• World

The World According to Vladimir Putin

17 minute read
Simon Shuster / Moscow

When Vladimir Putin emerged from his black limousine in Volgograd’s train-station square on Aug. 23, squinting and blinking to adjust his eyes to the blazing sun of the steppes, he found an odd mix of people before him. Scattered among the few hundred elderly veterans who had gathered to greet him were a dozen leather-clad members of the Night Wolves, a Slavic motorcycle gang, standing at attention. But it was Putin’s kind of crowd. Diving in, he returned the bikers’ bear hugs and let the veterans get close enough to take selfies with him on their cameras, even as a secret-service agent stood two steps away with a black briefcase containing Russia’s nuclear launch codes–Putin’s nuclear football. “He’s a colossal historical figure,” remarked Mikhail Sidorov, a veteran of World War II, who stood watching at the edge of the crowd. “He’s not quite Stalin yet, but he’s getting there.”

This was meant to be a compliment, and Putin might well have taken it as one. Throughout the weekend of jingoism that Putin had come to inaugurate, Joseph Stalin was cast not as the despot who killed millions of his fellow citizens but as a founding father who transformed Russia from an agrarian society into an industrial giant capable of beating back the Nazi invasion. Later that day, Stalin’s face was projected in green laser lights over a rally on the grounds of a former tank factory. A quarter-million people from around the Slavic world had gathered in Volgograd for the rally commemorating the start, 71 years earlier, of the Battle of Stalingrad, as the city was known during Stalin’s rule. At the rally’s culminating moment, the announcer read a prophecy that Stalin had made in 1939 at the end of the Great Purge. “Year by year new generations will arise,” the announcer said, imitating Stalin’s accent. “They will again raise the banners of their fathers and grandfathers and will restore to us everything we are owed.” The crowd roared, and the sky lit up with fireworks.

Since May, when Putin began his third term as President, his declared objective has been to launch a 21st century Russian resurgence. But his rhetorical embrace of Russia’s imperial past at home has brought him increasingly into conflict abroad–particularly with the West. Putin tried fitfully during the first decade of his rule to find common ground with the U.S. and its allies. Now he’s blithely burning those bridges. The real-world effects of Putin’s newly confrontational approach have been most evident in recent weeks with the crisis in Syria. Russian officials have suggested that a U.S. military strike against the Assad regime could lead to a war that would engulf the Middle East and even spread to Russia’s southern frontier in the Caucasus. Putin has demanded proof that Assad had used chemical weapons against rebels, telling the Associated Press it was “ludicrous” that the Syrian military would gas its enemies when it already had them on the ropes.

Now, after a year of deadlock on everything from human rights to nuclear nonproliferation, the U.S. and Russia are as much at odds as at any time since the Cold War. The confrontation will be on full display Sept. 5–6 as Putin hosts world leaders at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg for talks on the Syria crisis and the halting global economic recovery. On Aug. 7, U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a meeting with Putin scheduled to precede the G-20 gathering: it was the first time a summit of the Russian and U.S. leaders had been called off in 53 years. Obama compared Putin’s slouching posture at previous summits to that of a “bored kid in the back of a classroom.” Putin’s response: “President Obama hasn’t been elected by the American public in order to be pleasant to Russia,” he told the AP. “And your humble servant hasn’t been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either.”

The proximate cause of the latest spat was Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who is wanted in the U.S. for leaking the secrets of American intelligence agencies. But the roots of Putin’s confrontationalism are as much political and economic as they are personal and historical. Having faced Western creditors abroad and a disaffected population at home when he first took office in 2000, Putin has spent the past 15 months marrying his country’s windfall profits from soaring oil and gas prices to a patriotic message of imperial rebirth. In an attempt to exorcise Russia’s lingering humiliation over the Soviet collapse, he has plowed investment into military hardware and its bristling display from its borders in Europe to the economically vibrant Pacific Rim.

