On March 4, Vladimir Putin will face what is shaping up to be the most significant electoral contest in his twelve years at the top of Russia’s “power vertical.” Although the current prime minister will likely win reelection to the presidency, opponents will almost certainly claim fraud and thousands will take to the streets across Russia as they have done repeatedly in recent months—many even calling for Putin to resign. Putin and his ruling circle have responded to the public protest movement in several different ways—by belittling and insulting protesters, by sponsoring counterdemonstrations, and, perhaps most importantly, by writing.

Matthew Rojansky
Rojansky, formerly executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, is an expert on U.S. and Russian national security and nuclear-weapon policies.
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Putin may be averse to participating in public debates with his opponents, but he has wasted little time putting pen to paper to state his case. In a series of long articles in various Russian-language newspapers, he has openly acknowledged the many economic, social, and political problems facing Russia and has proposed some fairly reasonable ways to address them. Although he is still quite popular across Russia, Putin seems to recognize that he must make at least some concessions and promise some reforms in order to retain the confidence of a majority of voters. His articles are thus a response not just to the recent protest movement but also to the uncertainties and insecurities now felt by ordinary Russians about their country’s future.

To help assuage these concerns, Putin is once again running on a familiar platform of restoring and sustaining Russian power. A common theme in his articles is the need for modernization in economic, political, and social spheres. Sounding much like his “tandem” partner, President Dmitri Medvedev, Putin has acknowledged many of the problems that his detractors typically criticize him for ignoring, such as lack of government accountability and transparency, demographic decline, economic stagnation, and technological backwardness. His thinking seems to be that unless Russia removes these obstacles to development, it risks falling behind other great powers and becoming irrelevant in twenty-first-century world politics. As his writings make clear, Putin has an abiding faith in Russia’s unique destiny as a global great power, but he sees himself as the only leader with the comprehensive vision, experience, and willpower necessary to achieve that destiny.

Putin on Foreign Policy

“Russia and the changing world,” Moskovskiye Novosti, February 27, 2012.      

In his latest article in Moskovskiye Novosti, Putin reiterates his support for the inviolability of state sovereignty and declares that foreign intervention represents a serious breach of international law. He argues that any attempt to interfere in states’ internal affairs through military intervention or “political engineering” without the support of the United Nations is unacceptable.

Putin is especially critical of Western policy on the “Arab Spring.” In a thinly veiled reference to the recent overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, he describes NATO military support for Libyan rebels not as humanitarian intervention but as “outright demagogy.” As evidenced by Russia’s recent veto of a United Nations resolution on Syria, Putin is adamant that a Libya-style scenario should not be repeated.

Furthermore, the West (and the United States in particular) continues to disregard Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion and the threat Russia believes missile defense poses to strategic stability. He concludes that the United States’ desire to achieve “absolute invulnerability” threatens to make other states, like Russia, more vulnerable.

Throughout the article, Putin also lists a number of specific foreign policy priorities for Russia:

  • Reestablish economic ties in the Middle East that have been lost as a result of the Arab uprisings and support the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
  • Use the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok in September 2012 as an opportunity to develop Russia’s Far East and to pursue closer economic integration with China.
  • Engage in dialogue with Pyongyang but promote “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and prevent North Korea from proliferating.
  • Support international efforts to stop the drug trade in Afghanistan and pressure coalition forces to eliminate opium production through the “physical destruction of drug crops and underground laboratories.”
  • Establish a visa-free regime and pursue economic integration with the European Union in order to create a common economic space that stretches “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” and a “common European energy complex.”
  • Provide diplomatic support and financial assistance to Russian investors and entrepreneurs who face obstacles in trying to establish businesses in Europe.
  • Protect the rights of Russians living abroad, especially in countries such as Estonia and Latvia where Russian minorities face discrimination.
  • Promote a favorable and “accurate image of Russia abroad” by “exporting education and culture,” especially in Eastern Europe.

Putin on National Security

“Being strong: National security guarantees for Russia,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 20, 2012.

In a recent article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Putin stresses the importance of modernizing Russia’s armed forces and defense industry in order to ensure national sovereignty. Citing the devastating Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Putin argues that weakness of any kind can and will be exploited by outside powers to Russia’s detriment. In the face of possible foreign aggression, Russia cannot afford to be unprepared or caught off guard and must therefore revitalize its military-industrial complex to match the capabilities of potential adversaries. Provocations in Russia’s near abroad (for example, the 2004 Orange Revolution) and violations of international law (such as the NATO intervention in Libya) mean that Russia must remain vigilant and seek to prevent further outside intervention.

