Amantha Perera looks back at the Russian strongman’s career to understand his global aspirations

It was in December 1999 that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin became the leader of Russia. He was appointed acting president when his mentor President Boris Yeltsin suddenly  resigned.

To put the timeline of the origin and longevity of Putin’s leadership in perspective, one only has to look at Kumar Sangakkara who was only six months away from making his international debut in Test cricket at the time.

The tone for Putin’s presidency was set when one of the first decrees he signed as head of state was to provide impunity to former presidents from corruption investigations. Since 1999, Putin has served three presidential terms and two stints as prime minister.

Let it rest there. Except to say that in March this year, he was elected for a fourth term and this could see him in the powerful post for another six years or more.

Putin became president when Russia was facing a serious crisis of national identity as well as its position as a superpower. Yeltsin succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev – the man responsible for glasnost and perestroika when he opened up the Soviet Union, and left the nation riddled with a high level of corruption.

The state of the nation was more like a mortally wounded snarling bear rather than a potently growling one.

Within a period of less than 20 years, Putin has been able to recapture at least some of Russia’s lost glory. And how he set about that daunting task is impressive.

Consider Russia’s role in Syria…

While the US and its allies backed rebels fighting the Syrian government, Putin strategically backed Bashar al-Assad’s regime. There is no outright winner in Syria because it’s clearly a stalemate. Though Russia has lost men, arms and equipment during the conflict, it is also seen as a key player – and without the Russians, no peace deal or even a ceasefire will work in Syria.

There is some suspicion and mounting evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 US presidential election. If this speculation is true, then the world has seemingly gone back to the days of the Cold War when parlour espionage ruled the roost of global politics.

Some analysts feel that Putin is not looking to return Russia to the glory days of the Soviet Union. He is too smart not to realise that with the growing power of China – and to a lesser extent the influence of India and other BRIC nations – that may not be possible.

This line of thinking has it that Putin is looking for détente – the easing of tensions that was emerging during the last days of the Nixon and Brezhnev era, which established itself thereafter. Analysts suggest that he wants a power balance where each superpower has its own international fiefdom of sorts.

The practical problem is that when there are so many competing powers, how does one figure out where the lines are drawn?

In his quest to enable millions of Russians to regain their self-respect to some degree at least, Putin may not be satisfied with only a small share of global power. His decision in March to test fire (for the second time) an ICBM – which NATO has dubbed ‘Satan 2’ – implies that the only détente here is an invitation to a transcontinental shootout.

Then there’s the issue of poisoning turncoat spies who seek refuge in the UK. The poisoning of Russian spies turned traitors isn’t unusual and has occurred several times.

The response to this particular poisoning is the usual expulsion of Russian diplomats by various European countries and NATO, as well as pledges by many other nations including Australia to follow suit.

Russia replied in kind and deported large numbers of European and American diplomats, and even shut down the US consulate in St. Petersburg. And the tit for tat game was going on at the highest levels of diplomacy at the time of writing.

These developments are a throwback to the 1960s and ’70s when Russia muscled its way through as a superpower, and did everything (in and out of the book) to undermine the United States and its allies. Putin is a product of that generation.

But geopolitics has changed since the last time the two superpowers faced off. Now the world’s attention is riveted on China and its ‘president for life’ Xi Jinping – and by default, on US President Donald Trump who probably thinks that he too is president for life.

Vladimir Putin is not a two-bit political player – he will act decisively and with little regard for decorum or diplomacy as and when an opportunity presents itself. However, outside Russia’s main spheres of power, Putin has to play second fiddle to the pre-eminent heads in their respective regions.

Take for example South Asia…

The days when the US and USSR had loyal partners in the region are long gone. Today, the US falls in line with India’s thinking and keeps a close watch on China, which is increasingly becoming an expert at weaponising foreign investments – Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a string of nations in the Indian Ocean are indicative of this policy.

As a result, Putin would have to be far more subtle in South Asia – he would possibly not send either Russian troops or his spies to the region.

When it comes to Putin and his plans, global apprehension is only slight because Russia’s pockets aren’t deep. But if it had both the money and military muscle that China enjoys today, the bear would truly be a different beast.