It was close to midnight on March 18, and a triumphant Vladimir Putin stood at a podium at his campaign headquarters near Red Square. Dressed in a jacket and open-necked shirt, Russia’s longtime leader looked weary but satisfied. He had just secured a fourth presidential term in a landslide election victory, extending his rule for another six years, until 2024.
Undeterred by the freezing weather, his supporters in central Moscow waved flags and chanted, “Russia! Russia!” Despite allegations of widespread ballot-stuffing, demoralized opposition activists stayed off the streets. For Putin, it was the end to an almost perfect day.
As TV crews from across the world jostled for position, the Russian president spoke about a range of issues, from Ukraine to China to the nerve agent attack in southern England on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who once spied for Britain’s MI6. Putin dismissed British allegations that he had ordered the hit, which left Skripal and his daughter hospitalized in critical condition. “Nonsense,” he said. “It’s unthinkable that Russia would do this.”
And then, at the end of the news conference, a journalist asked Putin something that was on everyone’s mind: Was this his final presidential term? The former KGB man scoffed at the question. “Am I supposed to sit here until I’m 100?” he replied. “What you are saying sounds slightly ridiculous.”
Is it? Russia’s constitution forbids anyone from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, but it says nothing about subsequent periods in office. Putin served two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, before swapping jobs with Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister. And he remained Russia’s most powerful politician before returning to the Kremlin in 2012. There is, theoretically at least, nothing but old age to stop him from pulling the same trick again in 2030, when he will be 77.
Not surprisingly, Putin’s response did little to console his critics—especially those abroad. His re-election comes as Russia and the West continue to face off over the wars in Syria and Ukraine, as well as accusations of Kremlin plots to interfere in elections in the United States and Europe. Will the next six years be more of the same? Putin is far from predictable; nothing he said or did before his last electoral victory indicated that Russia would seize Crimea or send its military to support the embattled regime in Damascus. But some analysts say Russia’s president has no intention of backing down in his increasingly risky standoff with the United States and its allies; his domestic popularity and strongman image largely depend on his confrontations with the West.
In Moscow after the election, state media and pro-Kremlin figures were uncompromising in their support for Putin. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, the Russian state-funded TV channel, described him as the country’s vozhd. That Russian word means “father of the nation,” a term reserved for such figures as Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union.
“[Putin] used to be simply our president, and he could have been changed,” Simonyan wrote in an article published on RT’s website. “But now…we will not allow him to be changed.”
Weeks before the election, during a bellicose speech in Moscow, Putin hailed what he called Russia’s new “invincible” nuclear weapons. The country, he said on March 1, had been forced to create the advanced weapons, including nuclear-powered cruise missiles, in response to American missile shields in Europe and Asia. He also lashed out at what he said was Washington’s refusal to enter into new arms control talks. “Nobody listened to us before,” Putin said to rapturous applause. “Well, listen up now.” His speech was accompanied by an animated video, broadcast live on national television, that showed Russian warheads raining down on Florida, where President Donald Trump often spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Though Trump has been unwilling to criticize Putin directly, saying he wants to “get along” with him, Washington’s relationship with Moscow is the most contentious it has been for decades. Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, described it recently as “disgusting” and claimed that the American political establishment was sabotaging Trump’s efforts to improve ties between the two countries. In February, the White House described Putin’s regime as a leading danger to international security. “Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit nuclear first-use threats,” said the Trump administration’s review of its nuclear defense policies.
The Kremlin interpreted the statement to mean that Washington now considers Moscow its main long-term adversary, says Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Russia-based think tank that sometimes advises the Russian government. “We have entered a state of Cold War,” he points out. “There is no longer a mutual starting point from which to even begin a dialogue. Both sides are taking impulsive actions and reacting immediately to events, rather than implementing well-thought-out strategies. This is extremely dangerous.”
Analysts say the likelihood of an open military confrontation between the two countries remains low. Yet in February, an American airstrike killed scores of Russian mercenaries when they attempted to seize a U.S.-protected oil refinery in eastern Syria. (There were no reports of U.S. casualties.) The strike marked the first time American soldiers had killed Russians in a conflict since the end of the Cold War.
The Russian mercenaries were employed by the Wagner Group, a shadowy, Kremlin-linked private military contractor. Weeks later, The Washington Post reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin, who allegedly controls Wagner, was in close touch with Kremlin and Syrian officials ahead of the assault on the oil refinery. It remains unclear whether Putin or other high-ranking Russian officials signed off on the decision. The Kremlin downplayed the fighting and made no move to carry out retaliatory strikes. Tensions remain high, however, with U.S. troops and Russia-backed forces based a few miles from each other in eastern Syria. On March 13, Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s military chief, said Moscow would retaliate if the U.S. attacked Syria’s army.
