If Putin wanted to bring glory back to Russia, he would be doing the following. First, he would improve health care. Second, he would improve higher education. Third, he would create jobs. Fourth, he would free his people from Russia’s imperial past rather than keeping them enslaved. Taken together, he would ensure a fair society that protected the vulnerable and constrained the powerful. His efforts in these areas belie his claims to want to restore Russia’s glory.
Successful tyrants improve the lot of the people
Like all tyrants, he does what is good for him and claims it is for the greater glory of mythical Russia. Are his people better off for the bread and circuses that they are offered? Sochi is the circus while the events in Crimea are promoted as delivering on Russia’s status. The efforts in Crimea and the Ukraine betray a clumsy, almost comically Brezhnev like, attempt to assert Russia’s interests but with all the subtlety, we have expected from Putin. He now faces the same fate in that he must keep his rivals from deposing him.
A return to the past betrays the future?
Instead of recognizing the new Ukraine and supporting it, and nurturing it, like an older brother or mentor helping a young protégé to secure lasting influence he has acted like the bully and historical slave master that Russia has always played in the region. He has no subtlety because he has no tools but repression, fear and force.
Putin’s programme of persuasion pales by comparison with the EU
Contrast his offer with that of the EU. The EU offers trade and Putin offers tanks. The EU invites, and Putin invades. The EU wants dialogue and he gives diktats at a gun barrel. He invokes the old Russia to sell a dream because he has nothing left to offer. He cannot change and he cannot improve Russia so he can only do what he knows, which repeats the past rather set a new hopeful path for Russia able to walk with pride and influence on the world stage.
China’s success shows Russia’s hollow claims.
Putin and his claims are haunted by China. Despite bigger handicaps and a lower starting point than Russia, China is now Russia’s economic superior. Unlike Putin, the PRC leadership retains its power and satisfies its people. The rulers are delivering on their promise of a materially better future. Russia’s offer to the world appears reduced to its raw materials. In two generations, Russia has declined from a functioning first world state to a third world power armed with nuclear weapons run by plutocrats.
Is Putin the plutocrats’ puppet?
Unlike Reagan who used the arms build-up, as a way to restore pride, leverage strategic capacity and kick-start a period of economic growth Putin’s arms race is his economic package because he cannot constrain the powerful and coerce or even encourage them to work for the common good. He may have hoped that he could control them by fear, but with nothing left to steal, he can only offer to protect their gains. Even now as his power fades, he can no longer keep them from doing explicitly what they have been doing implicitly as they exploited Russia’s resources and industry for their personal gain. He continues the bread and circuses in the hopes that in time things will improve. Instead of vision, he offers empty promises of a future he knows he cannot deliver and does not intend to deliver beyond a rudimentary level. Does the Crimea change the fundamentals of the Russia’s economy and society?
Has Putin created the seeds for a new Russia?
Russians understand their dilemma. Their empire was built on oppression and power not freedom and cooperation. To change their future they must transcend their past. Their future requires a new approach to the world. However, they lack political leaders who can view the world differently because their success is based on the past. The Crimea exemplifies the limits of Russia’s power and influence, which is force and threats. Putin is caught in a dilemma. He knows intimately that this failed Russia in the past and only creates a deeper problem of legitimacy but his political future rests on the oil and gas pipelines that traverse the Ukraine. He has secured the plutocrats profits to remain in power but now makes them hostage to the illegitimacy of his “success”. He may have short-term political leverage by taking Crimea but it is a poisoned chalice because Russia now has no basis by which to legitimate its good intentions. The only way Russia can demonstrate its good faith is to hand back Crimea at some point. Perhaps he has done his successor a favour because they now have a way to repudiate him and Russia’s past while ensuring Russia’s strategic interests and creating a new future.
 Russia was the lowest in Europe and ranked 130th in the world in 2000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Health_Organization_ranking_of_health_systems_in_2000
 No Russian university is in the world top 100 and there is a chronic “brain drain” as educational talent looks outside Russia for opportunities. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/world/europe/russia-moves-to-improve-its-university-rankings.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
 http://www.freetheworld.com/2013/EFW2013-complete.pdf Russia ranks 101st for economic freedom which improves on its ranking in 1995.
 For a general understanding of where Russia ranks, consider this list. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_rankings_of_Russia Interestingly Russia ranks 102 out of 108 countries on quality of life index in 2005. A recent survey suggests some modest improvements but hardly ones that a leader of Putin’s ego should consider as worthy of any accolade.