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Understanding Putin (Defining Deviancy Down)

21/01/2014 15:08 GMT | Updated 23/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The winter Olympics begin in February and Vladimir Putin wants to reassure gay visitors. You'll be welcome in Sochi, says the Russian President, but "please leave the children in peace."

On Christmas Day the Kremlin had delivered a small present to the U.S. government. American journalist and former FT correspondent David Satter -- an adviser to congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- was informed by Russian officials that his presence in the Russian Federation is 'undesirable.' Satter was in Kiev, waiting to return to his work (and his apartment) in Moscow when he got the news of the ban on December 25th.

In the run-up to Sochi, some had thought Putin was in a forgiving mood. He recently released members of Pussy Riot from jail two months early. He freed his opponent, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a surprise move before Christmas. But Putin is a master of sending mixed signals. After apparently equating homosexuality with paedophilia, he announces that some of his best friends are gay. While bearing down on Russian university academics, he releases Greenpeace activists who had protested Arctic oil drilling.

How to square all this? If you want to understand Putin, understand three things:

First, that the Russian leader's contradictions and arbitrary amnesties are part and parcel of any authoritarian regime. Putin treats the rule of law with contempt. In autocratic societies, the ruler is the law. Putin giveth, and Putin taketh away. And Mr. Putin takes an exceptionally uncharitable view toward anyone who threatens his political power, in big and small ways. Ask Khodorkovsky who wanted to run for parliament and ended up as a result spending more than than ten years behind bars (Amnesty International had designated Khordokovsky as a "prisoner of conscience"). Ask members of Pussy Riot, who spent more than 650 days in jail for lip-synching for a half minute in church, protesting Russian Orthodox leadership's support for Putin.

Second, that Putin is adept in wearing us down. He sees the West as weak and complacent. We've been slowly sucked into "defining deviancy down." That's the expression coined in the early 1990s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic Senator from New York. Moynihan's concern was that Americans had become far too accustomed to alarming levels of crime and destructive behaviour. And so it is with us and Putin. What else can he say or do at this point to shock us? He came to power through monstrous violence in Chechnya. He backs a murderous regime in Syria. He has become the poster child for nationalism, chauvinism and intolerance. Yet the West looks increasingly disinterested, deflated and resigned to it all. "We are getting use to a lot of behaviour that is not good for us," as Moynihan put it back then.

Finally, that Russia has a strategy. In the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, Christopher Walker and Robert W. Orttung argue that the Russian government -- much like other authoritarian regimes -- pursues an explicit media strategy aimed at influencing four distinct audiences: regime elites, opposition and civil society, internet users, and the population at large. The man who squeezes independent media every which way, says state-run media should be operated by patriots who represent the Russian national interest. Mussolini, who started as a war reporter, similarly despised dissidents who undermined patriotic resolve. "It is necessary to be very intelligent in the work of repression," said Il Duce.

Another individual took it one step further:

"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

The quote is from leading Nazi Herman Goehring. The trend is in Russia today. Who knows how far it goes. But our complacency and the lack of our own strategy do little to deter Putin's illiberalism and perversion.