Totally invincible or highly vulnerable? Enigma of Putin at 60

RUSSIAN president Vladimir Putin turns 60 today, and appears to be in his prime, both personally and politically.

Recently he has been pictured showing off his judo moves, and also microlight flying with white cranes, while exuding apparent self-confidence as Russian leader.

But scratch the surface and a picture emerges of a surprisingly vulnerable figure whose fate hinges on the oil prices and popular docility in the face of strong-arm tactics.

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The legacy of his 13-year rule is an economy that ­depends on an oil-and-gas bonanza and a rigid political system that has stifled dissent, turned the parliament into a rubber stamp and reduced courts to government tools.

Are the Russians getting tired of their macho leader? Not yet, experts say, but many of his supporters are backing him out of apathy and fear of change rather than real enthusiasm. Such support may fade quickly if energy prices slump, leading to economic hardship.

Some observers see new repressive Kremlin laws both as a response to mass winter ­rallies in Moscow against his rule, and a pre-emptive move against a potentially much wider protest over economic worries. Utilities fees and other municipal payments rose in the summer, and analysts predict that public discontent will grow as winter approaches.

Analysts warn that the government would quickly run out of cash to pay wages and pensions if Russia’s energy revenues dry up. Even with a high oil price, the Kremlin has been struggling to raise funds for a planned pension reform.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the economy is his main concern. He ­described Russia as a “social state” and said that reducing pensions wouldn’t be acceptable. Putin has pledged to ease dependence on energy exports, encourage hi-tech industries, create incentives for business and improve the investment climate. But oil and gas revenues still account for the bulk of the government budget, while red tape, corruption and biddable courts have spooked investors and stymied economic development.

“Putin hasn’t moved a finger to change the economic model established during his rule, and he can’t be expected to make any changes now,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a ­political consultant.

During the election, Putin pledged to raise wages and pensions, boost social and military spending. Even cabinet officials acknowledge his promises can’t be fulfilled without destabilising the economy – so he could face trouble whichever way he turns.