Putin’s Russia: From basket case to resurgent superpower


Associated Press

MOSCOW

Vladimir Putin and his Russia look more invincible today than at any other time in his 18 years in power.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Now 65, he’s not planning to leave anytime soon.

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

Putin’s most important mission in the next six years will be 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.

Russia was still emerging from a tumultuous post-Soviet hangover. Contract killings dominated headlines, its army couldn’t afford socks for its soldiers, and its budget was still dependent on foreign loans.

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

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