On the eve of assuming the Russian presidency in December 1999, Vladimir Putin published a lengthy treatise on the government’s website. It set out his vision for the country’s future and acted as an urgent call to arms. Russia was in the middle of one of the most difficult periods in its history, he warned. For the first time in centuries, it was in danger of becoming a second- or even a third-rate power. He presented his personal mission as stopping that from happening and reclaiming Russia’s rightful place as a great and respected global power.
The scale of the task ahead was daunting. The Russian financial crisis the previous year had wiped out many citizens’ life savings overnight as the country defaulted on its debt and devalued its currency. Pensioners were reduced to selling their belongings in the street. Violent crime and contract killings soared.
By contrast, Putin’s first term in power coincided with surging oil prices and a radical shift in the country’s fortunes that made it seem as though he was already delivering on his promises. The economy took off and real wages and disposable incomes went up. The new leader also cut a very different figure from his predecessor. Where Boris Yeltsin slurred his words on television and was filmed dancing drunkenly in public, Putin presented himself as a man of action and discipline. Newspaper headlines cast him as “Iron Putin” as he was filmed flying into Chechnya to oversee the conflict there in a fighter jet. There were endless stories about his passion for judo and his physical prowess.
But by the end of Putin’s second term, it was becoming clearer that his campaign to restore Russia’s national power and prestige would have consequences far beyond the country’s borders. In a blistering speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, he railed against the US for its “hyper use of force” and complained that Nato’s eastward expansion had brought the alliance’s troops to Russia’s borders. He also set out what he called the universal, indivisible principle for security: “security for one is security for all.” Or, as he seems to be applying that principle now, insecurity for Russia means insecurity for all.
The Russian president has long shown that he is prepared to use force to get what he wants. In August 2008, after Nato extended the promise of eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine over his strong objections, Russia invaded Georgia. The Kremlin claimed, with evidence, that Russian personnel came under fire in the separatist territory of South Ossetia, although they had laid the trap for this themselves. Apposite to the current crisis in Ukraine, Moscow also claimed to be acting to prevent a genocide against civilians. The Russian offensive that followed stopped just short of the Georgian capital Tbilisi and put an end to the country’s hopes of joining Nato in the near term.
Similarly, when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, he claimed to be protecting the territory’s residents from the “nationalists, neo-Nazis [and] Russophobes” who had supposedly taken power in Kyiv after its revolution. Here, too, he repeated his grievances against Nato and the US, which he claimed had continually ignored Russia’s security concerns. “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from,” he said. “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
We are now witnessing the final act of this two decades-long drama and a dangerous new phase of Putin’s rule. He has launched a large-scale, unprovoked attack on Ukraine that could lead to the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Once again, he has claimed that women and children are being abused and killed and that he must act to halt a “genocide”. He says he is taking military action to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”. And once again, he has attempted to blame Nato and the US for stoking the crisis by refusing to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns. He is openly seeking to turn the clock back 25 years and revise the continent’s post-Cold War security architecture.
The Russian leader has long since substituted his own interests for those of the state. Perhaps he has genuinely convinced himself that they are one and the same. But there is no groundswell of public support in Russia for war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has embarked on this offensive in pursuit of his own interests and legacy, not those of his citizens. What started at the turn of the millennium as a campaign to make Russia great and respected again has been reduced to the murderous pursuit of one man’s obsessions.