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Putins Russia Resurgent superpower

Issued: 2018-03-11

In this photo taken on Friday, March 2, 2018 and released Saturday, March 10, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with NBC News' Megyn Kelly in Kaliningrad, Russia. In the some times combative interview Putin denied the charge by U.S. intelligence services that he ordered meddling in the November 2016 vote, claiming any interference was not connected to the Kremlin. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) -- Vladimir Putin and his Russia look more invincible than at any other time in his 18 years in power.

Since he last faced election in 2012, Russians have invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, blanket-bombed Syria, been accused of meddling in the U.S. presidential election and claimed to have a scary new nuclear arsenal.

"No one listened to us. You listen to us now," he said earlier this month in boasting about those new weapons.

Putin will overwhelmingly win re-election as president on March 18, again. So why bother holding a vote at all?

He disdains democracy as messy and dangerous — yet he craves the legitimacy conferred by an election. He needs tangible evidence that Russians need him and his great-power vision more than they worry about the freedoms he has muffled, the endemic corruption he has failed to eradicate, the sanctions he invited by his actions in Crimea and Ukraine.

"Any autocrat wants love," said analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Putin gets that love "from high support in elections."

Expected to win as much as 80 percent of the vote, Putin will further cement his authority over Russia, a czar-like figure with a democratic veneer.

In 14 years as president and four years as prime minister of the world's largest country, Putin has transformed Russia's global image, consolidated power over its politics and economy, imprisoned opponents, offered asylum to Edward Snowden, quieted extremism in long-restive Chechnya, hosted phenomenally expensive Olympic Games and won the right to stage this year's World Cup.

He's now 65, and he's not planning to leave anytime soon.

The election will confirm Putin's argument that to improve life in Russia, the country needs continuity more than it needs drastic change, independent media, political opposition, environmental activism or rights for homosexuals and other minorities.

Russia will remain disproportionately dependent on oil prices and its 144 million people will stay poorer than they should be. They also will still be convinced that the world is out to get them.

Putin's most important mission in the next six years will be working out a plan for what happens when his next term expires in 2024: Will he anoint a friendly successor or invent a scheme that allows him to keep holding the reins?

Today's all-powerful Putin bears little resemblance to the man who took his tentative first steps as president on the eve of the new millennium.

Catapulted to power on Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation as president, Putin walked into his new office Dec. 31, 1999, in a suit that seemed too big for his shoulders. His low-level KGB background made him seem shifty, and many Russians regarded him as little more than a puppet of the oligarchs then pulling the strings in the Kremlin.

Russia was still emerging from a tumultuous post-Soviet hangover. Contract killings dominated headlines, its army couldn't afford socks for its soldiers, and its budget was still dependent on foreign loans.

Eighteen years later, Putin's friends run the economy and Russia's military is resurgent.

An entire generation has never known a Russia without Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in charge. And an increasing number of other leaders — President Donald Trump among them — are emulating his nationalist, fortress mentality.

The once-feisty Russian media has fallen silent. Kremlin propaganda now has a global audience, via far-reaching networks RT and Sputnik.

Yet while Putin looks invulnerable on the surface, he has reason to worry.


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