Putin notes that the once-feeble Russian military that nearly collapsed in the 1990s has since grown into a formidable fighting force, but he also acknowledges the need to strengthen Russia’s strategic deterrence, engage in strategic forecasting, pursue military education reform, and create a “professional contract army.” In short, Russia’s ability to achieve military superiority and maintain a strategic advantage over its opponents is vital to maintaining Russia’s great power status.

Among Putin’s specific recommendations outlined in the article are the following:

  • Provide approximately 23 trillion rubles (around $770 billion) to support innovation and modernize Russia’s military and defense industry over the next ten years.
  • Revive the Collective Security Treaty Organization to act as “a guarantor of stability in Eurasia” and to respond quickly to emerging security threats.
  • Equip all branches of the military with the latest weapons technology. In the next ten years, Russia will develop a massive arsenal that includes 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 50 warships, 2,300 tanks, 100 military spacecraft, and “10 brigade kits of Iskander-M missile systems.”
  • Establish ten “research and education centres” to transform military education and stimulate defense industry research and development with the help of universities.
  • Restore honor and prestige to military service and develop a more professional conscript army. 
  • Increase salaries, pensions, and other “social benefits” (for instance, housing and health care) for servicemen (implemented January 1, 2012) and also for law enforcement officials and “special services” starting January 1, 2013.
  • Continue to project power abroad through naval exercises and patrols, especially in the Arctic region.

Putin on Socioeconomic Issues

“Building justice: A social policy for Russia,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 13, 2012.

Putin provides a frank assessment of Russia’s socioeconomic problems in a recent article in Komsomolskaya Pravda. Rather than downplay issues such as poverty and inequality, a poor business environment, and a lack of social mobility, Putin openly admits that “the glaring income disparity is unacceptably high,” “businessmen still lack confidence in our society,” and “our system of social mobility functions badly and inconsistently.” Many Russian citizens, he argues, find it difficult to build successful careers and climb Russia’s social ladder.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Russia’s long-term development, he worries, is its shrinking population. Putin warns that without a large population, Russia cannot maintain control over its own territory and resources and ensure its own sovereignty.

The following are among his suggestions for overcoming Russia’s socioeconomic woes:

  • Create conditions necessary for career development and greater social mobility and increase salaries for educators and professionals that are making an impact in their institution or community. Make professors’, researchers’, and doctors’ salaries double the national average by 2020.
  • Establish a “labour aristocracy” of 10 million skilled workers by 2020.
  • Increase pensions and develop a new pension system for Russia’s growing middle class.
  • Encourage lower-income families living in Russia’s less populated regions to have three or more children by providing them with 7,000 rubles (roughly $240) per month.
  • Strengthen the quality of education in Russia by updating curricula, supporting extracurricular programs, and providing a monthly financial aid package of 5,000 rubles (approximately $170) for low-income, high-achieving students. Work towards the goal of creating top-tier mathematics programs over the next decade.
  • Support national cultural awareness through “public electronic libraries,” extracurricular activities in schools, and “museum nights.”
  • Provide more than 120 billion rubles (roughly $4 billion) for the development of medical equipment and pharmaceutical industries.
  • Promote healthy lifestyles through exercise and anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco campaigns.
  • Provide 30 billion rubles (approximately $1 billion) to help house combat veterans by the end of 2012 and to make housing more affordable for the majority of Russian citizens by 2020, and for all by 2030.
  • Develop a “comprehensive population conservation strategy” and measured immigration policy to address the issue of demographic decline. Besides hosting 300,000 migrant workers each year, Russia should also reach out to “compatriots living abroad.”

Putin on Democracy

“Democracy and the quality of government,” Kommersant, February 6, 2012.

In Kommersant, Putin outlines his plans to “modernize the mechanisms of our democracy” in order to develop more effective, accountable, and transparent governance. He notes, however, that democracy takes time to develop and can backfire if implemented too hastily, as occurred during the chaotic 1990s. On the one hand, Putin appears to support decentralization with his decision to reinstate the direct election of governors, but on the other, he argues that Russia “needs a strong, competent and respectable federal centre acting as the key political stabilising force.”

Putin claims that the demonstrations are tangible evidence of a new and increasingly outspoken middle class that has achieved prosperity under his leadership. Political competition in the public sphere is fine, he argues, as long as it does not turn into a meaningless “political entertainment show.”

