The future of domestic politics
Since his rise to power in 2000 Vladimir Putin has had two major priorities: ‘control’ at home and ‘sovereignty’ on the world scene. The importance of these two priorities has not eclipsed other goals, such as economic development, but the latter has always been secondary to the foremost priorities cited above. Throughout the ‘softer’ period of his rule, up until his presidential comeback in 2012, Putin was able to balance his main and his secondary objectives: the economy kept growing while domestically Putin set about systematically removing political opposition and competition, and ensured unchallenged power for himself. He successfully resisted the attempts of the West to interfere in Russian domestic affairs, but the Russian economy benefited from lucrative economic cooperation with Western nations. However, by the time Putin returned to the Kremlin to begin his third presidential term in 2012 the economy had stopped growing. Combined with a decline in the regime’s legitimacy (the most striking illustration of which were the mass protests of 2011-2012) this marked a turning point: Putin was no longer able to balance his top priorities and national development objectives. The annexation of Crimea (overwhelmingly seen in Russia as the righting of an historical injustice and a victorious achievement that echoed Russia’s glorious victory in the Great Patriotic War) generated nation-wide nationalist euphoria and universal approval of Putin as the nation’s leader. The regime’s legitimacy was thus reaffirmed, but it was no longer a legitimacy derived from the electoral process, but rather a ‘military legitimacy’ predicated on the portrayal of Russia as a fortress under siege. The ‘besieged fortress’ mindset was further entrenched by the subsequent war in Donbass accompanied by aggressive anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, followed by the 2015 airstrikes in Syria and a dramatic confrontation with Turkey. By the end of 2015 the broadly shared popular perception was that Russia had finally regained the great power status1 it lost after the collapse of the USSR. However, although Putin may have enhanced Russia’s sovereignty and consolidated his control inside the country, these priorities have come at a rapidly rising cost to the Russian economy, the country’s social capital and other spheres of life.