Vladimir Putin, Russia's human tank

Vladimir Putin, Russia's human tank
Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured addressing a joint session of the Russian parliament this month, has quashed political opposition and independent media, leaving virtually no one to challenge his decisions. (Alexei Nikolsky / AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — There was no one to stop him.

That's why Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to seize the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine with barely a whisper of internal resistance.


Recovering the region that was part of Russia for centuries has boosted Putin's standing among countrymen nostalgic for Moscow's lost superpower status. Putin calculated — correctly — that Crimea wasn't so important to the U.S. and its European allies that they would back their harsh criticism with military muscle.

But he also made sure that the downsides — international isolation, new burdens on Russia's already strained budget and a continuing armed standoff with a sovereign neighbor — were never debated internally. The quashing of political opposition and independent media has left virtually no one to challenge his decisions.

The former KGB officer's ability to act unilaterally is the result of a choreographed campaign during his 14 years in the Kremlin to eradicate limitations on his power. He can count on fawning support from a like-minded inner circle and unquestioning endorsement by the parliament. The Federation Council voted 90-0 early this month to authorize deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine — after the fact.

Outside the halls of power, public protests without government approval have been banned, punishable by fines and jail time. Dissenting voices have been silenced by charges of defamation or treason brought by a judiciary of the Kremlin's choosing. The constitution and election laws, in place for more than two decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union, have been revised to concentrate power in the presidency and enhance the advantages of incumbency. The providers of international development aid and democracy-building projects have been required to register as "foreign agents."

Putin also controls the narrative presented to Russians through news agencies, television and radio now almost exclusively in the hands of loyal spin doctors.

The last of Russia's reasonably independent media fell to government oversight in January. New Kremlin-vetted editors were installed at Echo of Moscow radio and TV Dozhd, which had been among the last holdouts. Channel One, the main news source for Russians, was brought under state control nearly a decade ago.

State-run television, whose scripts and video must be reviewed by the Kremlin, portrayed Ukrainian demonstrators who drove out Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich as criminals and fascists. Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea was cast as a Kremlin rescue of ethnic Russians from the new leadership in Kiev.

Television, where most Russians get their news, aired images of radicals throwing firebombs and beating police with barbed wire-wrapped truncheons, leaving out scenes of the majority of protesters peacefully waving flags and chanting in favor of closer ties to Western Europe.

Russians never saw on state television or in newspapers images of their paratroopers landing at Simferopol, the Crimean capital. Nor did they view pictures of masked gunmen with Russian army-issued weapons and uniforms taking control of Crimea's parliament, government, airport and border crossings.

In the days leading up to a March 16 ballot in which Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine, the Kremlin also took steps to silence Web-based critics, such as anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov.

Navalny was convicted last year on an embezzlement charge widely seen as punishment for his criticism of Putin. He drew a five-year sentence, suspended on condition he refrain from illegal activity. He was arrested again last month for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration outside a Moscow courthouse where fellow protesters were on trial and has been sent back to prison.

Other jailed Kremlin critics were released before the Olympic Winter Games in what many viewed as an attempt to mute foreign criticism of Russia's human rights record. But they have also found their newfound freedom restricted.

Pussy Riot punk rockers were arrested for trying to perform their new protest songs on the Sochi promenade and were beaten by Cossacks, the pre-revolutionary nationalist militia that has appointed itself the defender of Russian honor.

Oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, freed in December after almost a decade in remote gulags, has taken up residence in Switzerland, daring only to weigh in on the fate of fellow Putin opponents from abroad and stage a stealth visit to support Kiev's triumphant protesters, a gesture that passed unnoticed in Russia.


What remains of Putin's political opposition is left to take its grievances to foreign media, whose reports are used by the Kremlin to discredit the powerless politicians as Western lackeys.

"With my own eyes I've witnessed the step-by-step contraction of our political freedoms," said Ilya Yashin, a 30-year-old opposition activist.

"If I'm meeting with a foreigner in a public place, the table next to me is occupied by security and they are videotaping us," Yashin said of the harassment that has followed his debut on the opposition scene. "I'm not being paranoid. They have shown the footage on national television and accused me of collaborating with foreigners to defame Russia."

Yashin, too young to have personally experienced Communist-era surveillance, says his phone is tapped and his emails are intercepted.

"We're not doing anything illegal," he said. "We're not assembling bombs or arranging terrorist attacks. We're just people who want to come to power through elections."

Lev Ponomarev, the 72-year-old director of the For Human Rights organization, sees echoes of the Soviet attitude toward dissent. He has suffered beatings, repeated arrests for pressing free speech and assembly rights and prosecution on charges of defaming Putin and his lieutenants.

"On all fronts, he has suppressed the opposition," Ponomarev, who was a deputy in the State Duma in the mid-1990s when Boris Yeltsin was president, says of Putin. "Police understand that they can beat people with impunity. Prisons are unsupervised and terrible things happen there."

Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin who is considered an up-and-coming Kremlin contender, co-wrote a report late last year exposing massive corruption and waste in Russia's staging of the Sochi Olympics.

As a politician of stature in and outside Russia, Nemtsov was spared a full attack for exposing the $50-billion-plus price tag, much of which he said went into the pockets of Putin allies. Yet Alexander Sokolov, a young economist who researched and documented the Olympic expenditures, was detained and interrogated by Interior Ministry police and accused of being an "extremist," Nemtsov said.

Putin's primary goal as Russian leader, Nemtsov argues, is not to build a modern, European state and vibrant middle class but "to keep power and money by all means," through oppression when necessary or by highlighting invented threats to Russia from abroad.

Nemtsov sees little chance that Putin will be voted out in the next presidential election, in 2018, when he is eligible, thanks to constitutional changes he engineered, to run for another six-year term.


"He has $500 billion in Central Bank reserves, 100% control of television and authoritarian laws that allow the administration to strike anyone from the list of candidates," Nemtsov said.

Some people may be tiring of Putin's ubiquitous television presence and macho antics, says Maria Lipman, editor of the online Pro et Contra political journal and an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. She points to the 30% of Russians who regularly tell pollsters they disapprove of their leader, a much larger share than expresses support for anyone in the squabbling and ineffectual opposition.

It is Putin's artfully crafted image of "a leader with no alternative" that ensures his hold on power, she said. "Even those who hate him admit that there is no one else."