Putin Five Point Zero: What Now?

11 mins. to read
Putin Five Point Zero: What Now?

Special Electoral Operation

Surprise, surprise. Last weekend, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation with 87 percent of the popular vote. Last time round, in 2018, he polled a mere 77.5 percent of the vote. The runner-up was Nikolai Kharitonov, the leader of the Communist Party, who polled just 4.3 percent. This was, by any standards, a crushing victory. But was it a truly “free and fair” election? Most observers think not, for good reason. The name of the man who might have beaten Putin was not on the ballot paper because he was dead.

But the fairness of the election is not my principal concern today. Here, I want to examine the consequences of this long-expected outturn.

Putin is now already the longest-serving ruler of Russia bar Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, who reigned for 34 years (1762-96), and Stalin who was the effective supreme leader from 1929 until his death in 1953. (Although, curiously, Stalin, while all-powerful, was never technically the head of state). Putin will overtake Stalin later this year.

Let us recall that Putin was appointed prime minister by the ailing President Yeltsin in the summer of 1999 and the became acting president when Yeltsin left the stage on Millennium Day, 01 January 2000. He has served as Russia’s head of state and government continuously since then except for the four years, 2008-12, when he made way for Dmitry Medvedev. Even then he served as prime minister and was the de facto head of government. Putin has already seen five US presidents and seven UK prime ministers come and go.

If he continues to serve as president until 2036, as the amended constitution of the Russian Federation now permits, he will have surpassed even Catherine in the length of his rule. In 2036 Putin will be 83 years old – not much older than President Biden is today.

Significantly, Putin’s role model – the historical figure that he cites most often – is not Catherine but Peter the Great. (Pyotr Veliky in Russian, reigned 1682-1725 – although he was only sole monarch from 1696, having previously shared the throne with his half-brother, Ivan V). Peter spent much of his reign prosecuting wars against the two great neighbouring empires of Ottoman Turkey and Sweden. He extended Russian territorial control well beyond the frontiers he inherited, gaining access for Russia to the Baltic Sea in the North and the Black Sea in the South.

It was Peter who wrested control of what is now Ukraine from the Swedes and the Poles at the Battle of Poltava (1709), the decisive battle of the Great Northern War of 1700-21 which redrew the map of Eastern Europe along lines that we would vaguely recognise today. Peter regarded the conquest of Ukraine as essential to Russia’s ambitions as a great power – as does Putin and his followership.

There are parallels between Peter the Great and Putin. Peter was the first Russian monarch who understood the West and its technology. He required the boyars (landowners) to shave off their beards and to adopt French clothes and manners. From 1697-98, Peter travelled incognito in England, Holland and Germany. He even spent some months working in a naval dockyard in Deptford Creek on the south bank of the River Thames. (That dockyard stood somewhere near what is now the Greenwich Premier Inn). There he absorbed the latest ideas in ship design and construction which he later applied to the fledgling Russian navy. He was fascinated by the science of navigation which was advancing rapidly. The concept of technology transfer long pre-dates the 21st Century.

Peter was a reformer who was determined to drag still-medieval and backward Russia into the modern world – whether that was popular or not with the Russian people. But as his reign proceeded, like many autocrats, he became crueller and less amenable to advice. While he succeeded in establishing Russia as a great European power, he never solved the issue of where Russia’s “natural” borders lie. That geopolitical conundrum remains.

Statues of Peter the Great – as well as those of Stalin – are now common in Russian cities.

Growing hostility

Last week Putin was not just re-elected, but, in his own words, he was given a renewed mandate to pursue the war against Ukraine. His position now is quite different from that when he was last re-elected in 2018. Because the Ukrainian war effort is backed and sustained by the NATO powers, the war against Ukraine entails a determination to face down the West. If necessary, by force. In his victory speech, President Putin told the Russian people that they would never be “intimidated” by the West. When asked about the possibility of Russia becoming involved in a direct confrontation with the West during his post-election press conference, Putin responded: “I think everything is possible in the modern world … It is clear to everyone that this will be one step away from a full-scale Third World War.”

