Wed, Mar 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Putin’s Russia: From basket case to resurgent superpower

Russians see the investigation into alleged meddling in the US presidential election as concocted — but also as a sign that their nation is important again

By Angela Charlton and Naira Davlashyan  /  AP, MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nation look more invincible than at any other time in his 18 years in power.

Since he last faced election in 2012, Russians have invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, blanket-bombed Syria, been accused of meddling in the US presidential election and claimed to have a scary new nuclear arsenal.

“No one listened to us. You listen to us now,” Putin said earlier this month in boasting about those new weapons.

Putin will overwhelmingly win re-election as president on Sunday, again. So why bother holding a vote at all?

He disdains democracy as messy and dangerous — yet he craves the legitimacy conferred by an election.

He needs tangible evidence that Russians need him and his great-power vision more than they worry about the freedoms he has muffled, the endemic corruption he has failed to eradicate, the sanctions he invited by his actions in Crimea and Ukraine.

“Any autocrat wants love,” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Kolesnikov said, and Putin gets that love “from high support in elections.”

Expected to win as much as 80 percent of the vote, Putin would further cement his authority over Russia, a czar-like figure with a democratic veneer.

In 14 years as president and four years as prime minister of the world’s largest nation, Putin has transformed Russia’s global image, consolidated power over its politics and economy, imprisoned opponents, offered asylum to US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, quieted extremism in long-restive Chechnya, hosted phenomenally expensive Olympic Games and won the right to stage this year’s FIFA World Cup.

He is now 65 and he is not planning to leave anytime soon.

The election is to confirm Putin’s argument that to improve life in Russia, the nation needs continuity more than it needs drastic change, independent media, political opposition, environmental activism, or rights for homosexuals and other minorities.

Russia remains disproportionately dependent on oil prices and its 144 million people will stay poorer than they should be.

They will also still be convinced that the world is out to get them.

Putin’s most important mission in the next six years is working out a plan for what happens when his next term expires in 2024: Will he anoint a friendly successor or invent a scheme that allows him to keep holding the reins?

Today’s all-powerful Putin bears little resemblance to the man who took his tentative first steps as president on the eve of the new millennium.

Catapulted to power on former Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation, Putin walked into his new office on Dec. 31, 1999, in a suit that seemed too big for his shoulders.

His low-level KGB background made him seem shifty and many Russians regarded him as little more than a puppet of the oligarchs then pulling the strings in the Kremlin.

Russia was still emerging from a tumultuous post-Soviet hangover.

Contract killings dominated the headlines, its army could not afford socks for its troops and its budget was still dependent on foreign loans.

Eighteen years later, Putin’s friends run the economy and Russia’s military is resurgent.

An entire generation has never known a Russia without Putin in charge and an increasing number of other leaders — US President Donald Trump among them — are emulating his nationalist, fortress mentality.

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