Russian President Vladimir Putin, who announced Friday he is running for a fifth term, has built a system of domestic repression and confrontation with the West over the past two decades that will almost certainly guarantee his re-election.
Since first becoming president on New Year’s Eve 1999, the former, little-known KGB agent has consolidated his power by bringing the oligarchs under control, banning any real opposition and turning Russia into an authoritarian state. Abroad, he led global efforts to challenge Western dominance.
Following his decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022, his grip on power further tightened, with public dissent against the war virtually silenced by long prison sentences for critics.
On Friday, the 71-year-old said after a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin that he would – as expected – run in the presidential elections next March.
His rule risks being defined by the war in Ukraine, which has cost many thousands of lives and triggered unprecedented Western sanctions that have led to major economic tensions.
Large anti-war protests erupted the day after he ordered troops into Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2022.
They were quickly crushed, but further demonstrations followed months later when the government was forced to announce a partial mobilization after Russia failed to overthrow the Ukrainian government in the war’s opening offensive.
The biggest challenge to his long rule came in June 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime ally and head of the Wagner mercenary group, announced a mutiny to depose the military leadership.
The bloody uprising threatened to tarnish Putin’s self-created image as a strategic genius who likes to compare himself to Peter the Great – the reform-minded emperor who expanded Russia’s borders.
But in recent months, Putin has demonstrated his enduring power. Domestic resistance is largely silent, the economy is growing again, the Russian military has largely repelled a recent Ukrainian offensive and he has resumed his trips abroad.
Early hopes for reform
Putin began as an intelligence officer before embarking on a political career in the mayor’s office of his hometown of St. Petersburg in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart.
Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, appointed him head of the FSB security service in 1998 and prime minister the following year.
It was a carefully planned strategy that culminated in his appointment as acting president when Yeltsin resigned.
Putin won his first presidential election in March 2000 and a second term in 2004.
His rise initially raised hopes that Russia would reform and become a predictable, democratic partner on the world stage.
Putin gained popularity by promising stability to a country still reeling from a decade of humiliation and economic chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The then US President George W. Bush praised him as a “remarkable leader”. The Russian leader was close to Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi even as he restricted the media and waged a ruthless war in Chechnya.
Two decades later, that goodwill has disappeared.
Joe Biden – the fifth US president in Putin’s term – called him a “murderer” even before full-scale hostilities began in Ukraine.
“New Iron Curtain”
After two terms as president, Putin switched back to prime minister in 2008 to circumvent a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms.
But he kept a firm grip on the reins of power and returned to the presidency in 2012 despite pro-democracy protests in Moscow, winning a fourth term in 2018.
He had his fiercest rival, Alexei Navalny, jailed in 2021, shortly after the West and the opposition leader accused him of ordering Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union.
The crackdown on opposition movements intensified after hostilities began in Ukraine, with thousands of Russians sentenced to long prison terms under newly tightened censorship laws.
The West imposed sanctions that effectively isolated Russia from the global banking system, reinforcing the siege mentality of the Russian leadership.
In October, Putin accused Europe of creating a “new Iron Curtain” and said Russia was building “a new world” that would not be based on Western hegemony.
He has also increasingly pushed a domestic agenda of nationalism and social conservatism, including most recently legislation targeting Russia’s LGBTQ community.
After the invasion, the Russian ruler is an unpleasant prospect for Western leaders. He has tried to pivot eastward and woo India and China with increased energy exports.
After a contraction in 2022, the Russian economy began to grow again in the second quarter of this year, despite high inflation, a weakening of the ruble and a sharp increase in defense spending.
The war failed in its original goal of overthrowing the Ukrainian government, and Russia suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in the determined defense of the much smaller Ukrainian army.
But as the war approaches its second anniversary, Putin speaks with increasing confidence about Russia’s prospects on the battlefield – a topic he has avoided for many months.
Russian forces have managed to repel a much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive and there are increasing doubts about the continuation of Western military deliveries.
The dispute in Washington has led to tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine being held up in recent weeks, prompting alarming warnings from the US government.
“Congress must decide whether to continue to support the fight for freedom in Ukraine … or whether Congress will ignore the lessons we have learned from history and let Putin prevail,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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