Vladimir Putin put Russia back on the world map – but his job is as yet unfinished

End of the decade: Having spent the first 10 years of his presidency stabilising a restive nation, he has dedicated the last 10 to reestablishing the former Soviet republic as a global power. But his agenda is incomplete until he wins over the West

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) watches the celebrations for the City Day in Moscow, Russia September 10, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo
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It is often said of American presidents that their first term is orientated towards domestic policy, while their second – when they are freed from the constraints of seeking re-election – tends to focus more on foreign policy. Translate term into decade and the observation could apply equally to Vladimir Putin, who completed 20 years at the top of Russian politics in August and could remain in office until 2024.

Mr Putin spent his first two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, trying to keep the Russian Federation together and halt the centrifugal forces that had destroyed the Soviet Union. Having largely succeeded – in part by waging a war on separatist forces in Chechnya and forcing uncooperative oligarchs into exile or compliance – Mr Putin could start to think about putting Russia back on the international map.

Over the past decade, Mr Putin has presided over three big changes. One is the spread of relative prosperity across Russia. The second is the incidence of political protest and the third – by far the most striking – is the switch to a more active foreign policy.

It is true that the steady rise in Russian living standards through Mr Putin’s early years recently stalled. But the slowdown is most marked in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where the rise in wealth – and inequality – had been sharpest before. In the provincial cities and towns where most Russians live, the past 10 years have produced almost unimaginable improvements in incomes, housing, the infrastructure and the consumer sphere. This helps to explain why, despite a dip in his ratings over an announced rise in the pension age, Mr Putin remains popular. Most Russians, not just privileged Russians, really have never had it so good.

The proposed rise in the pension age – announced just before Russia hosted the football World Cup in 2018 – precipitated protests across Russia. But pensions and state benefits have always been inflammatory. More telling has been the rise in other types of popular protest in these years.

A combination of file photos shows Russian President Vladimir Putin attending his inauguration ceremonies in 2000 (top L), 2004 (top R), 2012 (bottom L) and 2018 at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia  Itar Tass, Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool, Vladimir Rodionov/RIA Novosti/Pool, Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY/File Photos
Vladimir Putin attending his inauguration ceremonies in 2000, 2004, 2012 and 2018 at the Kremlin in Moscow. Reuters

They included demonstrations against what were seen as rigged parliamentary elections in 2011, against Mr Putin’s decision to run for the presidency again the next year, and in 2019 against the perceived manipulation of Moscow elections. While such overtly political protests have been largely confined to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there has also been an upsurge in protests on local issues, such as the environment and corruption – though so far, none has coalesced into nor necessarily reflects a national movement. Unwelcome though such protests might be to the Kremlin, this has been a period of growing citizen engagement.

But it in the shift to a more active foreign policy that has mostly defined Russia's last decade. Before 2010, Mr Putin had increasingly voiced frustration, even anger, with the West for – as he saw it – exploiting its post-Cold War dominance to expand the European Union and especially Nato right up to Russia's borders. After 2010, he seems to have written off any speedy rapprochement with the West and started looking elsewhere for friends and diplomatic gains.

Relations with Xi Jinping’s China have warmed rapidly, with joint military exercises held in 2018 and a gas pipeline deal recently announced. Mr Putin still entertains the hope of a settlement over the Southern Kurile Islands, which could unlock investment from Japan, and the flourishing of trade relations with South Korea.

Russia also appears to be becoming more active in parts of Africa, including Libya, adopting the US practice of employing proxies to maintain deniability. But it is Mr Putin’s use of Russian power in Ukraine and Syria that stand out, and could have the longest-lasting repercussions.

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al Assad is seen outside eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo
Russia’s support is seen as vital in having kept Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, in power and defeating the forces of ISIS. Reuters

Mr Putin responded immediately and dramatically to the uprising against Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, moving to annex Crimea – where Russia had a 30-year lease on the warm-water naval base at Sevastopol – and lending support to a pro-Russia separatist rebellion in the south-east. Mr Putin’s actions prompted sanctions from the US and much of Europe but propelled Mr Putin’s popularity at home to unprecedented heights and perversely boosted sectors of the Russian economy as Moscow took measures to replace imports.

The following year, 2015, Mr Putin unexpectedly translated Russia's rhetorical and moral backing for Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, into military, largely air, support in what began as an offshoot of the Arab uprisings but had escalated into an all-out civil war involving many foreign players and proxies. Four years on, Russia's support is seen as vital in having kept Mr Al Assad in power and defeating the forces of ISIS and other militant groups.

Some see Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria as showing Mr Putin’s inherently opportunistic nature, and perhaps even territorial ambition. But the Soviet Afghan war still haunts Mr Putin’s generation of policymakers, and his approach to military intervention tends to be wary and reflective primarily of security considerations.

In Syria, Mr Putin was clear that Russia's motives were less to keep Mr Al Assad in power than to prevent the sort of anarchy that followed western interventions in Iraq and Libya. In Ukraine, Russia's security and economic interests were obvious. But consequences of each have been very different. Russia could well find itself paying for the short-term gain of Crimea with the loss of all influence in Ukraine and its eventual incorporation into the western bloc. In Syria, Russia's limited military operations have earned it a role, perhaps the chief role, in the post-war settlement and a return to being a player in the region.

A woman walks past traditional Russian wooden dolls called Matryoshka depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin, displayed for sale at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Even as Russia completes a modernisation of its military, its president seems to be turning away from hard power to soft. AP Photo

None of this, however, alters the fact that Mr Putin sees Russia as a European power and would seize the chance to have better relations with both Europe and the United States. The first was frustrated by the EU-Russia tussle for Ukraine and not helped by the 2018 Salisbury poisonings of a former Russian military officer and his daughter. The second seemed briefly possible after Donald Trump was elected as US president, only to vanish as “Russiagate” consumed political Washington.

To the extent that he avoided international ostracism after Crimea, by courting other players around the world, Mr Putin has shown that, for Russia, good relations with the West are dispensable. But the continuing stand-off with the US and the coolness with much of Europe leaves Mr Putin’s international agenda incomplete. He might, however, still have time.

As Mr Putin enters his third decade and perhaps his last four years in power, another trend is emerging. Even as Russia completes a comprehensive modernisation of its military, its president seems to be turning away from hard power to soft.

As an attempt to enhance Russia’s international image, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi failed. The successes were drowned out by western criticism and soon eclipsed by the conflict over Ukraine. The 2018 World Cup, in contrast, was universally lauded for the warmth of Russia’s welcome and the quality of its organisation. In Syria, Russia has been moving from armed force to diplomacy and tentatively with Ukraine, too. There is more finesse, in the way Russia presents itself to the world. And Mr Putin occasionally allows his habitual serious face to betray a faint smile.

What a difference a decade can make.

Mary Dejevsky is an Independent columnist on foreign affairs, having previously been the title’s foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington