Six months after returning to power in the face of mounting opposition, Russian President Vladimir Putin is exercising his political capital—and doing so in imperial fashion. The most recent example: earlier this month, sitting at a small table in his ornate, oak-walled office in the Kremlin, Putin announced that Russia was creating the world’s largest publicly traded oil company. The goal: to restore the glory of Russia the only way Putin seems to know how—the raw acquisition of power. “He is trying to keep stability, as he sees it, with billions of dollars in oil,” said Evgeny Gontmakher, an analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow-based think tank. “I predict chaos.”
The announcement—which featured what appeared to be a staged tête-à-tête with one of the president’s advisers—seemed to crystallize what analysts are now calling “The Putin Doctrine.” Its essence is to consolidate political control at home and expand his country’s influence in Central Asia at the expense of the West. Earlier this year, as protesters crowded Moscow’s cold streets, demonstrating against the government in a way that hasn’t been seen in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin said his third term would give rise to a stronger military, improved social programs, and the creation of a Eurasian Union, a confederacy of states that resembles a watered-down version of the old USSR.
Apparently he wasn’t bluffing. Once the protests faded, Putin announced that he would boost the Russian Army’s budget from $61 billion in 2012 to $97 billion by 2015. Last month, he flew to Tajikistan and extended the lease on three Russian military bases for 30 years. Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force has begun joint exercises with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and a special Kremlin committee is mulling the best ways for the country to further unite with its neighbors in Central Asia: “We take the Putin Doctrine as verbatim instructions for how to create revolutionary change,” said Yuri Krupnov, a Kremlin adviser who is trying to invest $12 billion in state money into the economy of Tajikistan.
On the domestic front, Putin appears eager to destroy his opponents. Over the past year, he has relied on a loose coalition of nationalists, secret service agents, and the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church to crush dissenters, including opposition figures, human-rights groups, and even musicians such as Pussy Riot, a group whose members were sent to prison—and later the penal colonies—for performing a punk protest song in Moscow’s main cathedral. Every week, street protesters who chant slogans like “Putin is a thief!” in Moscow and other major cities are questioned by police or thrown in jail. The regime is unapologetic about the crackdown. “Everyone is sick and tired of this issue of human rights,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, recently told The New York Times. “It’s not on the agenda.”
Putin has also called for rich émigrés to come back to Russia. The hope is that they will start investing in state-owned enterprises and stop the country from hemorrhaging tens of billions of dollars a year. Gennady Timchenko, the cofounder of Gunvor, one of the world’s largest independent commodity trading companies, was among the first to return, arriving from Switzerland last month. “Putin personally asked his friend to come back to Russia to be closer to his roots,” said Igor Bunin, the president of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank.
Skeptics doubt that rich expatriates will want to live in Putin’s new Russia. Both Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s former finance minister, and Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire and former ally of the president, have joined the opposition and now represent a threat to his power.
Whether or not the opposition can gain further momentum remains to be seen. A few independent media outlets have been critical of Putin’s imperial impulses, warning that his third term will result in purges of elites and greater media censorship. But by and large, Putin’s cult of personality has continued to grow in the 12 years he’s been in power.
Indeed, for Putin’s 60th birthday in October, as portraits of the president hung from bridges and buildings, an art exhibit, entitled “Putin: The Most Kind-Hearted Man in the World,” opened in Moscow. The exhibit featured portraits of the president petting a tiger, feeding a calf with a bottle, and riding shirtless atop a horse. Patriarch Cyril, the head of Russia’s Christian Orthodox Church took things a step further, calling the former KGB agent a “present from God.”