20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 26, IMR launched the “Russia under Putin” project, which includes a timeline of the country’s key political developments over the last 20 years. This factual digest serves not only to refresh one’s memory but also to retrace the Putin regime’s evolution and its modus operandi. IMR’s Olga Khvostunova highlights the key patterns of this regime and explains what they mean.


 The regime largely relies on the myth of the all-powerful Putin. Photo: kremlin.ru.


Numerous books and articles have been written on Vladimir Putin and the Russian political regime over the last 20 years. But recently it has been increasingly harder to find new insights on these subjects. There is an expert consensus on the authoritarian nature of both the regime and Putin’s personality. As for assessments, they tend to fall into two categories: a critical approach is juxtaposed by the explanatory/exculpatory one. A similar opposition is observed in the policy realm: those in favor of sanctioning and isolating Russia oppose those who call for cooperation or appeasement with the regime.

What can IMR’s project add to this debate? It was conceived as an attempt to build a succinct and objective overview of the Russian political history in the last 20 years, so that the discourse on the Putin regime could be relaunched based on pure facts. The result of this effort is the chronological mini-encyclopedia that we have created by drawing upon a massive number of articles and reports by Russian and western media outlets and expert organizations and then condensing the key stories down to the basic facts. In selecting the stories, we focused on three categories: 1) steps undertaken by the ruling elite to consolidate power; 2) external circumstances that influenced the political system; and 3) high-profile public events that dominated the Russian information space. Each story in the timeline is thus a simple digest of straight facts, with no assessment added.

Analysis of these events allowed us to highlight some of the key patterns of the regime.


  1. Survival as Strategy

The timeline clearly demonstrates that the regime lacks a long-term strategy. A series of political moves show that, from day one, Vladimir Putin and his closest allies have focused exclusively on strengthening their power and extracting rent from the state.

To be fair, long-term development strategies do exist in Russia on paper. Documents under such names are regularly produced by policy experts and adopted as government programs, but their implementation is inevitably impeded by the interests of the ruling elite, external crises, or a plain lack of incentives and accountability.

The timeline also reveals one of the key principles of the regime’s modus operandi—the crushing of competition under the pretext of fighting corruption. One can retrace periods of “purges” within the elite groups who criticized the regime in early 2000s (such as cases against the businessmen Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky). These attacks were driven not just by the need to silence dissent but also by the appetites of the group that had come to power and were striving to accumulate personal wealth through nationalization, expropriation, property redistribution, raiding, etc. These examples pepper both the early days of Putin’s presidency and the later ones (e.g., hostile acquisitions of TNK-BP or Bashneft).

In later years, “purges” also affected high-profile officials who were loyal members of the ruling elite. A number of Russian officials were arrested on charges of fraud and embezzlement, including the governors Alexander Khoroshavin and Vyacheslav Gayzer in 2015, and Nikita Belykh in 2016, as well as the economic minister Aleksei Ulyukayev (also in 2016). As Russia’s economy deteriorates, the fight for rent intensifies. In the absence of independent political institutions, the more predatory members of the elite begin to prevail.


  1. Reform imitation

Many of the reforms announced by Putin failed because their objectives collided with the existential interests of the ruling elite (namely, strengthening their power and rent-seeking).

Recently, as the president called for the government to implement 13 national projects with a price tag of 25 trillion rubles, it’s worth remembering that national projects had been first put forward back in 2005. They failed, as did the 2012 May Decrees signed by Putin in the beginning of his third presidential term. And by the looks of it, the latest national projects launched in 2018 could meet the same fate.

Swift and efficient implementation of the regime’s (self-serving) political reforms—whether it is abolishing the direct elections of governors, increasing the length of presidential terms, or amending the Constitution—stands in stark contrast to the many failures of national projects. Yet this comes as no surprise, as the former efforts are directly aligned with the interests of elites.


