By James Hackett
For Peace and Freedom
October 25, 2007
The question in Washington and European capitals this fall is whether Moscow’s aggressive behavior is the onset of a new Cold War or just a gambit to win votes in upcoming elections. The central issue is the future of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s hard-earned democracy is rapidly morphing back into an authoritarian state under President Putin, who is eager to stay in power. He probably could scrap the constitution and become president for life, but has said he will not do that. More likely, he plans to put a puppet in the presidency and rule from behind the scenes or as prime minister, and then run for president again in 2012.
|Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Владимир Владимирович Путин
The Russian constitution adopted in 1993 states in Chapter 4, Article 81, “No one person shall hold the office of president for more than two terms in succession.” Mr. Putin was elected in 2000 and won reelection with a 71 percent landslide in 2004. He will complete two terms in 2008, so is ineligible under the constitution to run next year, but could run in 2012 or later.
Elections to the Duma will be held on December 2, after which the political parties will nominate their candidates for president. That election will be March 2, with the new president taking office May 7. Less than six months before the election Vladimir Putin stands astride Russian politics like a colossus, with polls showing an approval rate as high as 80 percent.
Videos have been released showing Mr. Putin in campaign mode, a vigorous 55, horseback riding and fishing. For months he has been taking step after step to appeal to the majority of Russians who yearn for a return to the great power status their country lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. He is taking advantage of the booming global market for energy, renationalizing the oil and gas industry and using the proceeds to rebuild Russia’s military.
For years, Russia has been developing the Topol-M mobile ballistic missile, the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, a new multiple-warhead missile, a new evading warhead, the S-400 missile interceptor, fifth-generation fighter planes and four new missile-firing submarines. Progress was slow and funds scarce, but the recent surge in oil and gas wealth has made it possible to expand and accelerate these programs.
Now Mr. Putin is using his improving military to throw his weight around, confronting countries from Georgia to Norway. He has resumed long-range nuclear bomber flights, opposes missile defenses in Europe, claims the North Pole for Russia and suspends cooperation under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. He also sells air defense missiles to Syria and nuclear technology to Iran, suspends gas and oil shipments to pressure other countries, and threatens both to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear forces (INF) treaty and to target NATO countries by basing missiles in Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave.
Instead of joining Europe and America against the threat of militant Islam, Mr. Putin has joined with China, Iran and other authoritarian regimes against the West. All this appears to be fine with most Russians. A poll by the Yuri-Levada Institute found that 68 percent of Russians said their top priority was security. Democracy was hardly mentioned. Other results showed that 75 percent consider Russia a Eurasian state, while only 10 percent see themselves part of the West.
Mr. Putin could decide to emulate his friend, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, and make himself president for life. Amending the Russian constitution requires large majorities in both the Federation Council and Duma, which he probably could get from those rubber-stamp bodies, but it would require compomises he may not want to make. Instead, he probably will handpick a temporary successor.
Until a few weeks ago, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and recent defense minister, was considered the most likely choice. But he could be a strong leader and Mr. Putin may prefer to name a more subservient caretaker for one term. That could explain why he recently chose Viktor Zubkov, a loyal 66-year old nonentity, to be prime minister. Mr. Zubkov may also be Mr. Putin’s choice to keep the president’s seat warm until he can legally return to that office in 2012.
The bluster from Moscow could be just a run-up to the elections, to show voters President Putin takes a hard line toward foreign powers he claims are encroaching on Russia’s borders. This xenophobic anti-West foreign policy seems very popular in Russia. It may also reflect a resurgence of Cold War thinking by Mr. Putin and his ex-KGB colleagues, who spent decades confronting the West.
Whether we are in for a brief pre-election spell of Russian aggressiveness or a long-term struggle with a new anti-Western axis led by Moscow and Beijing remains to be seen. We will have a better idea next spring, when Russia chooses its next president.
James Hackett is a former national security official who now lives and writes in Carlsbad, Calif. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and other national journals and newspapers.