How Has Putin Managed To Hold Onto Power In Russia?

The former spymaster rose to prominence as acting president in 1999, and has since consolidated his hold on political power in Russia. As he looks set to surpass Joseph Stalin as modern Russia's longest-ruling leader, what has enabled Vladimir Putin to hold on to political power despite fervent international opposition?

How Has Putin Managed To Hold Onto Power In Russia?

More than two years since Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, and only weeks after the custodial death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russia held its eighth Presidential election on March 15-17.

Unsurprisingly, incumbent President Vladimir Putin emerged victorious by a landslide and will embark on a fifth Presidential term. Early results show that Putin won nearly 87% of the votes cast, with the electoral commission claiming a 74% turnout, the highest in history. With Putin set to extend his rule for another six years, he will become Russia’s longest-serving leader in over 200 years in 2029, surpassing the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in the process.

Putin celebrated the election results as a vindication of his decision to invade Ukraine and defy the West. “No matter who or how much they want to intimidate us, no matter who or how much they want to suppress us, our will, our consciousness – no one has ever succeeded in anything like this in history,” said Putin in his victory address.

Through an election where there was no credible opposition on the ballot, and Putin’s critics have been silenced, jailed, exiled or are dead, Putin has signaled to the West that his Russia is more emboldened now than ever before.

Western countries condemned the election in no uncertain terms, with the United States denouncing the polls as “obviously not free nor fair.”

“What did you want, for them to applaud us? They’re fighting with us in an armed conflict … their goal is to contain our development. Of course they’re ready to say anything,” thundered Putin in response to criticisms over the election results.

Putin did receive congratulations from China, India and Iran. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said President Xi and Putin “will continue to maintain close exchanges, lead the two countries to continue to uphold long-standing good-neighborly friendship, deepen comprehensive strategic coordination.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Putin on X, writing “Look forward to working together to further strengthen the time-tested Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia in the years to come.” Russia is India’s largest arms supplier.

Muted protests

Supporters of Putin critic Alexei Navalny formed queues at polling stations at midday as part of their “Noon against Putin” initiative, but this obviously did not have any impact on the result of the elections.

While there were some sporadic attacks on polling stations, most protests were symbolic and were not intended to challenge the Kremlin’s hold on the electoral process.

Putin’s chokehold on power

Putin was appointed the head of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), the prime intelligence and security agency of the Russian Federation, in 1998 by President Boris Yeltsin. After being appointed acting president in 1999 when Yeltsin resigned, Putin has gone from strength to strength, using a combination of nepotism, cronyism and repression to tighten his hold on political power.

He was elected in 2000, and served two terms as President, stepping aside to abide by a constitutional limit on consecutive presidential terms. This limitation was brushed aside by his deputy Dmitry Medvedev, allowing Putin to assume the Presidency again in 2012.

Putin has displayed a remarkable willingness to flex Russia’s military muscle during his time in power. In 2014, he ordered a swift takeover of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which remains in de facto Russian control.

Those who seek to challenge the Russian President’s authority find themselves poisoned, jailed or have their planes crash in mysterious circumstances.

Most narratives of Putin’s hold on political power point to the dense networks of elite patronage and cronyism that sustain the Russian oligarchic economy. Russia’s constitution allows for a massively overpowered Presidency, in an attempt to dominate the workings of both formal and informal politics. Putin has relied on this “crown-presidential” design of the office of President to assert dominance over the oligarchs, the regional governors, the media and the judiciary.

In 2020, Putin pushed through another round of constitutional amendments through a choreographed national referendum, cementing his position as the strongman. Putin’s control over the courts and the flow of information through broadcast and print media allow him to manufacture legitimacy for his rule as a strongman by excoriating the benefits of a rejuvenated Russia seeking to reestablish its position in the global hierarchy.

Defiance of the West and a surprisingly resilient economy

Putin’s rule has been marked indelibly by his resistance to the West and his foreign policy adventurism. With the war in Ukraine in its second year, the Russian economy has faced an onslaught of sanctions from the West. Despite the West’s hopes however, Russia’s macroeconomic fundamentals remain strong and resilient, buoyed by strong demand for Russian Urals crude oil and rising military spending. 

Despite a $60 per barrel cap on Russian Urals crude, Russia has managed to skirt around export restricting measures by building a shadow fleet of tankers that is not associated with Western firms, and courting non-Western buyers like China and India. Western nations, while outwardly steadfast in their support for Ukraine, have not acted with resolve to curb the flow of Russian Urals crude, over fears that a supply shock could possibly trigger another round of global inflation. 

While prices for some consumer goods have risen, Russia’s importers have found ways around sanctions by sourcing goods from intermediate countries in the immediate neighborhood, such as Serbia. Russia’s oil exports are still expected to ring in north of $200 billion in 2024. Despite an increase in interest rates and a fall in the ruble’s exchange rate, Russia’s economy has proven far more resilient than the sanctions imposing Western nations originally estimated.

Given the state of affairs in Russia, Putin’s hold on power is far from being challenged. 

Hamza Hashim serves as an Assistant Editor for The Friday Times, and is an educator. He is an alumnus of Swarthmore College.