  1. Denial of wrongdoing

The regime is not interested in transformation, not capable of acknowledging and fixing its mistakes, and, as a result, responds to all crises in a the same way, regardless of what responses are actually needed. Initial disarray over a crisis gives way to finding someone to take the blame for it—and it often doesn’t matter whether they are guilty or not. Next comes the “tightening of the screws,” which is presented to the public as a security measure, while in fact it is done for the sake of the ruling elite.

This pattern can be observed in the regime’s reactions to numerous crises over the years—such as the Kursk submarine disaster (2000), the Nord-Ost and Beslan hostage sieges (2002 and 2004), and the high-profile political assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov (2006 and 2015), as well as in its responses to natural disasters (wildfires in 2010, Krymsk flood in 2012), in crackdowns on mass protests (2011–2019), and in the handling of social outbursts (Kondopoga in 2006, Kushchevskaya in 2010, and Biryulyovo in 2013).

Acknowledging mistakes implies a level of self-criticism that can hardly be expected from the Putin regime, which relies on power-projection and sees mistakes as weaknesses. But lurking behind these compulsive, forceful reactions is the ruling elite’s fear—of losing wealth, status, power, and even life. And this fear is not baseless: in the event of a regime change, a number of key figures would likely be in serious trouble.


  1. Aggression as self-defense

The regime’s inability to acknowledge mistakes and its pursuit of power-projection are informed by the historical narratives of Russia’s victimization and exceptionalism, which were adapted by the ruling elite to justify its own aggressive policies. This pattern is on full display in responses to foreign policy shocks, which are often perceived as attempts at regime change. The key adversary role is assigned to the United States and its “satellites” (Europe, Ukraine, Georgia, etc.).

Before mass protests swept across Russia in 2011, Moscow’s indignation over the revolutions in the former Soviet states of Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) was mostly rhetorical and focused on accusing the US of sponsoring these events. With time, the regime changed tactics and resorted to tougher actions of what it perceived as self-defense—starting with uprooting the “fifth column” inside the Russian state. The Euromaidan revolution of 2013–2014 led the Russian ruling elite to conclude with confidence that the western threat was imminent.

Paradoxically, while the Russian elites reproach foreign leaders for being too emotional, they are themselves hypersensitive about any perceived disrespect toward Russia. This attitude, or “inferiority complex,” as political scientist Andrei Tsygankov has described it, appears often in official comments, such as when the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, issued a statement in 2006 on the bilateral relationship crisis with Georgia. Russian escalation was justified by the need to “bring the Georgian leadership to [their] senses,” because it “must understand that it cannot insult Russia while thousands [of] Georgian citizens work [in Russia] and feed their families.”

The same pattern shows in Moscow’s symmetrical and asymmetrical responses to western sanctions. For instance, Moscow adopted the Dima Yakovlev law (banning the adoption of Russian children by US citizens) as a retaliation to the Magnitsky Act passed in the US. It also imposed countersanctions on western countries and declared an import-substitution policy (which has proved to be self-damaging) in response to the new round of sanctions against Russia over the shooting down of the MH17 passenger jet in eastern Ukraine. All of these examples confirm the notion that for the sake of projecting power and inducing respect, the ruling elite is willing to sacrifice the interests of the national economy and civil society.


  1. Mythmaking 

Information warfare is one of the regime’s key instruments for controlling public opinion and legitimizing its politics. Putin prioritized this instrument early on by adopting Russia’s first Information Security Doctrine in September 2000. Cracking down on independent media and consolidating information resources in the hands of the ruling elite allowed the regime to build a powerful propaganda system, which produces narratives and myths for the benefit of the regime and helps manipulate the public.

Some of the key myths of the regime underpin Putin’s image as the only leader who can rule Russia. One of the foundational myths about Putin holds that the president managed to “restore order in the country” after the turbulent 1990s. But even a superficial skimming of the timeline reveals that achievements attributed to Putin—economic stability, successful reforms, solving the North Caucasus terrorist problem—are either due to lucky circumstances or are not solutions at all.

