigrated Russian civil society, and allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars for his own gain, perhaps making him one of the richest men in the world. He accomplished all of these actions while maintaining popular support from Russians. Indeed, reports indicate Putin would have won the previous 2012 election even if the vote had not been rigged. He has also just announced the possibility of running for another 6-year term in 2018, which, if he wins, would make him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin. Even though history has shown that Russians tend to be pre-disposed to accepting authoritarian leaders, Putin’s rise to power in an increasingly democratic world is the mark of a master autocrat.
Unlike many other world leaders who have come to power through familial connections, personal wealth, or coup d’état, Putin’s ascension is unique. As a trained intelligence officer who operated overseas under the KGB, and as the former head of the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB), Putin is arguably better prepared to maintain political dominance more than most other world leaders. Putin’s foreign policy machine was able to manipulate world leaders and the UN Security Council into stalling on Syria for over 2 years while continuing to sell advanced weapons to the murderous regime. Russia then proposed a peace deal that overshadowed a flustered and disjointed U.S. Additionally, Putin’s craftiness in foreign policy is alarmingly evident in Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. Putin shunned Western Europe when he forced Armenia and other nations away from the EU and into an exclusive Eurasian economic union that is growing in size and prominence. To accomplish such objectives, Putin is known to use coy power tactics in his diplomatic dealings; one such example is his taking advantage of Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs by bringing his trusted companion to diplomatic negotiations with Germany. Putin truly puts the bite in foreign policy leaving his counterparts flabbergasted at his aggressive wielding of power and influence. This bold leadership style has certainly contributed to the rise of Russia’s global power projection when compared to its status at the beginning of the 21st century.
On the domestic stage, Putin is gradually bringing back a Stalinist-like society, feeding off of growing xenophobic and conservative attitudes held by many Russians. However, Putin dominates political life in a stealthier manner than Stalin. Putin has removed competitors from power under the guise of well-timed, government sponsored anti-corruption campaigns as opposed to mass killings. The removal of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with activist Alexei Navalny’s conviction and subsequent temporary release from his prison sentence to compete in a mayoral election, both stand as illustrative examples of Putin’s tactful political purges. Although these men were not taken to a house and shot in the back of the head, both were convicted in blatantly manufactured court rulings, affording the Putin regime solid political victories under the façade of judicial legitimacy.
Proponents of democratic reform in Russia should be particularly alarmed by Putin’s heavy regulation and interference in Russia’s civil society. Indeed, the Russian leader has thoroughly stomped on democratic principles by heavily regulating and restricting budding civil society groups, most notably by branding all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” which evokes immense suspicion from Russian citizens because of the negative connotation of this label. The jailing of political dissidents such as the “Pussy Riot” band also discourages an atmosphere of protest and certainly prevents a healthy civil society from taking root. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic affairs has tightened and appears to be strong-as-ever for the foreseeable future.
Putin’s contradictions are too many to count. He holds elections only to rig them. He praises the impartiality of the Russian judicial system, and then uses it to jail political opponents. He projects himself as a world peacemaker and continues to support murderous regimes. He expresses a desire for public diplomacy but constantly stimulates anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He worships state sovereignty and then uses obstructionist tactics to bully other nations into economic and military cooperation. Russia, a place former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov referred to as an “imitative democracy,” will never be able to transform itself into a true democracy as long as a Vladimir Putin is at the helm. So next time you see Putin projecting his dominance while riding a horse in Siberia, avoid labeling his antics as foolish and instead recall his ever-tightening grip as master of the world’s greatest imitation democracy.