by Gregory Feifer
For anyone observing Russia’s current political trajectory, a sudden shift in the country’s consumer food preferences two decades ago is surprisingly revealing. Among the products burgeoning on the once barren shelves of Russian grocery stores in the late 1990s appeared a new brand of butter. Called Doyarushka, or “Little Dairy Maid,” it was purported to be made according to a traditional Russian recipe. In fact, the butter wasn’t at all Russian but exported from faraway New Zealand—which made the branding seem counterintuitive, if not outright bizarre. After all, Russians had stampeded to buy foreign goods since the Soviet collapse opened the floodgates only a few years earlier.
But market researchers had stumbled on a new trend. Their focus groups were revealing that Russian consumers believed homemade products to be superior and better tasting, and to have more natural ingredients, than imported ones. It soon became clear that the trend ran deeper than the choice of what to put on the breakfast table. After years of wrenching westernization had wiped out Russians’ savings together with their certainties, and shaken almost every other aspect of their lives, they were now increasingly looking inward and to their own past.
Yury Luzhkov, Moscow’s then mayor, was among the first of the country’s leading politicians to exploit the growing penchant for tradition. He took to dressing up on holidays in a costume portraying himself as Yury Dolgoruky, believed to be the city’s twelfth-century founder. But Luzhkov didn’t discriminate among historical periods in his efforts to boost his own popularity: banners also went up on central city buildings depicting Soviet military medals, when glorification of anything associated with communism was still largely taboo. Other politicians soon joined the effort to cobble together a new identity from a pastiche of clashing symbols from tsarist as well as Soviet history.
It was an early indication that rather than successfully reform, Russia would eventually take its place at the vanguard of right-wing authoritarianism. With Moscow’s malign global influence now quickly mounting, revisiting the circumstances of how that path began helps clarify the nature of the Kremlin’s threat to the liberal international order. Expectedly Russian President Vladimir Putin was reelected to a new six-year term on March 18, and how he will act in the years to come will have much to do with how he came to power.
A CHANCE LEADER
Back at the height of then President Boris Yeltsin’s 1990s, signs were still growing that the country’s new market economy had possibly turned a corner, boosting hopes for social stability and Russia’s integration into the international community of democracies. Then came the financial crisis of 1998, which brought the reform era to an abrupt end. The political watershed triggered a grass-roots rejection of the West. It exploded on the streets of Moscow, ostensibly in response to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999, when rowdy crowds protesting in front of the American embassy released their bottled-up anger in the form of eggs, paint, and other projectiles hurled at the building’s thick yellow walls. Putin, then the little-known head of the Federal Security Service, was doubtless paying close attention.
Tapped to be prime minister that summer, Putin immediately set about leveraging his surprise appointment by playing on Russians’ deep envy of the West, their sense of betrayal over a promised prosperity that never materialized, and their growing nostalgia for the Soviet superpower past. Putin offered Russians a third way: authoritarianism with personal freedoms (although some restrictions later reappeared), nationalism without political ideology. The unending, uncertain slog toward the West was soon abandoned with the simple assertion that Russian civilization had its own, different path (a short jump from today’s claims that those ways are better).
Moscow’s propaganda machine and support for various Western right-wing nationalists have helped reshape global affairs since Putin assumed office. But in the Kremlin’s conception of the world and politics, and in many other ways, Russia remains stuck in 1999—informed by the anti-Western sensibilities that brought him to power nearly two decades ago.
THE UNPREDICTABLE PAST
In a country where the future is said to be clear—it’s the past that’s unpredictable, according to the old saying—whose version of history you’re talking about matters greatly. For Americans considering past Russian blunders, the Soviet Union typically looms largest. Russians tend to think of the 1990s, however, when deprivation seemed for many even worse because it was also personally humiliating. It’s one thing if you have no choice but to queue for toilet paper along with everyone else. It’s quite another if your neighbor goes out for sushi when you’re stuck home eating boiled potatoes.
The belief that it was Putin who brought about economic recovery and reined in the chaos of the 1990s enabled him to get away with murder. But it’s often overlooked these days that the economy was already reviving when Putin took over, paradoxically thanks to the 1998 crisis and the massive inflation it triggered. Newly competitive owing to the weak ruble, some of the country’s emerging domestic producers began booming. When oil and gas prices, the economy’s main drivers, also started to rise, there was no looking back—but that had little or nothing to do with Putin’s involvement.
Many at home and abroad believed Yeltsin’s original sins had included his ties to the so-called oligarchs, the handful of powerful bankers and industrialists who reaped huge riches in return for political support. But Putin, far from ridding Russia of the corruption he railed against—promising to institute a “dictatorship of the law”—oversaw its exponential expansion, ensuring only that the Kremlin now rules the mafia roost. His real innovation had to do with his use of corruption for instituting a feudal kind of top-down administrative control over politics and the economy. As long as regional governors and leading tycoons paid the Kremlin in fealty and cash, they were free to profit from their fiefs at will. Putin used strong-arm methods and intimidation to effectively renationalize the oil industry. And he installed a loyal bureaucrat, Alexey Miller, to head the state gas monopoly Gazprom in 2001. The company was previously run by an independent-minded boss who often acted against the Kremlin’s interests. Now it could be safely used to launder considerable sums of money.
Putin has continued to use that top-down system to maintain his grip on power in the years since and is now modifying it to suit the times. Recently, he has begun to replace his crony circle’s now mega-rich stakeholders with weak young bureaucrats who owe their loyalty solely to him. The hope is that they will help preserve his highly personalized system of rule, the only one they know.
