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  • Hanna Bajwa

Return of the Russian bear

When Putin first came to power, he inherited a Russia in a state of misery, distress and turmoil. The Communist ideology that had dominated existence for seven decades had been tossed away, leaving Russians to adapt to a strange new idea: capitalism. Putin undertook to consolidate power in the Kremlin with the aid of weakening all formally defined institutions of power. Putin knew what his fellow citizens wanted. “Russians have had no sense of stability for the past 10 years," he told state television ahead of the March 2000 presidential elections. “We hope to return this feeling.”

Putin brought back this promised stability as he was able to deliver prosperity due to the high and rising price of oil. At that point, he was certainly concerned a great deal about being fully in control, and was able to reinstate that control for himself. However, he was also concerned about things such as national development and economic growth. And he was able to balance his top priority of political monopoly with socio-economic goals of national development and economic growth.

In 2008, Russia’s military defeated neighbouring Georgia in a five-day struggle over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. For many Russians the military triumph in the South Caucasus became proof that the “national leader” was a man who kept his promises. His approval ratings soared to over 80 percent. Yet in 2011 and 2012, the economic growth slowed down and Putin faced mass public protests. He could no longer deliver quite as generously as he had before. This became the first crucial turning point, while Putin tilted the balance quite strongly in favour of control and away from national development and economic growth. This tilt became even more potent in 2014, when he annexed Crimea, but this came at a cost, of course; that of Western sanctions and a slowdown of the Russian economy. Once more Putin sacrificed those aims for the sake of control within Russia and the concept of sovereignty abroad, which he thinks ought to be totally unbound.

Communist Russia argued that in five years, you could transform an economy, so Putin had updated the idea. Over the last five years it's not the economy the Kremlin has been expanding: it's Moscow's geo-political standing in the world. Following Russia's annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Moscow - slapped with Western sanctions, looked isolated; a pariah state.

Today, Russia is pushing for global influence. It interfered in America's presidential election on the side of Donald Trump (according to US intelligence), it's seeking to boost its role in Africa and Latin America and it's also exploiting divisions within Europe. Russia's intervention in Ukraine represents a collision between two visions of Europe: the first based on rights, rules and freedom of choice, the second based on spheres of influence, money and power.

Most importantly in the Middle East, the transformation of Russia as a potential superpower is obvious. Four years after Moscow launched its military operation in Syria, Russia replaced America as the key player in the region. When Moscow launched its military operation in Syria in 2015, the Kremlin claimed its priority was ‘defeating international terrorism’. But rebuilding Russia's influence in the Middle East was a major consideration. From its naval base in Tartus, Russia can project military power across the Mediterranean. Russia is no economic superpower as its economy is fragile and further stagnation may limit Moscow's global ambitions and Russia faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act if it wishes to use its influence to restore peace.

Earlier this year, Russia's government resigned, hours after President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes that could prolong his stay in power. Mr Putin is due to step down in 2024 when his fourth term of office comes to an end. But there is speculation he could seek a new role or hold on to power behind the scenes. If approved by the public, the proposals would transfer power from the presidency to parliament. These changes could allow Putin to further develop Russia and continue its worldwide impact. The impact Putin has had on Russia over the past twenty years is remarkable, for it is a story of resurgence and consolidation of power. Russia is, once more, a state to be increasingly wary of.

Image - Unsplash

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