Vladimir Putin is the most powerful figure in Russia and one of the most influential actors in the international community. The general reason behind this power is considerably straightforward: he is the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world in terms of economic influence, global political authority, strategic alliances, and military capabilities.
However, the more specific reasons why Putin is powerful stem from the emergence of a new political culture in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the events that transpired after the unexpected resignation of former President of Boris Yeltsin, and the policies and directives he enforced upon becoming the Russian president.
Understanding the Reasons Why Vladimir Putin is a Powerful Political Figure in Russia and the Rest of the World
1. Emergence of Modern Russian Politics Post-Soviet Era
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed Russia to transition from an economic system based on socialism to a market-oriented economic system. Furthermore, the 1990s saw the rise of Boris Yeltsin to power who implemented policies that prevented the emergence of a truly democratic society and allowed future heads of states a free reign.
For example, Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Congress in 1993. This prevented the country from either designing and implementing a new constitution more aligned to the principles of democracy or establishing a government system based on parliamentary democracy.
Putin has succeeded in exploiting these conditions to create an almost absolute political authority and maintain power. He implemented policies and pursued directives aimed at deterring political opponents, expanding his power as an executive, and amending the constitution to remove the limits in presidential terms to allow him to run for more than two consecutive terms.
2. Creating, Reinventing, and Controlling the Russian Oligarchy
Note that Putin was not responsible for creating the Russian oligarch. The first generation of business oligarchs emerged during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These individuals amassed large sums of wealth during the Russian privatization and through dubious albeit favorable deals with the government.
These oligarchs were also instrumental in the re-election of Yeltsin in 1996. They provided the campaign fund. They also controlled critical industries and sectors. Their influence transcended politics up to a point that they were able to control the Yeltsin administration.
Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999 and named Putin his successor. Before this, he appointed Putin as one of the three first deputy prime ministers. When Yeltsin left office, Putin was selected as the acting president. Some oligarchs asserted that they were instrumental in his appointment as a prime minister and selection as an acting president.
But Putin was not comfortable with the current situation. He did not want the oligarchs calling shots in political affairs. Upon formally winning the presidential election in 2000, he used different means to dismantle the Russian oligarch.
He went after the first generation of oligarchs who refused to cooperate with him or acknowledge his absolute political authority. He allowed the remaining ones to keep their businesses and wealth as long as they will not oppose him. Putin also created the second generation of oligarchs whom he enriched through questionable government deals.
Part of the reason why Vladimir Putin is powerful centers on his success in reinventing the Russian oligarchy by controlling oligarchs using political powers available at his disposal. Gone are the days when these individuals held substantial political power.
3. Limiting Free Speech and Extensively Regulating the Media
Russia has slowly evolved into autocracy with some characteristics of fascism under Putin. The Russian president has displayed an authoritarian or autocratic style of leadership and his relationship with his subordinates is largely transactional. He has also exhibited some qualities of a fascist as evident from the political and business landscapes in the country.
Some of the notable examples of his autocratic and fascist leanings are the curtailment of peaceful public demonstration, criminalizing of unsanctioned rallies, and banning the demonstrations and symbols associated with the LGBTQ movement.
Putin also has control of major media organizations, enforced strict regulation of other media outfits, and prohibited the operations of independent media. A number of state-owned media companies have become a provider of channels for mass communication. These include newspapers or prints, broadcast channels, and the internet.
His control over the media has allowed him to develop and implement strategic communication campaigns and political propaganda aimed at upholding his public image, preventing dissidents, and conditioning the people to agree with his stances.
4. Maintaining a Smaller and Closer Inner Circle of Confidants
Putin remains visible to the public. He has been spotted by the media several times. He has attended a number of public events both in Russia and outside. He has even cultivated a cult of personality based on a tough and outdoor-leaning public image. But the fact is that he is not readily accessible to everyone and anyone.
He maintains an inner circle composed of his a few trusted confidants. The circle includes political and business oligarchs, the current prime minister of Russia, a personal aide, a handful of government advisors and generals, and personal friends.
Maintaining a small inner circle has enabled Putin to have a considerable distance between himself and the rest of the people for security purposes and to prevent the possibility of external influences. But even the members of this circle would not be able to readily access him. Putin also maintains a distance to promote a semblance of authority.
5. Russian Armed Forces as a Global Military Superpower
Another reason why Vladimir Putin is powerful not only in Russia but also across the internal political landscape is the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Note that the Russian military is one of the largest and most powerful in the world.
Part of the strength of the Russian military is its large stockpile of nuclear weapons and advanced missile delivery systems. Russia can deploy nuclear warheads on land or through naval warships and air assets such as an aircraft bomber. It can launch a missile that can cross its land border and to other continents with considerable precision.
The Russian president is not only the head of state but also the supreme commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. The constitution gives him the power to approve military doctrine and determine the course of the military policy of the country, and make decisions about deployment.
Furthermore, note that Putin has also aligned his military policy with his foreign policy. He has used the military capabilities of his country to exert pressure on other international actors. The Russia-Ukraine conflict that started in 2014 saw how he uses the Russian military to its full advantage to implement his foreign policy and international political agenda.