By almost any measure, it’s difficult to think of a more illiberal allegedly-democratic head-of-state than Putin. Vladimir Putin was first appointed as Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin in 1999. When Yeltsin infamously left office, Putin became the acting president of Russia until he was officially elected in 2000. He won reelection in 2004 but was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term in 2008. In an unprecedented move, the new president named his predecessor as Prime Minister, a position that Putin filled for four years. Then, also unprecedentedly, in 2012 Putin began his third presidential term and was reelected in 2018 (his fourth term is scheduled to end in 2024).
Throughout his time as the head of the KGB and both the President and Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, he has steadily and effectively concentrated power with whatever position he was currently occupying. As he has shifted from President to Prime Minister over the past 20 years, any observer of Russian politics can clearly see that the power of each office has shifted with him. When Putin is president, the prime minister is little more than a figurehead. When Putin is prime minister, it’s vice versa.
No reprieve from Putin’s stranglehold on Russia is in sight. His fourth presidential term still has four years to go, but he is already laying the groundwork to not only strip the presidency of it’s power in 2024, but to simultaneously massively beef-up the autonomy and authority of the office of prime minister.
Putin’s quest for unlimited and unrestrained-by-terms power is insultingly obvious and even ham-fisted at times. But it’s working. No formidable rival has arisen in the past 20 years to truly give Putin a run for his money. His cabinet is doing nothing to restrain him. The Russian legislature is rolling over for him.
Even more importantly, most of the Russian people seem to want him there. Yes, Putin’s true approval numbers of likely lower than what are officially reported, but he has returned a measure of respect to a nation humiliated by the fall of the Soviet Union and largely resentful by cultural modernism. That respect is based in fear and notoriety to be sure, but it’s a type of respect all the same.
Putin is not content with using his power just in Russia though. Throughout his tenure, he has made Russia more and more interventionist. From brute-force military assaults against Chechnya and Georgia, to fueling civil wars in Syria and Iraq, to outright annexing a huge part of Ukraine, Putin is a man with his eyes and appetite set on the world. He has corrupted the integrity of his own country’s electoral system and now he is trying to corrupt the integrity (what little of it remains) of democracies across the West.
His goal is nothing less than to rebuild a new empire as expansive and powerful as the USSR of old, if not even grander.
Now, how liberals, libertarians, and other non-hawks should respond to Putin’s aggression and rising empire is a difficult question that I do not have an answer for. I can say with certainty that tools like sanctions, proxy wars, and trade wars will lead to nothing good and should be avoided at all costs. But how does the liberal world deal with a force of nature like Vladimir Putin?
Hopefully we figure it out before the more hawkish members of the Western world get their way.
It’s been said that Russia didn’t truly lose the Cold War, that their power simply fractured and the pieces were hidden away in various places, waiting for a new strongman to rise when the time was right and rebuild the nation to it’s Soviet-level of power.
It seems clear to me that Vladimir Putin is the fulfillment of that prophecy.