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Crash Course - Putin's Ambitions, America's Tolerance

by Daniel Halper
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Despite the Kremlin's best effort, an Internet video emerged the other week of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin being booed by a full arena of fans at the end of a mixed martial arts fight in Moscow's Olympic Stadium. "Putin's spin-doctors came up with a variety of explanations of the booing-from anger at lack of access to toilets during the speech to abuse directed toward the departing losing fighter," the Daily Beast reported. "None made much sense...Suddenly, it seems, Russian everymen aren't so thrilled by their once and future Tsar."

Indeed, the Olympic Stadium scene proved to be an accurate precursor to the Parliamentary elections held over the weekend in Russia.

"United Russia, the governing party of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, suffered surprisingly steep losses in parliamentary elections on Sunday and was barely clinging to a 50 percent majority, with nearly three-quarters of the votes counted," the New York Times reported.

But though Putin's popularity is waning, his power in Russia is not.

For over the last decade, Putin has been president and prime minister, his present position. In his latest role, Putin relinquished the presidency to observe the constitutional mandate of only two terms, allowing his loyal protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, to hold the official title instead. But while Putin was only the prime minister, there has been little doubt who in fact maintains the power in the Kremlin: It has been the former KGB spy all along.

Now the current arrangement is not good enough-and Putin is ready to return, using his muscle to change the constitution to allow him to serve at least two more terms as the president. He will likely once again switch places with Medvedev.

Putin accepted his party's nomination two weekends ago-as if there were ever any doubt he would be the one receiving what he wanted-and used the opportunity to warn Western democracies not to question his legitimacy.

"All our foreign partners need to understand this: Russia is a democratic country, it's a reliable and predictable partner with which they can and must reach agreement but on which they cannot impose anything from the outside," the Russian strongman told an audience of over ten thousand party supporters in Moscow. In other words: Don't meddle in Russian affairs, or Putin is likely to seek revenge.

Which in retrospect seems to be more a warning about the Russia elections days later, held on Sunday, wherein Putin's party suffered a major drop in enthusiasm, than anything else. Commandeering elections is something Putin's known for, even if he might pretend to be the legitimate head of a democratic nation.

And there are reliable (and numerous) reports of fraud.

"Even before polls closed, accusations of vote-rigging and fraud-all to aid the ruling United Russia party-had been widely reported across Russia," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, pointing out several videos that seem to explicitly show acts of voter fraud.

Realizing that Putin would be ruling Russia for sometime should have been a given when formulating U.S. policy for the last few years. Under his rules, Putin can stay in office until 2018-and his rules can be changed by him.

Instead, the Obama administration has been under the fantasy that relations could be "reset" by developing a strong relationship with Medvedev. But "reset" was all but declared dead when Putin announced his intention to remain in power.

In Putin's acceptance speech of his party's nomination last week, he foreshadowed an upcoming Russian arms build-up. "In the next five to 10 years we must take our armed forces to a qualitatively new level," Putin said. "Of course, this will require big spending .... but we must do this if we want to defend the dignity of our country, if we want to protect our sovereignty and independence, protect Russian citizens."

But this time, it would appear, the Russians will be alone in their military build-up. The United States, after all, is currently cutting military and defense spending, most recently committing to an additional $600 billion from defense spending due to the automatic sequestration that kicks in because of the so-called supercommittee's failure.

The reality is this: Putin maintains grandiose plans for the future of Russia with him at its helm. Growing his military is only one element.

Putin is currently working to reunite former Soviet states-Belarus and Kazakhstan-into a "customs union" that would one day, Putin hopes, develop into a "Eurasian Union." It would be created presumably to rival the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He is currently working to expand missile defense, trying to forge alliances with Turkey and other nations to host the necessary equipment. And Putin's Russia has been working to disrupt its smaller neighbors' hopes for gaining energy independence.

Putin's popularity at home might not mean as much as one would hope. So long as he can maintain his grip, his unruly ambition will be one with which the U.S. will, in one way or another, have to contend.

Daniel Halper, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is deputy online editor at The Weekly Standard.

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