CULTIVATING A STRONGMAN IMAGE
In the long term, there are many reasons to doubt the sustainability of Putin’s kleptocracy, which has isolated the country, eviscerated its institutions, and robbed its natural resources economy. For now, however, Putin’s 1999 agenda continues to inform the Kremlin’s inner logic. At the top of the list is the inexorable tightening of his grip on power, legitimized by finessing his image as national leader, fighter pilot, bare-chested equestrian, and the kind of father figure communism compelled Soviets to idolize. That was an existential imperative after his appointment as Yeltsin’s chosen heir, a political neophyte with no power base, ridiculed as a last-gasp bid to keep the clamoring opposition from power.
As with most of his behavior since taking office, Putin’s use of violence and threats in cultivating a strongman image has been remarkably consistent. Even before he became president, he rallied support by launching a second war in Chechnya as the brand-new prime minister in 1999, his tough-guy persona a salve for a humiliated population. The first war had ended in failure in 1996 after Chechen rebels ground down the government’s poorly trained, ill-equipped, and often drunken troops. Back then, when Russia was seen as powerless even to put down rebellion inside its own borders, most predicted a giant folly, underestimating Putin’s unflinching willingness to slaughter civilians.
His resolve was surely boosted by a telling incident just before he took office, when a symbolic contingent of Russian troops serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia—part of the Western effort to engage Moscow—responded to NATO’s campaign against Serbia by abandoning their posts and racing to seize the airport in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. That resonated with the ordinary Russians back home expressing newfound solidarity with their fellow Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans. Although the soldiers depended for food on the British forces they blocked from the complex, most Russians applauded the gambit as a bold victory over a Western military alliance they now saw as an adversary. Months later, the war in Chechnya provided another signal that Moscow would no longer bend to foreign disapproval.
Putin’s image-building project has since continued to rely on conflict, his rule now indelibly associated with the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and the military campaign in Syria. Those were not inevitable responses to the expansion of NATO when Moscow was too weak to respond, as some argue. The Kremlin never considered the expansion a serious threat, just as it doesn’t really believe the United States will stage a nuclear first strike today, as Putin insinuated this month. Casting the United States as an existential threat, however, has enabled him to rally his people despite the corruption, authoritarianism, and isolation he has brought upon them. His main platform in what has passed for the presidential campaign has been to threaten the West with the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, most notably an “invincible” intercontinental cruise missile and a nuclear torpedo he promised would outsmart any U.S. defense. His presentation during a State of the Nation address in February notably included videos depicting warheads aimed at Florida, where President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort would presumably perish along with the rest of the state.
Putin has sought to legitimize his aggression by couching it as part of his advocacy for a “multipolar world”—in other words, greater influence for Russia at the expense of the U.S.-led world order. A decade ago, the appeal was sugarcoated as a Kremlin proposal to work with Western countries to institute the European Security Treaty, a new security architecture that would supersede NATO and other multinational organizations. Most Western politicians dismissed the idea. But by the time Russia went to war in Georgia in 2008 to squelch Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations, the Kremlin had dropped any pretense of cooperation, prepared to fully break with the West.
This month’s attempted murder on British soil of Sergei Skripal—a former Russian military intelligence colonel—and his daughter is the latest example of Putin’s use of shock tactics to challenge long-held international rules. As an agent freed in a spy swap, Skripal was supposed to be off-limits. Instead, the Kremlin appears to have also targeted other members of his family in a brutal spree of vengeance that’s a bold new gauntlet to the West. The characteristically weak Western response to the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II is another signal to the Kremlin that such attacks work.
WILL IT LAST?
A decade of economic uncertainty since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008 hasn’t convinced Russians to turn their backs on the former KGB officer who supposedly rescued them from the abyss of the 1990s. Still, it is challenging to gauge genuine public opinion in a country where criticizing the president is bad for job security.
A recent survey by the country’s only independent polling agency, Levada Center, conducted with the Carnegie Moscow Center, provides anecdotal evidence of Russians’ support for Putin. Although most respondents said they desire some form of change in the country, they couldn’t envision anyone besides Putin to enact it. His reputation for being above politics plays a role (he refuses to run as a member of the United Russia party, whose sole platform is support of the president), enabling him to blame the government’s shortcomings on officials periodically purged during corruption scandals. In the latest case, former Economy Minister Alexey Ulyukaev was sentenced in December to eight years in prison for bribery. The highest-ranking government official to be arrested since the Stalin era, Ulyukaev maintains he was framed.
Another Levada Center survey showed that many believe Putin’s annexation of Crimea forced the West to respect Russia, with more than 70 percent of Russians now saying their country has achieved superpower status. Russia observers have been talking for years about hopes for grass-roots democratization among young Russians. But the mostly youthful protesters who sometimes take to the streets remain part of a tiny minority, while most young Russians appear as hooked as everyone else on Putin’s platform.
The president’s highly personalized system of rule makes prospects for its survival after his exit unlikely. But with no apparent cracks in public support for now, and with the Kremlin finely tuned to the slightest criticism, Putinism may well last until that moment or an external shock brings it down. Putin’s direct control of the security apparatus also makes any foreseeable change highly unlikely, while prospects for a Kremlin coup or other unforeseen crisis appear equally dim. Dealing with Moscow will therefore require more long-term strategic thinking and larger investments in democracy building and aid to civil society in Russia’s neighbors. But ultimately, the West’s answer to Putinism must be based on the understanding that although the stakes have risen since 1999, the Russian president’s logic remains the same.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.