Yet it’s in Ukraine where the biggest danger of conflict between Washington and Moscow may lie. For the past four years, Kiev and Russian-led separatists have been fighting a war, which has killed over 10,000 people. The hostilities began in 2014, when a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, boosting the chances of the former Soviet state one day joining NATO. Putin was horrified. The Kremlin opposes Ukraine becoming a member of that Western military alliance, mainly because it does not want American troops on its borders. “If there’s ever a real clash, it’ll happen in Ukraine,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, told the Meduza news website. For Putin, Trenin said, Ukraine is a last line of defense against NATO.
The Trump administration announced in December that it would begin delivering lethal weapons, including advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine’s military. (The Obama administration, concerned the move would ratchet up the conflict, had resisted Kiev’s appeals for such weapons.) Moscow reacted with predictable fury to the Trump administration’s move, calling Washington “an accomplice in fomenting a war.”
Yet Trump and U.S. national security advisers appear divided when it comes to Russia policy. On March 20, the president congratulated Putin on his re-election, reportedly ignoring warnings from advisers and briefing materials that said, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Officials perhaps felt doing so shortly after a federal grand jury had indicted 13 Russians with interfering in the 2016 U.S. election would send the wrong message.
Trump’s recent appointments of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser are unlikely to improve the situation: Both men are Cold War warriors and longtime Russia critics. “The Kremlin sees the United States as divided,” says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “We should expect the Kremlin will believe that this situation gives Russia running room to push its agenda more aggressively.”
There is one obvious step Putin could take to push back against NATO, experts say, but it’s fraught with risk: attack one of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), all former Soviet republics that joined the Western military alliance in 2004. According to NATO’s defense treaty, an assault on one member is an assault on all. It’s unclear if the U.S. and other Western powers would be willing to go to war with Russia to defend an Eastern European country many American citizens might have difficulty finding on a world map. Yet the failure to do so would destroy NATO as a viable military alliance and represent a major success for Putin.
An outright Russian invasion of the region is unlikely in the immediate future, says Aliide Naylor, author of The Shadow in the East, a forthcoming book about Russia and the Baltic states. But all three countries frequently accuse the Kremlin of waging a low-level form of hybrid warfare against them. NATO and Baltic officials say Moscow was likely behind the jamming of Latvia’s mobile communications network ahead of Russian war games in the region in September, while Lithuania has faced frequent cyberattacks. Estonia says Russian military planes have made a number of incursions into its airspace in recent years: The most recent alleged incident came on March 12. Moscow denied the charge.
“The prospect of Russian aggression in the Baltics will be an enduring concern,” says Naylor. “At present, it is not in Russia’s interests to risk attacking a NATO member, but this may change. The West needs to be calm but extremely vigilant.”
Critics say Putin could order Russia’s army into action to distract attention from domestic problems. That’s something that has already worked for him on two occasions. In 1999, when he was a little-known and unpopular prime minister, Putin took control of the Russian military’s campaign in Chechnya, where he vowed to “rub out” militant separatists. Russians loved his tough image, and his approval ratings shot up, leaving him perfectly placed to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president.
In 2014, ahead of the crisis in Ukraine, Putin’s ratings were hovering around 60 percent. That’s a figure many Western leaders would envy. But for a Russian president with total control over state media, it was worrisome. After the Kremlin annexed Crimea, however, a wave of patriotism swept Russia, and Putin’s ratings rocketed to over 80 percent, where they remain today. As numerous critics put it at the time, it was exactly the kind of “small, victorious war” that the ex-KGB officer badly needed.
‘Putin’s Weak Spot’
In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year break, he appeared to cry with happiness—or maybe relief—at a victory rally near Red Square. But after his win in March, Putin’s speech was brief, almost boilerplate. Standing in front of flag-waving supporters near the Kremlin’s walls, he spoke for less than three minutes. “We will be thinking about the future of our great motherland, about our children’s future,” he said. “Success awaits us.” Then he exited the stage.
There’s a reason the two speeches were very different. Six years ago, Putin was on the defensive as a newly confident opposition movement staged massive protests in Moscow over alleged vote fraud. For a few weeks, it seemed as if the Kremlin’s foes had real momentum—perhaps even enough to topple Putin himself.
No more. Going into his fourth term, he is the strongest he has ever been, at least domestically. Russia’s government-controlled election committee barred Alexei Navalny, the opposition figurehead, from running for president, while a Chechen gunman shot dead Boris Nemtsov, another prominent Kremlin critic, near Red Square in 2015. In the run-up to the national vote, authorities jailed dozens of opposition supporters, while pro-Putin activists attacked them with impunity. Now that the vote is over, critics fear the government is planning another large-scale clampdown on dissent.
“The opposition has long been portrayed as national traitors willing to sell their country out to the West,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst. “It’s a tactic that Putin will continue to use.”
Of course, Russia does have domestic problems. Poverty is rising, anger over high-level corruption is mounting, and there are frequent protests throughout the country, although mainly over local issues. On March 21, demonstrators at a rally against a landfill site near Moscow attacked a city official and hurled lumps of ice at Andrey Vorobyev, the regional governor.