But Russia’s rapid rebound has also revealed its limitations, which have left Putin in no position to offer a leadership alternative to the U.S. Russia still lacks the military or economic muscle to build a broad coalition of allies. States once bonded to Moscow by force or expediency have broken away in all directions–pushed as much by the centrifugal force of their ambitions as the arrogance of their onetime overlord. Corruption inside Russia is stuck at the level of a Third World kleptocracy, rendering the state so inefficient that Putin often has to intervene in the pettiest municipal affairs, such as unpaid wages at provincial factories or building-code violations. The nation that put the first man into space has given the world no distinctly Russian exports under Putin except for midshelf vodka and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Instead of functioning democratic institutions, Russia today has Putin’s brand of “manual control,” a form of government based on Kremlin fiat and jerry-built solutions. Add to that the economy’s dependence on the prices of oil and gas (they make up 45% of exports) and Russia’s frailties are plain to see–even in the most stage-managed setting. On the square in Volgograd, Putin suggested a role in Russia’s resurgence for the Night Wolves, whom he has held up as representatives of a new generation of patriots. “He told us to be proud of our past,” says the biker gang’s leader, Alexander Zoldastanov, who goes by the nickname Surgeon. But for all their patriotic bluster, even the Night Wolves have to import their bikes. The three-wheeler that Putin likes to ride at the front of their columns is a Harley-Davidson.

Breaking Out the Big Guns

On July 13, the day after snowden announced his plan to seek asylum in Russia, reveille sounded early at military bases across the country, rousing troops from their barracks in the middle of the night for the biggest round of war games since the fall of the Soviet Union. The snap drill, which Putin had ordered the previous evening, would field 160,000 military personnel, 1,000 tanks and scores of warships and aircraft across Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Defense Ministry, eager to head off any claims of aggression, insisted that the show of force was not aimed at any nation in particular.

Konstantin Sivkov saw it differently. Having served from 1995 to 2007 as a military strategist for the Russian General Staff, he says the war games had an obvious target–a joint attack from the U.S. and Japan against Russia’s eastern frontier. “You have to think of it in terms of threats,” he says. “And the threat to Russia over the past quarter-century has come from the Western world, and specifically the USA. They are our geopolitical opponents.”

That attitude is echoed in Russia’s official military doctrine. Adopted in 2010, it lists the expansion of NATO, the military alliance dominated by the U.S., as Russia’s biggest external threat, and the bulk of Russia’s defense budget is spent with that in mind. Over the past decade, that spending has managed to raise the armed forces from the disasters of the 1990s, when Russia’s military was in such a dire state that a band of separatist guerrillas from the tiny region of Chechnya forced President Boris Yeltsin to grant them de facto independence. Putin came to power in 2000 with a promise to correct the mistake.

Before his first year in office was out, Chechnya had again been conquered and its capital destroyed, while the Russian military began a long march toward modernization. Today Russia has the third largest military budget in the world–$90 billion in 2012–behind the U.S. and China. Even though it is not involved in any wars, it drafts hundreds of thousands of men into the armed forces each year, maintaining a standing army of more than 800,000 soldiers, and spends the same proportion of its GDP–4.4%–on its military as the U.S. does. Last year, as he prepared to take his third term as President, Putin made the extravagant pledge to “completely rearm” the military at a cost of nearly $800 billion by the end of the decade. That would be piled on top of major pay hikes for police, teachers and other state employees, whose support has helped keep Putin’s popularity rating above 60% in all the major polls.

Such generosity is underwritten by the windfall of high oil prices, which have been at historic peaks under Putin, just as Russia became the largest producer of both crude oil and natural gas in the world, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. In 2006 energy exports let Russia pay off nearly all its remaining Soviet-era debt to the West–about $23.7 billion–years ahead of schedule. The money could have been used to raise wages or build badly needed infrastructure. “But Russia wanted to be in the club of countries that cannot be pressured from the outside, that can play its own game,” says Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank in Moscow. “This was a political decision to free Russia from the pressure of Western creditors.” Russia’s public debt is now 10% of its GDP, compared with an average of 110% for other advanced economies, according to the World Bank.

