Thu, Jan 02, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Putin’s Russia turns 20, and is stronger than ever — or is it?

Two decades after he rose to power, Vladimir Putin has restored his nation’s global reach, but at home, the risks are increasing for the Kremlin’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin’s era

By Henry Meyer  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

A few months after his astonishing rise to power, Vladimir Putin, then 47, was eager to please at his first Kremlin summit with a US counterpart: then-US president Bill Clinton.

The retired KGB colonel’s charm offensive started with an elaborate dinner of wild boar and goose, followed by a tour of his private quarters and a jazz concert that entertained his saxophone-playing guest until midnight.

At some point, Putin would later say, he dropped a bombshell by asking if Russia could someday join NATO, the Western military alliance created to counter Moscow’s global machinations after World War II.

“I have no objection,” Clinton replied, according to Putin.

It was June 2000.

Two decades of animosity later, including almost six years of increasingly onerous sanctions that started over the war in Ukraine, Russia’s relations with the US and its allies have rarely been more fraught.

However, Putin, who had already outlasted 29 G7 leaders by the time he won the final six-year term allowed by Russia’s constitution in 2018, appears to be turning the tables, despite what he calls hysterical Russophobia in the West.

At a summit on Ukraine in Paris last month, Putin dominated a room that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician for most of the past 15 years, is on her way out. Macron, facing crippling strikes and protests at home, is urging NATO to stop viewing Russia as an enemy. (Another NATO founder, Britain, plans to finally quit the EU this month, creating new fissures on the continent.)

Then on Tuesday last week, Putin declared a victory of sorts in Russia’s unspoken arms race with the US by announcing the world’s first deployment of hypersonic weapons, which he said could hit targets across continents.

“The Soviet Union played catch up,” Putin told top military brass at a meeting in Moscow. “Today, we have a situation that is unique in modern history: They’re trying to catch up to us.”

Under Putin, Russia has restored some of the geopolitical might wielded by the Soviet Union, irking most of NATO’s 29 nations in the process. He has deepened ties with China, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, turned the tide of the war in Syria, sold advanced air-defense systems to NATO-member Turkey and reached major arms and oil deals with a key US ally, Saudi Arabia, as well as Venezuela — all while allegedly meddling in votes in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

Russia is once again a major power in the Middle East and it is expanding in Africa for the first time in a generation. The Kremlin has rekindled military ties to regional power Egypt and battle-ravaged Libya, where a strongman supported by Russian mercenaries is vying for power with a UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Yet, for all his success abroad, Putin is facing growing economic and political risks from the rigid, top-down system of governance he has installed in a country that sprawls through 11 time zones.

The dilemma for the Kremlin now is how to perpetuate Putinism, or “managed democracy” in its own parlance, after Putin’s term ends in 2024.

“If you compare Russia today with 2000, when Putin came to power, it’s in a much better position,” said Thomas Graham, a senior Russia policy official during former US president George W. Bush’s two terms. “But if you look at it over the next 10 years, the question is how is it going to maintain this?”

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top