But Western economic sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine have allowed Kremlin propaganda to blame falling living standards on foreign powers, diluting public anger and boosting a sense of resurgent nationalism. Far more effective, opposition figures say, are individual sanctions against Putin and members of the Kremlin-linked elite. Although Putin’s political and business allies profess an undying love for Mother Russia, they use foreign banks, and their children and grandchildren are educated abroad. They also purchase luxury property in the United States and Europe, where they are free to feast on French cheeses, Spanish ham and Italian tomatoes—all of which Putin has banned domestically.
It’s figures close to Putin that Western countries should be increasingly targeting, not ordinary Russians, opposition figures say. “When sanctions are imposed against Putin’s establishment, this provokes a crack in his inner circle,” says Ilya Yashin, a prominent anti-government activist. “This is Putin’s weak spot. He wants to rule like Stalin but live like [Roman] Abramovich,” he adds, referring to the oligarch owner of Britain’s Chelsea FC soccer club.
Western critics also often liken Putin to Stalin and other notorious tyrants, portraying him as a malevolent chess master who spends his time plotting to checkmate the West. Yet those who have studied the Russian president say that’s not quite true. “Sometimes Western policymakers tend to assume an overreaching strategy to his actions, one aimed at undermining international rules,” says Anna Arutunyan, a senior analyst on Russia for the International Crisis Group and author of the book The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult. “There is no such strategy. [The] assumption that there’s a grand evil plan only feeds the domestic myth of a Russia under siege.”
Instead, Arutunyan says, Putin is more opportunistic, taking advantage of situations as they arise. As chaos swept over Ukraine after the 2014 revolution, for instance, he annexed Crimea. He wasn’t necessarily looking for a fight; he was gambling that the West wouldn’t stop him. And he was right. “Putin,” Arutunyan says, “doesn’t relish confrontation per se.”
Lukyanov, the Kremlin-linked analyst, says the Russian president isn’t as powerful as the West makes him out to be. “He is portrayed as some cynical figure who [personally] interferes in elections all over the world, uses chemical weapons in England and then sits around chuckling in the Kremlin about it all,” Lukyanov says. “This is like something from a James Bond film. But these kinds of people don’t exist in real life.”
As U.S. intelligence agencies fret over potential Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, pro-government figures in Moscow warn that exaggerated Western depictions of Putin and his global influence only increase the tension between Russia and the West.
That tension increased on March 26, when the United States and European countries expelled scores of Russian diplomats and spies over the Kremlin’s alleged use of a nerve agent against Skripal and his daughter in Britain. The move dwarfed the scale of similar Soviet-era expulsions and came just eight days into Putin’s new six-year term of office. Afterward, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described Putin’s Russia as a “beast from the deep sea” with “lots of tentacles.” Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, said the expulsions were part of an orchestrated effort to alter what he called the Russian leader’s destructive mindset. “[Putin]…wants to cause trouble wherever he can,” he said.
Moscow immediately vowed to retaliate against the expulsions, which it did. On March 30, Russia ordered dozens of U.S. and European diplomats to leave the country, and many expect the crisis to escalate. “We reserve the right to respond,” Nauert said. “Russia should not be acting like a victim.”
Reach for the Czars?
Although Western leaders are increasingly speaking about ways to weaken Putin through economic sanctions or diplomatic expulsions, his downfall is more likely to come as a result of Kremlin infighting. Unlike in most Western countries, where leadership changes are generally smooth, presidential successions in former Soviet states are far riskier affairs. Putin has been accused of massive personal corruption by Russian opposition figures. He’s also been accused internationally of war crimes over the devastation of Chechnya and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine by an alleged Russian-supplied missile.
He denies these charges, but one day he may be forced to answer them—in Russia or in an international court of law. It’s a danger that the Russian president is all too aware of. “He has to ensure his own personal security before he can give up power,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Putin’s situation is similar to the one Yeltsin found himself in almost 18 years ago. Russia’s first president was facing an investigation into money laundering allegations. In a move aimed at guaranteeing freedom from prosecution for himself and his family, he installed Putin as his successor. The gambit worked. And the ex-KGB man has remained in power ever since.
As Putin hunts for his own successor, his inner circle is jockeying for position. But these influential figures—men such as Igor Sechin, the powerful head of Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer—will likely have their own ideas about who is best for the post, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations. “They have to choose him a successor, but they can’t do this openly,” says Pavlovsky. “Putin and his inner circle will try to outwit each other, and the game will become very acute in the next couple of years. We are entering a very dangerous period.”
For now, however, Putin isn’t going anywhere. And some say it is naive to expect him to ever step aside. “Let’s not have any talk about ‘another six years,’” wrote Oleg Kozlovsky, a longtime opposition activist, in an online post. “[Putin] will only leave power when he dies, or when he is kicked out. And neither event is tied to the electoral calendar.”