But as Russia learned in 2008, a drop in the oil price would devastate its economy. The cost of crude collapsed that year from a peak of $145 per barrel to $30, and Russia’s GDP contracted by 8%, the sharpest fall in a decade. That summer also put Russia’s military to the test when a war broke out with neighboring Georgia–Stalin’s homeland. Although Russia crushed its tiny adversary in less than a week, its war machine was shown to be an inefficient wreck. More tanks were lost to malfunction than enemy fire, and at one point Russian officers were forced to use store-bought navigation gadgets after the official ones gave out. “There were a lot of red faces in the general staff,” recalls Sivkov, the military strategist.

The American Bogeyman

In a lookout tower high above the rally in Volgograd, the co-author of its script, Alexander Prokhanov, sat at a small table with a bottle of Soviet champagne. He stood up from time to time for a better view of the battle re-enactments on the stage, which combined the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil with the aesthetics of The Hunt for Red October. “It is a joy to watch,” Prokhanov told me in his balcony after the last barrage of fireworks. “What we’re seeing now, what we saw tonight, is the process of resurrection, like a mammoth frozen in the Arctic waters that has begun to rise on its sturdy Russian legs.”

Prokhanov, a right-wing demagogue no less prominent in Russia than Rush Limbaugh is in the U.S., sought to capture that sense of revivalism in the book he published last year, The Stride of Russian Victory. It argues that Moscow is destined to establish a new empire, the fifth in its history, based on Putin’s vision of a “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet states. Making way for this empire will be the era of American decline, which Prokhanov, like much of Russia’s political elite, judges to be imminent. In the opening chapter he writes, “Russia will shake off America’s decrepit hegemony and take back the emptied geopolitical spaces … Herein lies Russia’s imperial chance, the rise of her imperial destiny.”

Prokhanov’s anti-Americanism has recently made its way into the political mainstream. This winter, when Russia banned U.S. families from adopting Russian children, the Kremlin official in charge of child welfare, Pavel Astakhov, described American adoptive parents as buyers in the orphan trade and closet pedophiles. He even suggested in an interview with me that the U.S. is trying to depopulate and conquer Russia’s resource-rich regions by adopting all their children.

On Russian state TV, Uncle Sam has been turned into a bogeyman for all occasions, blamed for everything from slowing economic growth–expected to be 1.8% this year, compared with an average of 7% during Putin’s first two terms as President–to the dumbing down of Russian youth. When a wave of street protests broke out against Putin in late 2011, he called the organizers paid “agents” of the West. The American development agency USAID was then accused of fomenting the protests and summarily kicked out of Russia in September 2012.

None of this has stopped the growing discontent over corruption, inflation and abject social services, but it has served as a useful distraction. “It is a handy trick,” says Alexander Konovalov, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations at the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic academy. “When a typical Russian wonders why he has no pension, the state can either give him some complicated answer or it can say, ‘Comrade! What pension? The enemy is at the gates!'” This message works. In a survey released in June by the Levada-Center, an independent Russian pollster, a third of respondents saw the U.S. as Russia’s main geopolitical foe. In a 2012 Levada poll, 76% said the U.S. is “an aggressor that aims to control all the countries of the world.”

And such views are not confined to aging cold warriors. Maria Baronova was born in Moscow during the twilight of the Soviet Union and takes her social cues from the hipsters of Brooklyn. A feminist single mother, libertarian and political activist, she is opposed to Putin on almost every issue. Most weekdays, she puts on a stylish dress and goes to court, where she is on trial for organizing a demonstration against Putin that turned violent last year. The charges against her–“inciting mass unrest”–carry a sentence of up to two years. But get her talking about American foreign policy and Baronova, 29, can sound like an R-rated version of Putin. Her generation, though Western in its tastes, grew up on the humiliations of the late 1990s, as when they watched live footage of NATO warplanes bombing Russia’s ally Yugoslavia into submission. “We all became rabid anti-Westerners after that,” she says.