This only reinforces the stance of numerous Western defence analysts and military men such as Admiral Rob Bauer that NATO, while hoping for the best, should prepare for the worst. Fault lines are emerging across the continent. Russian separatists are agitating in the break-away Moldovan province of Transnistria. An associate of the late dissident leader Alexei Navalny was attacked with a hammer in Lithuania last week. Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti pleaded that Britain needs to send more troops to the country to counter Russian-backed Serbian insurgents. Rearmament is on the agenda everywhere – except, it seems, people in Numbers Ten and Eleven Downing Street who have allowed the British Army to fall to just 75,000 soldiers.

The key question is how the Ukraine war might conclude without spawning more widespread, and potentially catastrophic, conflict in Europe. If Putin and many of his supporters believe that Ukraine is a “fake state” which must be returned to its natural home as a province of Mother Russia, then even the ceding of its eastern provinces – the Donbas and Lugansk, not to mention Crimea – to Russia in perpetuity would not assuage their grievance. According to their reading of history, Kyiv (Kiev in Russian) was the original seat of Rus in the 10th Century when Saint Volodymyr converted to Christianity (987). A rump post-war Ukraine would be a beneficiary of the European Union as a candidate member and would enjoy close military cooperation with NATO, if not full membership. But Ukrainian national identity would have been reinforced and Russian fears about NATO placing ballistic missiles on Ukrainian territory would linger.

It is therefore probable that Putin’s ultimate war aim – as he told President Macron at the beginning of the conflict in February 2022 – is the total subjugation of all of Ukraine’s territory. He wants to wipe Ukraine off the map. That is why this war is likely to continue for some time – and so long as it does, so the risks of escalation increase.

Since the war began, the Russian state has become more autocratic. All opposition to the war has been crushed. The country has been put onto a war footing with a huge percentage of industrial production dedicated to munitions. Moscow spends more on the military than on health and welfare. Nor has the West been able to stifle the Russian economy through sanctions. In fact, Russia’s switch to a war economy which is self-sufficient in energy and food has actually stimulated economic activity. A recent IMF report estimated that Russia’s GDP growth in 2023 was 1.1 percent and would be more than 2.5 percent this year, surpassing all G-7 nations. In any case, sanctions are being subverted by covert imports through Turkey, Belarus, China and Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the new iron curtain along Russia’s European frontiers has rendered Russia more reliant on the goodwill and support of China which, along with India, is now the prime consumer of Russian hydrocarbons. This may well turn out to be a pivotal factor. Whatever we may think of the Chinese leadership, it is clear that they devoutly wish to avoid a widespread thermonuclear conflagration. It was reported that President Xi asked Putin to tone down his nuclear war rhetoric in 2022 – but this year Putin has openly started to talk about the use of nuclear weapons again. On 13 March, Putin said that Russia was “ready” for nuclear war with the West.

The longer dictators remain in power the more they think of themselves as historical figures whose legacy will be remembered long beyond their deaths – just as Peter the Great’s is. The more they think that the normal constraints of power no longer apply to them. The more they think that they are invulnerable. They invoke the divine right of kings. That makes them less risk-averse and more likely to lash out. Stalin initiated a series of brutal, and totally unnecessary, purges in his final years. Leonid Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan.

What will Putin do? More of the same.

The Donald Ahoy!

The prospect of a second Trump presidency has European chanceries rattled, and obviously there is intense speculation within the Kremlin as to what it would mean for Russia.

In Europe, there are essentially two schools of thought about Trump. The first is that Trump will pull America out of NATO and leave Europe to fend for itself – meaning it will become highly vulnerable to Russian aggression. That would mean the end of the West as we have known it. The second is that Trump is vile-tasting, but necessary, medicine. His imprecations against European parsimony in the arena of defence have already had effect as numerous NATO countries move to beef up their armed forces. Several Eastern European countries such as Latvia have already introduced compulsory conscription into the armed forces. There is talk of re-introducing conscription in France.

While just three NATO countries met their stated obligation to spend at least two percent of GDP on defence in 2014, that figure is likely to rise to 19 this year – including Germany (at last). That still leaves 13 countries failing to pay their full dues, which will not escape Mr Trump’s attention. In his GB News interview with Nigel Farage on Tuesday (19 March), Trump affirmed that he remained committed to NATO – so long as the Europeans pay up. In practice, it is unlikely that the American defence establishment (the military-industrial complex as leftists call it), would permit Trump to depart from a policy which was ultimately based on the protection of America’s interests.

