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Putin begins his fifth-term

He seems to be imbued with a sense of the historical greatness of Mother Russia
12:41 AM May 11, 2024 IST | Vivek Katju
putin begins his fifth term
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Vladimir Putin was sworn in as Russia’s president for a fifth term on May 7. The presidential elections were held in March this year but the formal oath-taking ceremony was held only on May 7. Putin has effectively been in power since 1999 when he was appointed prime minister by then president Boris Yeltsin. On December 31, 1999 Yeltsin resigned and made Putin acting president.

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Putin won the presidential elections held in March 2000 and thereafter won a second term in 2004. Under the Russian constitution, as it then stood, Putin could not serve for a third consecutive term. Hence, he maneuvered to ensure that his close associate Dmitry Medvedev won the 2008 presidential election. Medvedev made Putin prime minister. It was widely accepted both within Russia and outside that Putin continued to be the most powerful person in the Russian system.

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In 2012 Putin again won the election and was re-elected in 2016. In 2020 Putin ensured that a constitutional amendment increased the presidential term from four to six years and also did away the stipulation that a person could only serve for two consecutive terms. This paved the way for his contesting the election in March this year. He easily won it; thus, he continues to control the destinies of Russia. He has virtually no opposition to contend with.

Putin is now 71 years old. He was about 40 when the Soviet Union broke up. He was then serving in the Soviet intelligence service and was posted in the German Democratic Republic or in common parlance East Germany for a number of years. For Putin the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the core of which was Russia, has been one of the strategic global disasters of the last century.

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He remains also convinced that the West reneged on the promises it had informally made to the Soviet leadership which enabled German unification. The essential aspect of these ‘pledges’ was that NATO would not be expanded so that Russian security was not threatened.

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However, the expansion of NATO took place five times despite Russia indicating its grave apprehensions about these moves. Indeed, the Russian redline was Western involvement in Ukraine and the present situation, in Moscow’s view flows from the West’s interference in Kyiv.

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Putin’s generation also saw the cataclysmic fall of Russia in the 1990s. Boris Yeltsin was certainly responsible for ending the attempt at a counter-revolution by the communists but he proved to be a disaster for Russia in the 1990s. That was most trying time for the country as it moved away from the communist system. It needed skillful, decisive and nimble leadership to navigate the domestic and external challenges of putting in place a viable democratic order which would guarantee popular welfare.

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Above all, it needed a strong and clear-sighted leader who, while privatizing state assets, would ensure that they would not completely fall in the hands of a group of individuals who were not concerned with the national interest but in becoming enormously rich. This group came to be known as the oligarchs. It became hand in glove in some cases with unscrupulous Western business elements. Putin watched this as he left the intelligence service and joined politics.

His opportunity to put in some order came when he was first made the head of the new intelligence service and later prime minister. And, then when he became president, he was determined that the free-for-all era of Yeltsin who was so often in alcoholic stupor would be ended.

How far has Putin succeeded in restoring Russia’s status as it existed during the Cold War when it was central to the Soviet Union? Clearly, he has been able to control the economic and security anarchy which prevailed in the Yeltsin years even if he has had to use autocratic means and there are credible allegations of his own favoured businesspeople.

However, he has not been able to make Russia a great centre of science and innovation in the digital age but its vast natural resources ensure that it has been capable of handling the sanctions imposed by the West.

Putin has also ensured Russia’s significant place in the global geo-strategic order even if, as this century has advanced, it has increasingly become necessary for it to play second fiddle to the Chinese. He has attempted to take steps he considered necessary for Russian security in its immediate neighbourhood and in West Asia. In these endeavours he naturally came in conflict with the West especially on account of his annexation of Crimea and actions in Georgia and eastern Ukraine.

Putin seems to be imbued with a sense of the historical greatness of Mother Russia. How much did historical memory contribute to the invasion of Ukraine in February is difficult to say. It is clear though that the invasion was a mistake.

It has not only led to global reputational loss for Russia; more importantly, it has resulted in the West re-shaping the European Security Order after the invasion which is detrimental to Russia. It has meant that Putin has had to rely more and more on China and that is not good for a great power.

In any event, as Putin begins his fifth-term he is deep in the Ukraine mire. He has had to repeatedly warn the West that he should not be compelled to use tactical nuclear weapons.

As of now the West has caught him in the Ukraine trap and while Russia cannot lose, it is difficult to discern how a war of attrition would be to its advantage. The only saving grace for Putin is that the West may get tired of supporting Ukraine. That may make the war less expensive for him.

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