The Russian bear is back. Given his resentment of America, how scared should we be? Are we slipping back to the tensions of the Cold War? These are natural anxieties, given the triumph of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, which provides Putin with the popular mandate to dictate Russia's future in an election stacked in its favor by authoritarian pressures, notably by media manipulation and the banning or harassment of opposition parties.
The first thing to appreciate is that despite these deficiencies, Putin would have won anyway. He can do no wrong in Russia. He exercised muscles he did not need to exercise because his popularity is solidly based on giving his people what they longed for after the nonstop catastrophes of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was the president. Chaos prevailed and took many forms: an inflation of over 2,000 percent that wiped out the value of long-accumulated savings of average Russians; overwhelming corruption in both government and business, and from top to bottom; delays of weeks and months in the payments of salaries and pensions; Chechnya being allowed to become a terrorist center and then reduced to ruins. The descent into chaos ended only with the premature resignation of Yeltsin and the assumption of the presidency by Putin, a former head of the KGB, now the FSB—just the organization that Yeltsin had described as needing the most reform from the old Soviet days.
Order first. But Putin showed unusual abilities to stabilize chaotic post-Soviet society. He did it in the old-fashioned Russian way of the benevolent czar by restoring central control over the bureaucracy, the economy, the government, and the media. Most critical, his regime was sustained by a burgeoning economy. Standards of living rose: Wages quadrupled, and pensions and welfare payments increased—and were paid on time. What's more, a middle class emerged, along with stability and tranquillity that the Russians sought and do not believe could have been achieved without Putin's consolidation of power. Of course, the economic improvement and the increase in Russia's currency reserves came on a tidal wave of higher energy prices. But it was all managed in a sober and energetic style.
Putin brought into power a tiny group of men who make all the important decisions—the siloviki, a Russian word meaning roughly "power guys." They were from the KGB and the other security services, and many had served Putin in the KGB and came from his hometown of St. Petersburg. Putin and the siloviki gave the Russians what they have traditionally found appealing in their rulers: toughness, authority, and even a degree of mystery as they took control of government and the security forces and regained most of Russia's natural resources grabbed under Yeltsin by the so-called oligarchs. The siloviki also helped Putin neutralize alternative forces of influence: regional governments, parliament, huge state-owned companies, nongovernmental organizations, and the media—the three major TV networks are under direct or indirect government control. The public accepted Putin's view that Russia must find its own way to democracy. After the chaos that resulted from the 1990s plunge into a free-market economy, they were willing to accept a strong ruler. The whole movement tied into the passion to re-create Russia into as mighty a state as the Soviet Union once was and so overcome the humiliating experience of the Soviet collapse.
This nationalist passion, deeply felt by ordinary Russians, has had follow-on effects on Putin's foreign policy that we have not handled with much skill. His second term has been characterized by an escalating opposition to America and his commitment to a revival of Russian influence as a counterweight. Putin accuses the United States of hypocrisy, arrogance, and military adventurism. His rhetoric has gotten more inflammatory, including a recent speech in which he seemed to compare the United States to the Third Reich. His hostility derives from the feeling that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the West still has designs on Mother Russia. It began with NATO's moves eastward and the establishment of military bases, including the latest plan by the United States to site in eastern Europe part of its planned missile defenses against Iran, with radars that the Russians suspect will monitor everything they do in half their country.