Mr Trump also told Nigel Farage that if he had remained in power in 2020, the Ukraine war – as well as the Israel-Hamas war – would not have happened at all. While it is impossible to prove a counterfactual, I actually think this is not-mad. President Biden is perceived as weak by America’s enemies and his softer stance on Iran and his withdrawal from Afghanistan have reduced America’s reach in the Middle East. Under Biden, the mighty USA seems to exercise very little leverage over Netanyahu’s Israel. However much you may despise Donald Trump, the fact is that everyone, everywhere, hangs on his every word.

Currently, Trump is using his influence over Congress to delay the $60 billion military aid package that the USA promised to Ukraine last year. Although there is probably a majority for the measure in both houses, the Trump-inclined Republican House Speaker, Mike Johnson, is refusing to allow a vote. This is now an artillery (and drone) war. The Ukrainians have artillery; but they are desperately short of shells. If it were not for a deal brokered by the Czech Republic last month to supply surplus shells to Ukraine from numerous countries (including South Korea), Ukraine might have succumbed already.

The risk of war between Russia (and its allies – China, Iran and North Korea) and NATO is higher today than at any moment in my lifetime. And that includes the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when I was four years old. Assuming he wins in November, if Donald Trump could somehow dial down the risks, he would go down in history as a hero. But if he abandons Ukraine to an unenviable fate he will be remembered as the author of the West’s demise.

What The Markets Make Of It

Judging by the US equity markets, we have never had it so good. The hype around AI has bid up valuations to exorbitant multiples, and the NASDAQ and the S&P-500 are trading at near record highs. The Dow Jones hit another record high yesterday (21 March). As I have been saying here for some time, stock markets find it difficult to price in geopolitical risk – until it is too late.

But there is something going on which reflects a growing realisation of the scale of the danger. The price of safe haven assets is soaring. One sees this in the price of gold ($2,181 – just under its all-time high as I write) and Bitcoin ($66,854). And check out property prices in the South Island of New Zealand where celebrities are taking refuge.

Defence should be the number one priority for governments – and for investors too.


Regular readers may recall that in the post-script to my New Year predictions piece I shared a target that I had set myself for 2024. Namely: to walk five million steps over the course of the year. Well, I am happy to report that last Monday I hit the one million steps mark – so I am on track (if you will excuse the pun), though nothing can be taken for granted.

I like to walk for about 90 minutes to two hours every morning, ideally starting at dawn – which is, of course, getting perceptibly earlier each day at this time of year. (By about two minutes each day in Southern England, to be precise). I supplement these daily walks with at least one hike a week of four or more hours or about 20 kilometres which normally clocks up another 30,000 plus steps.

It being Lent, I am abstaining. Alas, not from wine: one should always set realistic, achievable goals. I have cut out dairy products (though I cannot go without milk in my first-of-the-morning tea). And bread.

I have lost over four kilos since Christmas. But there is much further to go, in every sense.

Comments (6)

  • Mark Mitchell says:

    I know you will not believe, but I am a Brit in Russia and I can assure you that Navalny, dead or alive, would not have beaten Putin. Many Russians I know, who have not voted for decades, made the effort to go to the polling station just so they could defy the sanctions the only way they can, and vote for Putin.

  • Mark Mitchell says:

    “Statues of Peter the Great – as well as those of Stalin – are now common in Russian cities”

    Sorry, another difference of opinion: I have never seen a statue of Stalin in Russia. There are a few of Peter the Great, but most are of Lenin.

  • Mark Mitchell says:

    “Statues of Peter the Great – as well as those of Stalin – are now common in Russian cities”

    Sorry, another difference of opinion: I have never seen a statue of Stalin in Russia. There are a few of Peter the Great, but most are of Lenin and Pushkin.

  • James Harrison says:

    The dictators are in the West, The west started this war in the hope they could break Russia apart. The West are now in panic mode as Russia wins this war against the most corrupt country in the world.

  • Roger Bennett says:

    Putin and Russia have no option but to fight or be subsumed into the globalist technocratic totalitarian world (GTTW) that the WORLD Economic Forum are building just as all Western democratic countries are in the process of being or have already been so subsumed, and how will China, India and others react to the advances of the GTTW?


    Perhaps with the exception of France and Scandinavia, Europe has gone soft in a comfort zone. Uncle Joe has led the way with weakness. If Trump gets in he may do a deal with Putin. If not, my grandchildren will be too vulnerable for words.
    As will the world at large…

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