As prime minister for the past four years, Vladimir Putin never really went away. But his looming reincarnation as the all-powerful, executive president of Russia – the country’s “paramount leader” in Chinese parlance – poses a stark challenge for which the US, Britain and other beleaguered western powers seem ill-prepared. As president, potentially until 2024, Putin has one overriding objective: the creation of a third, post-tsarist, post-Soviet Russian empire.
Putin famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” of Ronald Reagan’s imagining, as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. His aim, once this weekend’s heavily managed parliamentary elections and next March’s presidential coronation are out the way, is to put this disaster to rights. Reinstalled as president, and with his political potboy, Dmitry Medvedev, pushed aside, Putin will again exercise unchallengeable control over Russia’s external affairs.
Never much interested in domestic policy, Putin’s only political trick is a hyper-nationalism that pits a proudly embattled Russia against a hostile, US-led, world conspiracy. But the trick works. Despite mounting criticism during the Duma campaign, both supporters and opponents acknowledge his perceived achievement in restoring Russia’s standing in the world following Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic 1990s decade.
Accepting the presidential nomination of his United Russia party last month in an otherwise tedious speech, Putin said: “When I hear people shout out ‘Russia’, I think the entire audience should do that.” The response, according to witnesses, was a deafening chant of ‘Ro-see-ya! Ro-see-ya!” while Putin pounded his fist on the podium.
Elements of Putin’s strategy to make Russia great again are slowly coming into focus. Much of the plan is defined by Russia’s opposition to the US, the traditional foe. Thus the Kremlin announced last week that it would renounce the strategic arms reduction treaty (known as New Start) agreed with Washington two years ago if the US did not abandon its European missile defence plans.
This announcement, coupled with the unveiling of a new Russian missile base in Kaliningrad on Nato’s doorstep, has striking implications. New Start was the centrepiece of Barack Obama’s 2009 “reset” of bilateral relations. The reset is viewed by the White House as a major foreign achievement (and 2012 re-election asset) for a president who has but few to his name.
Missile defence ostensibly aimed at deterring Iran is seen as another success. With the US preoccupied by wars in the Middle East and South Asia and fixated by the Arab spring, a quiet Russian “front” has been deemed essential by Washington. Putin appears set to change all that.
On his eastern flank, meanwhile, Putin is busy reviving the idea of a remodelled union embracing the former Soviet republics of central Asia, an arrangement that prospectively boosts Russian political and military influence. “Russia will begin this new iteration of a Russian empire by creating a union with former Soviet states based on Moscow’s current associations, such as the customs union and the collective security treaty organisation. This will allow the ‘EuU’ [a Eurasia union] to strategically encompass both the economic and security spheres … Putin is creating a union in which Moscow would influence foreign policy and security but would not be responsible for most of the inner workings of each country,” said Lauren Goodrich in a Stratfor paper.
Putin’s third empire project also includes, crucially, a tightening of Moscow’s politicised grip on Europe‘s strategic energy supplies.
Following last month’s Gazprom deal with Belarus, industry analysts suggest up to 50% of Europe’s natural gas could be controlled by Russia by 2030. This is hugely significant: Putin’s new Russian empire can only be financed by continuing, high-priced energy export revenues. In effect, Europe could be paying for its own future domination.
The empire-fights-back scenario has numerous other aspects. Recent remarks by Medvedev about the lack of wisdom, in the context of the 2008 Georgia conflict, of unchecked Nato enlargement vividly illustrated Russia’s visceral opposition to any interference in what used to be called its “near abroad” – and Putin’s desire to roll back the western encroachments of the past 20 years. Russia’s determination to defend wider spheres of traditional influence in the non-aligned and developing world can be seen in its obdurate refusal to penalise Syria, in the face of almost universal outrage over the crackdown there; and in its de facto defence of Iran’s nuclear programme. Putin, meanwhile, continues to prioritise Russian military modernisation.
Western countries inclined to take issue with this external empire-building, or with Russia’s lamentable internal democracy and human rights deficit, have been told to save their breath. “All our foreign partners need to understand this: Russia is a democratic country, it’s a reliable and predictable partner with which they can and must reach agreement, but on which they cannot impose anything from the outside,” Putin told the United Russia convention. Attempts to influence the election process or the reform agenda were “a wasted effort, like throwing money to the winds”.
As Putin – former secret policeman, physical fitness fanatic and hyper-nationalist – prepares to resume Russia’s presidency, his third empire ambitions become ever clearer. March’s election will be no contest. Only when it is over will the real fight begin.