By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Russia claims to have a nuclear missile that outwits defenses. President Vladimir Putin calls it a warning against any nations that would attack Russia. Putin’s 1999 rise to power changed the country.
Russia recently announced that it had successfully tested an intercontinental missile with nuclear capabilities and the ability to evade other countries’ defenses. Although it isn’t quite ready for use yet, the new missile, called Sarmat, has been in development since 2018 and appears to be nearing completion. Some have speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use Sarmat as leverage in its war against Ukraine.
Putin’s ascension to the presidency was historic, coming less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. In her video series Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett, Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, explains the transition from Yeltsin to Putin.
Changing of the Guard
When the USSR ended, a bumpy journey from communism to democracy began.
“Communist apparatchiks didn’t suddenly become liberal democrats; they had a vested interest in maintaining their prerogatives of power and influence,” Dr. Hartnett said. “So when communism and the Soviet Union fell, many former elites became the new oligarchs. Boris Yeltsin’s demeanor as a man of the people—who rode a bus to work—soon seemed a charade.”
Yeltsin used force and bribery to maintain control of the Russian government, becoming a dictator in all but name. He bought loyalty by offering Soviet state companies to former communist-era insiders at low prices. Corruption ran rampant as the new oligarchs became increasingly richer under Yeltsin’s rule. His approval rating fell to 10%.
“Still—with the rampant corruption he oversaw—those in ruling circles had an incentive to make sure that the next Russian president wouldn’t throw the lot of them in jail,” Dr. Hartnett said. “So, in the late summer of 1999, they plucked from obscurity a former KGB official, Vladimir Putin, who appears to have been the choice of several oligarchs closely connected with Yeltsin.
“A few months later, Yeltsin himself resigned in a surprising New Year’s Eve address to the nation, and Putin became president.”
Make Russia Great Again
According to Dr. Hartnett, Putin made himself the non-Yeltsin president. When separatist violence happened, he used it as an excuse to further his agenda. For example, when Putin was still Yeltsin’s prime minister in 1999, he used a series of apartment bombings to employ strong-arm tactics and renew an attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny. After his election, he took a tougher stance on the Chechen war.
By marketing himself as a no-nonsense leader and the personification of Russian strength and power—not to mention vocally waxing nostalgic on Russia’s history and promising to return the country to its former greatness—Putin “engineered a level of popularity rivaling the personality cult of Joseph Stalin,” in Dr. Hartnett’s words.
“He reached into Russia’s past to resurrect the ghosts of an earlier era—real or imagined—of stability, security, power, and prestige, and he promised to return Russia to this summit,” she said. “Concepts of Russian nationality and defensiveness re-emerged on levels not seen since the reigns of Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These coalesced in Russia’s 21st-century annexation of Crimea and its meddling in Ukraine.”