Putin includes several other democratization proposals:

  • Ease registration process for political parties, eliminate the requirement for the collection of signatures for parliamentary and regional elections, and lower the number of signatures needed to run for president.
  • Foster the development of a participatory democracy through “electronic government” in which ordinary citizens can influence political decisionmaking and the drafting of legislation and also access government information online.
  • Restructure public councils within the executive branch and allow the Public Chamber of Russia to determine membership.
  • Eliminate a “culture of dependency” on the central government at the local level by making cities more self-sufficient and giving municipal governments control over taxes paid by certain small businesses.
  • Streamline Russia’s public administration and hold government officials accountable for dereliction of duty.
  • Initiate a nationwide campaign to combat institutionalized corruption and allow the State Duma Council to nominate the auditors and chairman of the Audit Chamber.
  • Eliminate the “accusatory and punitive slant” in Russia’s judicial system, enable ordinary citizens to bring charges against public officials, and increase public access to legal proceedings by making live webcasts and official transcripts available online. 

Putin on Russia’s Economy

“Economic tasks,” Vedomosti, January 30, 2012.

In an article in Vedomosti, Putin envisions the development of a modern and competitive economy that can ensure “stability, sovereignty, and prosperity” and wield influence on the world stage. With a nod to economic modernization, Putin calls for Russia to move beyond a commodity- and energy-based economy and become a leader in scientific research and high-tech innovation.

Putin realizes that resource wealth is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he argues that natural resources have buoyed Russia’s economy; on the other, he understands that Russia’s continued reliance on oil and natural gas is not sustainable in the long-term. Putin also recommends an overhaul of Russia’s underdeveloped transportation and communication infrastructure in order to better integrate industries located in remote areas of Siberia and the Far East.

He mentions several specific ways to restore Russia’s economic prestige:

  • Devote more resources to industries in which Russia can become competitive, such as nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, information technology, and aircraft manufacturing.
  • Develop “globally competitive Russian universities” by 2020 and provide 25 billion rubles (approximately $860 million) to state research foundations in 2018.
  • Convince foreign companies that produce automobiles and appliances in Russian factories to begin producing new high-tech products in Russian “technological development centres.”
  • Reduce government influence on the economy (for example, reduce the state’s role in “some commodity companies” by 2016), improve Russia’s business climate to attract investment, and pursue economic integration and the establishment of a common market with neighboring states.
  • Increase taxes on Russia’s wealthy class and on luxury items, tobacco, and alcohol by next year but refrain from increasing government spending.

Putin on Ethnicity

“Russia: The Ethnicity Issue,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January, 2012.

Putin believes strongly in Russia’s uniqueness as a Eurasian power and a “multiethnic civilization.” Although he often appeals to Russian patriotic nationalism, Putin sees the ethnic chauvinism and xenophobic slogans of extreme nationalists as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian state.

At the same time, he proposes that all Russian citizens and temporary residents, regardless of their ethnicity or creed, should express an interest in Russian culture and history, which serve as the “linchpin” holding the state together. As a result, he recommends “subtle cultural therapy” in order to build a unifying national identity and proposes tougher regulations to integrate Russia’s large migrant population into the fabric of society.

Among his specific recommendations outlined in the article are the following:

  • Promote “civic patriotism” in education and the arts and create a  “canon” of classic Russian literature that students must read.
  • Embrace pluralism and ease registration of political parties without granting too much power to regional governments that appear to support separatism.
  • Establish an agency that monitors interethnic relations and strengthen dialogue between the government and religious leaders in the policymaking process. 
  • Revise and toughen migration policy to promote integration of migrants and introduce stricter residency requirements, such as language and law examinations.

Putin on Russia’s Challenges

“Russia muscles up—the challenges we must rise to face,” Izvestia, January 16, 2012.

In an article in Izvestia, Putin makes it clear that Russia has come a long way since the turbulent 1990s and has even prospered during his tenure. People’s standard of living, Putin argues, is now better than it ever was during the Soviet era. He highlights his past achievements—among them the suppression of violent separatism, the establishment of economic stability, and the emergence of a middle class—and criticizes opposition leaders for their failure to propose a concrete agenda for Russia’s future.

He openly acknowledges that Russia faces serious problems, such as poverty and a lack of economic diversification, and declares that these issues must be addressed. Above all, Putin stresses that Russia is no longer a state in transition but a great power once again.

In the article, he also lists several specific recommendations for improving Russians’ lives:

  • Pursue economic diversification and concentrate on building an “innovation-based economy” and creating a minimum of 25 million “high-tech jobs.”
  • Provide government support to “social NGOs” that are working to improve the quality of life in local communities.
  • Eliminate poverty by 2020 by providing greater financial assistance to low-income families and promoting social justice.