The Survivalist in the Kremlin

WASHINGTON, DC – Vladimir Putin’s improbable rise to the pinnacle of Russian power in 1999-2000 was partly the result of an elite consensus about the importance of restoring order to the Russian state after a decade of domestic crisis and international humiliation. His rise was improbable, because Putin is no career politician, but someone whose worldview was shaped by his experience in the KGB, an institution that operated beyond public scrutiny and without fear of legal or other constraints.

Putin’s worldview, however, is far from unique in Russia. From his earliest days in the Kremlin, he established himself as a classic Russian conservative – a “statist” in pursuit of strengthening the official institutions of national power.

Putin’s primary objective is to ensure the survival of Russia by defending it from threats to its territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and national identity. Just as KGB officers depicted themselves as the Soviet state’s ultimate protectors, so Putin believes that he alone is capable of effectively countering threats to Russia. He is, in this sense, a “survivalist,” who believes that he has no choice but to maintain his grip on power. And, like a KGB officer, he turns people into assets that will further his goals.

At home, Putin has focused over the past year on dealing with his opponents – co-opting some and intimidating others by turning the Russian legal and penal systems into blunt instruments of repression. Abroad, he has moved to mitigate the blowback to Russia from a series of external political and economic shocks.