What if we’re wrong about Vladimir Putin?
To read the U.S. coverage these days about the Russian president, you’d think he’s 10 feet tall, a puppet master who merely has to yank the strings of his hacker army in the Kremlin to make democracy-loving Americans quake over their iPhones, an unfettered colossus at home prepared to challenge the United States on many fronts abroad.
There’s just one problem with this view: Virtually all of the smartest Russia hands I know and many Russians themselves disagree with it.
Many fear, in fact, that by building up Putin, the Americans he disdains have given the Russian leader exactly the fearsome geopolitical reputation he craves. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Russia’s richest man until he was jailed for a decade by Putin, stripped of his company and eventually forced into exile, calls it “this myth about the Great and Horrible Putin.”
Which is not at all to say that Putin is some misunderstood democrat. Russia experts of all persuasions agree he’s an authoritarian, a heavy-handed ruler who sees the United States as an enemy to be countered wherever possible on the world stage. He’s virtually certain to win reelection next year in a system rigged to achieve that outcome.
But where Washington politicians now tend to portray Putin as a grand strategist manipulating his outwitted or unmanned Western counterparts (“they’re outsmarting us at many turns,” candidate Donald Trump insisted), many close Kremlin watchers describe Putin far differently. While Putin often turns to the Soviet playbook he learned in the KGB, the president and those around him have a much weaker hand to play than the Soviet Union whose empire they seek to rebuild, and they often run Russia defensively rather than offensively, looking inward and acting as if their power is more insecure than we realize as they seek to head off threats, real and otherwise, that could challenge the regime.
In a new interview for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs, Khodorkovsky argues that the increasing American obsession with Putin, who just became the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin, often misses the point. He’s not the reincarnation of Stalin, at least not yet.
“Here, in the West, the impression that people have is that Putin runs the whole country. This is not so, at all,” says Khodorkovsky, on a rare visit to Washington from his London exile, where he now finances parts of the beleaguered liberal opposition back in Russia. “He certainly does not run Russia outside the inner beltway of Moscow. The pact that he has with those people who actually do run the various regions of the country is a rather simple one: You bring out the level of vote that I need for my purposes, and I let you do what you want to do in your region. That’s how it works, and that’s how it’s going to work in these upcoming elections.”
This misunderstanding about Putin certainly predates the current uproar over the 2016 U.S. elections; there’s a long history of getting Putin wrong that has often led to disastrously wrong choices on the part of Western leaders. In the United States, for example, as Pulitzer Prize-winning Soviet historian Anne Applebaum points out, many first ignored the evidence of Putin’s government tampering with other countries’ elections—until it was too late and they were doing the same thing in the United States.
But now the hacking has been discovered, there’s been a tendency to overcorrect in the opposite direction, seeing in Putin an explanation for Trump’s election without recognizing the extent to which Russia’s hackers merely skillfully identified and amplified the fissures that already existed within American society.
“Russia does not invent extremist politics … Here in this country they’ll support a Black Lives Matter group—a fake one—or they’ll create at the same time an anti-immigrant group,” Applebaum says in a separate interview for The Global Politico. “Of course, what that shows us is that the fault lines already exist, and that there are people willing to be taken in by these kinds of groups and organizations. So, he isn’t inventing the problems that we have; he simply saw them.”
Can we blame Putin for the U.S. election hacking? Sure. But Applebaum’s point is an important one: The Russiagate conversation doesn’t always get Russia right.
The 2018 Russian presidential election will be held on March 18, and the way it’s starting to take shape offers a revealing look at how Putinism actually functions these days—and why America-bashing has played and will continue to play such a crucial role keeping Putin in power.
Putin has not formally declared, though he is expected to run again, extending his rule all the way from New Year’s Eve 1999 (with an interlude as prime minister that fooled nobody) to at least another six-year term that would end in 2024. The main opposition figure who commands any kind of broad public support, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, has just been barred from running by authorities, and instead of Navalny it appears the only liberal allowed on the ballot will be Kseniya Sobchak, a former Russian Playboy model and reality TV-show star whose father, the late St. Petersburg mayor, gave Putin his start in politics.
In other words, it’s a fake candidacy—one that Applebaum points out seems almost designed to “make the opposition look foolish”—and it underscores that the election is better understood as a “plebiscite,” as Khodorkovsky puts it, where the Russian public is asked every six years to ratify Putin’s continuance in power.
Besides, the opposition that does exist is not only weak but starkly divided, a point that becomes clear when I ask Khodorkovsky about Navalny, the only one who has shown a real public following. Khodorkovsky, still deeply unpopular as an oligarch seen to have profited off the post-Soviet disarray of the 1990s, said he would not coalesce behind Navalny or any other opposition figure yet (“a united opposition,” he says, just makes “a nice big fat target”) and all but called Navalny an “authoritarian.”
But just because Putin has no credible opposition candidate for next year doesn’t mean he has nothing to run against. In fact, it’s increasingly becoming clear that Putin will run against the United States itself next year: America-bashing as 2018 campaign platform.
“Putin has an obvious problem. His country’s economy is in stagnation. He needs to constantly be pointing a finger at who is at fault. America is at fault. He needs to show those fronts—those directions in which he is defeating America. In Syria, for example—in Syria, he is defeating America, not ISIS,” Khodorkovsky says. “In Ukraine, he’s not defeating Ukrainians; he’s defeating Americans in Ukraine.”
In a largely overlooked speech last week to the annual meeting of the Valdai Club, a group of foreign experts summoned by Kremlin insiders to Russia each year to hear from Putin, the Russian president was strikingly direct about how much of his doctrine is built on an anti-American worldview.
Angela Stent, the former national intelligence officer responsible for Russia during George W. Bush’s presidency, attended the Putin speech in Sochi. She points out that he basically refused to answer all questions about his plans to revive Russia’s struggling economy, concentrating instead on his role as a global leader opposing the United States. “It was a very anti-American speech,” she told me, with “a new element he was putting forward: alarmism about the possible imminence of nuclear war. Definitely, he was saying we’re in a really dangerous place now. That was the message.”
I asked whether she agreed with Khodorkovsky and others that we’ve elevated Putin beyond what his powers actually are.
“Certainly in Russia,” Stent says, “that is what many of my friends believe. They all said the same thing: ‘What’s with you Americans? You build him up to be this figure with supernatural powers.’ And there’s something to that. It builds them up, and it also makes the U.S. look very weak.”
The America-bashing that Stent heard from Putin in Sochi has been years in the making but is nonetheless striking as an emerging theme of Putin’s 2018 campaign—it sure looks to be a rerun of his winning 2012 bash-the-U.S. campaign that returned him to the presidency. The harsh rhetoric from Putin last week is certainly the most definitive evidence to date that he’s given up on whatever hopes he had that President Trump will be able to follow through on his positive campaign rhetoric about Russia with a more accommodating policy.
In other words, stay tuned for lots more rhetoric from Russia that is right out of the Soviet playbook.
“This is how Russian propaganda works. It’s designed to show Putin as an important leader on the world stage, as the equivalent of the American president, much as during the Cold War, and it’s been designed very much to bring back that sense that the world is divided in half and Russia’s on one side and the United States is on the other,” Applebaum says. “I don’t think Americans realize the degree to which they are the main subject of Russian television news … Every night, the United States is shown to be an enemy of Russia over and over and over again. And this is, of course, useful to the Russian president, because it’s, ‘We have this big and important enemy—you need me here to fight back.’”
“So, it puts us in an odd position,” she concludes, “where it’s almost as if the Cold War is back—except only one side is fighting it.”
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