An ex-KGB agent and a rural teenage exile who lived in a cave. What do they have in common? They are both the leaders of two of the most influential nations in the world. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have risen to great heights from humble beginnings and are as strong as a modern statesman could be imagined. Be that through unorthodox methods such as catching pike shirtless or through the skilful and strategic accumulation of power, they undeniably characterise their nations. Under their leadership their respective states have grown in global prominence so much so that they now threaten to destabilise the current world order. They are the key drivers of this change and they exemplify why strong men make for strong countries.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are of course very different individuals, but they share numerous characteristics that have made them and their nations stronger. In a domestic context they are both unrivalled and have near totalitarian control over internal affairs. This is achieved by a careful combination of force and adoration. For instance, in Russia’s most recent presidential election earlier this year Putin received a reported three-quarters of all votes cast with his closest rival achieving just 12%. Such a comprehensive victory was achieved by the exclusion of true rivals such as Alexei Navalny, who was barred from running for having staged illegal protests. However, Putin’s strong grip on the domestic state TV and broadcasting company VGTRK has given pro-Putin propaganda a powerful stage, leading to many Russians seeing him as integral to their nationalist sentiments. Combine his lack of opposition with the manner in which he has manipulated Russian politics to in effective maintain complete power as either President or his four-year spell as Prime Minister and he appears destined to remain in position for the foreseeable future. Likewise, Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits in March this year, accompanied by a sustained crackdown on Communist Party opposition under the banner of anti-corruption drives, demonstrates how he intends to hold onto power for a length of time unseen since the days of Chairman Mao. Furthermore, with the unrivalled power of the Chinese government to spy and censor the information available to its citizens, Xi Jinping, like Putin, can crush dissent and foster an incomparable adoration from his population that furthers his grip on power.
However, the powerful domestic status of Putin and Xi is also vital in strengthening the international perception of their countries. Given that they both represent the sole focal point of power in their nations, they demand respect and toleration that would be impossible to achieve for a leader without their level of authority over domestic politics. Consequently, even if a foreign leader doesn’t agree with how Putin or Xi are operating they cannot simply wait for their leadership to pass and for their nation’s policy to shift course. Therefore, they have to adapt their approach in a way that would never be reciprocated, strengthening the position of Russia or China in any negotiation. For instance, the United Kingdom has regularly overlooked Chinese civil rights records in bilateral negotiations in spite of obvious and brutal disregard for international law such as during the ‘709 crackdown’ of 2015 when 248 lawyers and activists were targeted and imprisoned by Chinese authorities. Hence because of their control over domestic affairs, strong men like Putin and Xi can project the strength of their nations internationally beyond levels attainable for less autocratic states.
Furthermore, due to their strong personalities and even stronger control over their internal affairs Putin and Xi can engage in effective long-term planning which will in turn strengthen their countries’ positions and help them achieve strategic goals. For example, over his tenures as president and Prime Minister, Putin has focused on destabilising and weakening surrounding states so as to strengthen Russia’s geo-political position. This long-term objective has been achieved through slow but considered interventions, such as in the case of his efforts to destabilise Ukraine and prevent its perceived political shift towards the West following by cutting off gas supplies and causing energy shortages. In China, Xi Jinping’s grip on power has meant that he can engage in long term infrastructure investments that would be inconceivable in Western democratic nations like the UK. The Belt and Road initiative has been designed to strengthen the connections between China’s poor interior and wealthier coastline whilst also providing an alternative strategic supply route avoiding the chokepoint of the Malacca strait. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom the much-needed expansion of London Heathrow airport along with other critical infrastructure projects continues to be delayed and debated to the point, where if ever completed, will be long overdue.
Moreover, by combining domestic control, long term planning and unwavering support for their leadership, strongman states like Russia and China can successfully exploit a grey area between co-operation and conflict that isn’t accessible to other nations. Because of the lack of domestic accountability and long-term security that Putin and Xi have, they can employ incremental tactics to achieve geo-political targets. For instance, Russia has successfully undermined the territorial integrity of both Ukraine (by annexing Crimea) and of Georgia (through its support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). In a similar fashion China is employing a long-term strategic push-pull tactic in the South China Sea, displaying aggressive tactics and then consolidating over two-year periods in order to establish territorial control over the islands within its nine-dash line and thus secure the associated maritime shipping lanes and fisheries. By contrast, any geopolitical action taken in response to the challenges presented by Russian and Chinese territorial expansion are laboured due to the slow decision-making and consensus required amongst the numerous members of the organisations meant to contain these threats. For instance, in March 2018 the Economist highlighted how ill-equipped NATO would be in the short term to deal with a Russian invasion in the Baltic states as the organization would be outnumbered 5.9:1 in infantry and 4.6:1 in fighting vehicles. Hence Putin and Xi have enabled their nations to exploit a semi-conflict position which their strategic opposites are unprepared to prevent.
It is important however to draw a distinction that whilst strong men like Putin and Xi do make for strong countries in the external international sphere, they don’t necessarily create strong or prosperous nations internally. According to the United Nations both China and Russia have a GDP per capita below that of the world average. Furthermore, the levels of inequality present in both countries are extremely high with China the 49th most income unequal country in the world and Russia the 78th according to the World Bank. Just because they appear to be strong nations does not mean that they don’t face considerable challenges which could put pressure on the positions of their leaders. Russia’s economy is still overly dependent upon petroleum and natural gas exports whilst China faces a looming dependency crisis caused by its one-child policy.
Yet one would anticipate that Putin and Xi Jinping will find ways to overcome these challenges in order to maintain their positions. Their respective premierships have shaped their nations and rocked a hitherto stable world order. The strength of their state is synonymous with their own and hence to expect the challenges of Russia and China to dissipate would be naive to say the least. As Putin and Xi demonstrate, strong men make for strong nations – the sooner we acknowledge that this is the case, the better our chances of mitigating the challenges their rise will present.
Banner Image: Image courtesy of Archive of the Official Site of the 2008-2012 Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, ©2010, some rights reserved.