The Economist this week puts forward a view that the re-election of Vladimir Putin as President marks the beginning of the end of his style of rule. Given that authoritarian rule tends to become unstable, the assumption is made that Mr. Putin will now seek to engage with the opposition in order to shore up his government.
I think this is rather naive. It underestimates how much Putin is a creature of the KGB school.
As I watched the long line of Russians outside the Embassy in Tallinn I felt a mixture of contempt and disgust, and -I must admit- fear. Only about a quarter of registered Russian citizens living in Estonia actually voted, but of those 86% voted for Putin. Still, twenty years later, this crew of largely elderly Russians have not accepted the reality of Estonian freedom and would actively support the increasingly tyrannical regime in the Kremlin. For a tyrant is what Vladimir Putin is already. He blocked any candidate that could pose a threat from standing against him. He blocked the opposition from access to the media, and is turning against the few independent voices left in Russia- after several hundred journalists have been murdered, there a very few still brave enough to challenge the criminal greed of the regime.
Now the first action of Putin in the afterglow of his victory is to begin to use violence against those who oppose him. 500 protesters have already been arrested, and a bigger crackdown is on the way.
Putin is already seeking to stir up trouble against Estonia and Latvia, as well as continuing to support Syria and other enemies of the West. These elderly imperialists lining up on my front doorstep continue to support the strutting bombast of the siloviki- and even if support is less in Russia proper, it is still likely that Putin has majority support- he may be a bastard but he is still a popular bastard.
From the Western point of view I do not think that we can simply wait for the demise of the regime. To me it seems that good fences make good neighbours, and that means setting clear limits where we will not permit further engagement by the Putinista government. Containment will be necessary- for every instinct of the Kremlin is to oppose the West and challenge the current settlement in Europe.
Eventually the people of Russia may tire of their leadership, but unless and until they do, the West must look to its defences and ruthlessly avoid those who would compromise with the Russian regime. It could be many years before the forces of democracy can challenge for power.