By Simon Shuster / Moscow
Right off the throne room in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the official residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, is a long corridor known as the Malachite foyer, where the walls are adorned with the portraits of Russian kings and conquerors. Yuri the Long-Armed, the warrior prince credited with founding Moscow in the 12th century, hangs across from Peter the Great, who had expanded the Russian empire to Europe’s Baltic Sea by the time he died in 1725. What they all had in common was a thirst for expansion, which over the years has made Russia the largest country in the world. And at least by that measure, Putin in 2014 has already earned his own portrait.
His decision in March to invade and then annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine marked the first growth of Russia’s dominions since the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the West remembers that event as a victory for freedom, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe to Putin and many of his compatriots. “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and awoke in another,” Putin said in a speech at the Kremlin palace in March. Overnight, it seemed, Russia was transformed from a superpower into a corrupt petrostate, a fallen empire that Sergey Brin, the Russian émigré turned Google co-founder, once derided as “Nigeria with snow.”
Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who tried to reform his country only to dismantle it in 1991, still broods over the loss. “Russia was simply pushed aside, pushed out of politics, made to feel like some kind of backwater,” he tells TIME in the Moscow office where he once received American dignitaries as equals if not exactly friends. “In everything it was America calling the shots!” But with the conquest of Crimea, a derelict peninsula about the size of Massachusetts, Putin at last restored a scrap of Russia’s honor, says Gorbachev, by “acting on his own,” unbound by the constraints of U.S. supremacy and the table manners of international law.
The vast majority of Russians would nod along. Putin’s approval ratings have skyrocketed since the annexation of Crimea, reaching a peak of 88% in October. Not since 2008, when Putin last defied the West by sending Russian tanks into neighboring Georgia, has he enjoyed such popularity at home. Not during the oil-fueled boom of his first two terms as President, from 2000 to 2008, when the economy grew by an average of 7% per year, nor during the multibillion-dollar spectacle of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that Putin hosted at the start of this year. For the gift of Crimea—a depressed region expected to cost Russia more than $18 billion over the next six years to develop—Russians seemed ready to deify Putin. Local critics fell silent, while thousands of supporters waited hours in Red Square to buy Putin souvenirs, like a T-shirt of him lounging on a beach, the caption declaring, crimea.
That name, redolent with the history of Europe’s 19th century wars, has become a byword in Russia for national revival, a taste of the imperial glory that a generation of Russians have long hungered for. “It had been extremely painful,” says Lev Gudkov, a prominent Russian sociologist. “Only with the annexation of Crimea did people start to feel that our great-power status was restored.” For the first time since the Soviet collapse, he says, “the sense of frustration and humiliation dissipated.”
The Empire Strikes Back
The 62-year-old Putin has savored that validation. The son of a factory worker and a former military man from the slums of St. Petersburg—then called Leningrad—he spent the last years of the Soviet Union as a KGB agent trying to preserve the agency’s authority in the East German city of Dresden. The fall of the Berlin Wall came to him not as a liberation but as a threat—in 1989 a crowd of German protesters gathered outside his office to demand the ouster of the Soviet-backed regime. As the mob threatened to storm the building, Putin burned the KGB’s files and sent frantic requests for orders from his bosses in the capital. “Moscow is silent,” Putin later recalled in his official biography.
By the time he rose through the post-Soviet wreckage to become President in 2000, Putin had dedicated himself to rebuilding Russia’s lost authority. But his attempts this year to tighten Moscow’s grip on Ukraine came at a heavy price for Russia and the world. A passenger plane flying over the war zone in eastern Ukraine was blasted out of the sky on July 17, almost certainly by the ill-trained militias that Russia has been using to fight its battles. Nearly 300 people were killed, dozens of them children, as Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disintegrated over territory that Russia effectively controls through its proxies. Putin blamed the Ukrainian government for the disaster, but the callous treatment of the dead—most of them Europeans—cost him many of the few friends he had left.
Already expelled from the G-8 club of wealthy nations in March after the annexation of Crimea, Putin was further ostracized at the G-20 summit held in November in Australia, which lost 38 of its citizens on Flight MH17. Capturing the prevailing Western attitude at the international summit, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in greeting Putin, “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be the only one willing to hear Putin out. She came on the first evening of the summit to the Hilton Brisbane, where the Kremlin entourage was staying, and spent the following six hours in closed-door talks with Putin over Ukraine. The next day, Putin left the conference early, before its final declaration was announced, while Merkel delivered a speech predicting a drawn-out confrontation with Moscow. “Russia flouted international law,” she said. “After the horrors of two world wars and the end of the Cold War, this calls the entire European peaceful order into question.”
The Germans, the centrist pragmatists of Europe, stood on principle, issuing a rebuke that helped seal Russia’s political isolation just as a sharp drop in the price of oil weakened the country’s most valuable asset. Inflation in Russia has spiked as a result. The ruble has lost 40% of its value against the dollar since the start of the year, forcing Russians to cut back on Western goods and foreign travel. Next year the government expects a recession to take hold.
The value of Russian government debt is approaching the level of junk bonds, and in early December, Putin was forced to cancel one of his legacy projects, the South Stream natural gas pipeline into Europe, whose construction contracts he had enjoyed negotiating personally. “If Europe doesn’t want to do this, well, then it means this won’t be done,” Putin said, referring to pressure from E.U. regulators. “We will steer the flow of our energy resources to other regions of the world.”
So, was Putin’s taste of empire worth the cost to Russian prosperity? For those who carry the grudges of Russian history, it was. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, America became a monopoly,” says Alexander Voloshin, a Kremlin insider who served as Putin’s chief of staff from 2000 to 2003. “They felt they had the right to punish and to praise, to give the carrot and smack with the stick,” he tells TIME. “There was no competition.”
The Global Alternative
Russia now seeks to position itself as an alternative to the Western model of liberal democracy—and it’s had some success. Right-wing politicians in France and the U.K., not to mention Central and Eastern Europe, are not shy about declaring their admiration for Putin. The ultraconservative government of Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, has announced its intention to develop as an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia, cracking down harshly on civil society. It is a model that may seem old-fashioned—the Russian President claims not to use a cell phone and has called the Internet a “CIA project”—but his appeal is broad and growing for the many around the world who feel left out of the 21st century. “Putin doesn’t want to play within the system anymore,” says Michael McFaul, whose term as U.S. ambassador to Russia ended in February. “He wants to challenge it now. He wants to prod. He wants to build relationships with others against that system, with the Chinese, Turks, maybe India. That is a longer-term challenge.”
Putin doesn’t want to play within the system anymore. He wants to challenge it now.
Putin will face challenges of his own as the West begins to rally against his aggressiveness and Russia’s economy falters. When TIME named Putin Person of the Year in 2007, we wrote that the President had offered his subjects a “grand bargain—of freedom for security.” Russians sick of the chaos of the post-Soviet 1990s eagerly accepted Putin’s bargain then, but they may feel differently as the chill of economic recession and international isolation sets in. Make no mistake, though: Russians also remember that their country once dominated a sixth of the earth’s landmass and stood as a global player second to none. That is the role Putin seeks to regain—and he seems prepared for the consequences. “Let’s not forget the lessons of history,” he said in a speech at the end of October. “A change in the world order—and this is the magnitude of events we are witnessing today—usually comes with a global war, a global confrontation or at least a chain of intense local conflicts.”
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