It was not much easier for her to watch the U.S.-backed revolution in Serbia, which ousted President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, weakening a cultural connection that had stood for centuries on Slavic unity and the Orthodox Christian faith. That was the first of the Color Revolutions, the popular uprisings that brought pro-Western leaders to power across the former Soviet Union, usually with U.S. support. Three years after Serbia there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, then the orange one in Ukraine in 2004 and the tulip one in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. These perceived intrusions by Washington infuriated Putin, who called them U.S. exercises in “political engineering in regions that are traditionally important for us.”

These regions lie at the center of Putin’s vision of a Moscow-led free-trade zone and military alliance, his Eurasian Union, which Putin called “the will of the era.” But he has found few volunteers among his neighbors. Apart from Kazakhstan, only Belarus and Armenia have agreed to a free-trade zone with Russia. Ukraine refused–and paid dearly for it. In August, after Kiev again rebuffed Putin’s invitation to join the alliance, Russia blocked all Ukrainian imports, costing Ukraine’s businesses as much as $2.5 billion. This type of economic blackmail has become Russia’s favorite method of influencing its neighbors.

The other method involves groups like the Night Wolves. Although their tattoos and leather seem ill-suited for diplomacy, their aim is to unite Eastern Europe around the banners of the Orthodox Church and Slavic pride. They have chapters in Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Belarus, Herzegovina, Ukraine and other parts of the Slavic world, making them natural allies, or “brothers,” as Putin puts it when addressing their rallies. On a visit to Ukraine last summer, Putin kept his Ukrainian counterpart waiting for four hours while he took a detour to hang out with the Night Wolves. “We’ll help you make this one country again,” their leader, Zoldastanov, told Putin on the roadside, referring to Russia and Ukraine. Expressing his gratitude, Putin accepted a biker jacket embossed with the ancient creed of Slavic exceptionalism: with us is god.

Eastern Approaches

Over the northern gate of the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, the venue for the G-20 summit, hangs an enormous two-headed eagle, Russia’s imperial emblem, with one head facing east and the other facing west. Throughout its modern history, Russia has straddled the Asian and European continents, and the eagle’s eastern gaze will be emphasized at the summit. Ksenia Yudaeva, Russia’s representative at the G-20, knows which guest matters most: “As the G-20 sherpa I work with all the member states, but China is a partner with which we regularly coordinate our actions. After all, it is our closest partner, geographically and strategically.”

Two weeks before the summit began, Yudaeva inspected the grounds of the palace from the front seat of a golf cart as the busts of Russian royalty flitted past. Turning around in her seat, she told me, “For many countries, but especially for Russia, China offers enormous strategic potential. America is only important in its ability to influence other countries.” Trade with the U.S. makes up only 3.4% of Russia’s total. That’s less than half of Russia’s trade with China, which amounted to $88 billion last year.

In March the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping chose Moscow as the destination for the first foreign trip of his tenure, and the massive military drills that Russia held in July were preceded by a round of war games with China in the Pacific. They were the biggest joint naval exercises Beijing had ever held with another country. In the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China have also been working in tandem, with an almost identical record of vetoes of Western resolutions in recent years, like the ones that blocked additional sanctions on Syria and Iran.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign-relations committee in Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, sees this as part of a strategic shift. “Our geopolitical priorities are evolving,” he told me recently in his office in the Duma, which is decorated with a portrait of Putin and a porcelain statuette of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. “We understand that the 21st century will not be the American century. It will be the Asian century, and we feel we’ve been hung up too long on the Western vector in our foreign policy.”

That outlook only fuels the confrontation with the West. And as long as it continues, any U.S. attempt to build an international coalition will face high hurdles. At the G-8 summit in June, Putin was alone in insisting that military support for the rebels in Syria must stop. The talks ended with the now famous photo of Putin and Obama sitting side by side, looking as grumpy as a couple in divorce court. Two days later, Pushkov went before the Duma to vent his anger over the G-8’s treatment of his boss. The rousing speech served in part to prepare the ruling elite for a period of isolation from the West. “Loneliness in this or that forum does not mean we are wrong,” he told his fellow lawmakers. “Sometimes it is necessary to be lonely in order to prove that you are right.” Having brought Russia back onto the world stage, Putin is perfectly happy to stand in the spotlight alone.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com