20 years under Putin: a timeline

Speculation over the extent to which Russian president Vladimir Putin is disconnected from reality continues. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry declared that Putin “is creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what’s real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country.” The Russian leader’s unpredictability frightens the global community. This is why, according to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, it is important to understand what Vladimir Putin’s “own sort of world” looks like.


Ramil Gali / Kommersant


It is always dangerous when the actions of a leader of one of the world’s greatest powers are unpredictable. Having posed himself as the protector of international law since the beginning of his presidency, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently decided to incorporate two new federal subjects (the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol) into Russia, in violation of the United Nations charter. It is worth recalling that on March 2 of this year, he declared that Crimea would not be annexed. Thus the following questions arise: Were Putin’s actions in Crimea pre-planned, or were they the result of a spontaneous decision? And will his decision to annex Crimea result in a shift in Russia’s strategic course or a temporary retreat?

The world has been asking these questions, but the answers so far are rather ambiguous. It is clear that Putin underestimates the complexity of the situation: by pretending that Russia was “forced” to annex Crimea, he does not take into account the fact that the global community sees his actions in a completely different light. Global trust toward Russia and in the statements of Russian officials has plummeted in the last three months, whereas concerns about Putin’s ulterior motives have been on the rise.

Putin likely realizes that the international community has been increasingly critical of him. The problem is, however, that the Russian president feels misunderstood; he believes that the world fails to see him as he really is. He genuinely cannot understand why the global community won’t accept his open and, he believes, honest stance on foreign issues at face value. Nor can he understand why the West won’t accept Russia as he himself sees it. One can easily define Putin’s vision of Russia and its place in the international arena by analyzing speeches and statements he’s made over the past few years. This is the Russia that exists in Putin’s “own sort of world”:

First, Russia is the geopolitical leader of the post-Soviet space, and it will not tolerate competition in this sphere. By declaring Ukraine a zone of traditional Russian interest and denying its right to full-fledged sovereignty (Putin said once that Ukraine was not even a state), the Russian leader essentially takes responsibility for Ukraine’s territorial division (according to him, it should be only a federal state); the legitimacy of its government (the current Ukrainian government is, of course, illegitimate, according to Putin); the organization of its constitutional process (first the adoption of a constitution, then the organization of presidential elections, the results of which Moscow a priori refuses to accept); and the differentiation between rebels (for instance, members of the Right Sector party) and fighters for rights and freedoms (such as separatists in eastern Ukraine that are likely being sponsored and organized by Moscow).

Second, Russia is a country that can dictate—and change—the rules of the game on the international arena, and other policy-makers have to respect Russia’s choices. In other words, in Vladimir Putin’s ideal world, the United States and the European Union would denounce the Ukrainian revolution; acknowledge Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s only legitimate president; introduce sanctions against new Ukrainian leaders; support pro-Russian forces in the country’s east; demand that presidential elections be postponed until December; and force new Ukrainian leaders to form a sort of “constituent assembly,” to include all political forces, in order to draw up a constitution specifying Ukraine’s new status as a federal state and the Russian language’s status as the second official language of Ukraine. Putin believes that the EU needs to abandon its Eastern Partnership program and deal with Moscow instead of with Russian satellites with “limited geopolitical independence.” All questions concerning Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the other post-Soviet states should be solved only through Moscow. Also, the EU should, of course, abandon its idea of signing an association and free trade agreement with Kiev.

Third, Russia is a key architect of the international security system. According to Putin’s logic, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should dissolve itself and be replaced by a new union made up of Russia, the EU, and the U.S. This union would be based on the European Security Treaty, which provides for the creation of a joint missile defense system. In Putin’s world, Russia is prepared to join its Western partners in the fight against international terrorism, drug trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and, most important to the Russian president, against all elements that undermine the stability of sovereign states. Thus, in Putin’s world, revolutions are not allowed.

Putin’s paradox consists in the fact that his motives are clear and not very hostile toward the West. The Russian leader, however, fails to understand one thing: the first critical steps to turning his imaginary world into reality are restoring global trust toward Russia; increasing Russia’s predictability, and economic solvency; and developing its government institutions.

Fourth, Russia is a country that provides stable gas supplies to the entire world, according to long-term contracts. At the same time, in Putin’s world, it is important for Russia to enjoy a monopoly position in the Eurasian gas market and control over a pipeline system. Putin believes the U.S. should abandon shale gas development because partners are not supposed to undermine each other’s stability. In Putin’s imagination, the U.S. is developing shale gas at a loss; consequently, its only reason for doing so is to spite the Russian leader. Commenting on the future of the gas industry in the U.S., Putin has said, “In the United States, which is developing shale gas and shale oil production, production costs are very high. These are expensive projects. If world prices tumble, these projects may turn out to be unprofitable, loss-making, and the nascent industry may simply die.”

Fifth, in Putin’s mind, Russia is the most democratic country in the world. The fact that critics of the regime are apparently no longer thrown in prison, as they were in 1937, is supposed to prove this point. The assertion that “we are not living in the year 1937” has been used by the Russian president far too often as of late. This is the message Putin used to justify his unwillingness to put former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov in prison.

And finally, Russia is a modern social state with a developed market economy, some indicators of which are better than in other, more successful countries. The topic of the economy, however, is almost entirely excluded from the discourse between Russia’s government and Russian society. In Putin’s ideal world, there would be no debates around this subject, since there would be no opponents of his economic policy (i.e., liberals) left. As a result, the economy would be limited to management of the industry sector and would rely on state support, state regulation, and big state corporations. According to Putin, these subjects are not the people’s business. Speaking about Western sanctions against Russia and Russian oligarchs close to the president during his annual “direct line” in late April, Putin came to the defense of his “friends,” who, in his view, had suffered unjustly. “Of course this is simply a violation of human rights. It has nothing to do with common sense,” Putin said. This is how the Russian president understands human rights: in Putin’s world, a “human” is anyone he considers one of his “good friends.”

The described model of Putin’s “own world” is, of course, hyperbole. But it can help us to understand the Russian president’s logic as he genuinely struggles to act within the confines of an imaginary world that does not exist in reality. The conservative trend is adjusting to Putin’s imaginarium in order to put the country into “protection mode” by filling the gap in reality through the use of force. Putin’s paradox consists in the fact that his motives are clear and, generally speaking, not very hostile toward the West. The Russian leader, however, fails to understand one thing: the first critical steps to turning his imaginary world into reality are restoring global trust toward Russia; increasing Russia’s friendliness, predictability, and economic solvency; and developing its government institutions. If the Russian government does not realize this soon, Russia may descend too far into Putin’s world, and its opportunity to return to reality will be lost.