Take the example of Chechnya. After the frequent terrorist attacks of 1999–2004, especially the Nord-Ost and Beslan hostage crises, and the assassination of the Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, the republic underwent a harsh “cleanup” operation by the federal special services. Governance was gradually handed over to Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, who also received carte-blanche to take control over the terrorist and separatist groups. As a result, Kadyrov established, by force, a full-fledged dictatorship in the republic, carving out for it a special status in the Russian Federation. This is no more than a temporary solution to Chechnya’s long and complex problem. Despite the fact that Chechnya is almost entirely subsidized by the federal budget and that Kadyrov is allowed to stay above the law, the terrorism problem persists in Russia, with some of the latest attacks taking place in the large Russian cities of Volgograd (2013) and St. Petersburg (2017). The symbiosis of the two regimes—Putin’s and Kadyrov’s—amounts to an even bigger risk. The end of Putin’s reign will inevitably lead to the collapse of the Kadyrov regime, potentially resulting in a new Chechen war.

Economic stability is another example of mythmaking. It was largely achieved due to the surge of global oil prices—from $16 per barrel in 1999 to $50 per barrel in 2005—boosting the state budget revenues. Reforms implemented by Putin in his first presidential term did indeed stimulate the economy, but some of them had already been launched in the late ’90s, and others (e.g., a successful tax reform) had been developed even earlier that. The president only pushed them through the parliament, taking advantage of a favorable political environment. Having achieved macroeconomic stability, Putin realized the advantages of the conservative fiscal policy and focused on maintaining the status quo, losing interest in further reforms. But even the macroeconomic stability has not been immune to mythmaking by the regime. The ruble’s free fall in December 2014 and the latest collapse of the deal between Russia and OPEC countries to cut oil production, which resulted in a drastic decline of global oil prices, are just a two examples of the regime’s actions impairing Russia’s national interests for the sake of the narrow circle of people close to Putin.


Diagnosis for the regime

How should these patterns be interpreted? One interesting view can be found in the research of the Russian philosopher Alexander Rubtsov, who studies narcissism in Russian politics. Rubtsov observes that the “political disorder” of the Russian regime is similar to the behavior of someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, which can be caused by devaluation or excessive praise in childhood. The “overexaggerated self-opinion” of the Soviet system, having gone through a total devaluation in the 1990s, had by the early 2000s created narcissistic complexes in the minds of the elite and the public alike, which manifest themselves in, among other things, feelings of soreness or resentment toward the rest of the world.

For foreign leaders who try to develop rational policies toward Russia, the narcissism of its elite presents a serious challenge because common sense (e.g., that sanctions are destructive and ought to be avoided) will not work as an argument against a narcissist. According to Rubtsov, the Russian regime places a great deal of value on what he calls the “external symbolism of success,” which means “humiliation through isolation” could be a powerful tool for foreign powers trying to deal with the Putin regime. He cautions, however, that in a fight against a narcissist, victory is dangerous if not impossible, because destroying a narcissist’s mythology could have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

The concept of narcissism, when applied to the Putin regime, does explain some of its characteristics, such as its unpredictability, irresponsiveness to the rational arguments, hypersensitivity to criticism, and proclivity for mythmaking. The problem is that this concept doesn’t offer practical political solutions to the troubles caused by the regime in international relations, given that full isolation of Russia is impossible in today’s globalized world. Still, this concept, combined with the patterns identified in IMR’s timeline, is instructive as it points to the fact that Russia under Putin follows a dangerous trajectory and will increasingly generate risks within its borders and beyond.

Accounting for these patterns in analyses of the Putin regime will allow for a better understanding of its existential interests and vulnerabilities—and bring about not only a reexamination of the expert consensus and the structure of political discourse, but also the beginning of a new dialogue on the risks posed by this regime.