While many aspects of the relationship between the incoming Trump administration and Russia are murky, one at least is clear: Donald Trump admires - perhaps even hero-worships - Vladimir Putin. Trump has described Putin as a strong and powerful leader and spoken in approving terms of Putin's ability to outsmart the United States. Trump's fascination with Putin dates back to at least 2008, when he compared then-President George W. Bush unfavourably to the Russian leader. In 2013 Trump tweeted that he hoped to meet Putin at the upcoming Miss Universe beauty competition in Moscow and become his new best friend. But the image of Putin the strong leader is just that: an image. If we look more closely, we can see that Putin's appearance of strength is an illusion that conceals a great deal of weakness.
What might make Trump (or anyone else) think that Putin is such a strong leader? To a large extent this comes from the impression that there are few, if any, constraints on Putin's actions. He has shown that he can take decisions quickly and act on them almost immediately. We saw this with Russia's annexation of Crimea and its decision to intervene in Syria. Putin is willing to use military force to pursue political aims and to flex his nuclear muscles. Opinion polls tell us that Putin enjoys very high levels of popularity in Russia, where he has no real rivals or challengers for political power and is rarely criticised by the media. Putin also underlines his strong leader credentials by regularly engaging in public demonstrations of manly behaviour.
But it isn't a sign of strength that a leader is free from challenge at home because he presides over a regime that systematically marginalizes political opposition. I always ask the students who take my Russian politics course to consider the routes that a future opposition leader might take to build a power base and a following in order to become a serious contender for the presidency. The students quickly realise that all such routes have dead ends. Political parties, the legislative and judicial branches, regional government, business and industry have all been co-opted. What this means in practice is that Putin's only rivals for power come from within an elite where the range of alternative views is narrow indeed. The rare outsider who tries to mount a challenge faces enormous obstacles. We see this in the case of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner whose involvement in opposition politics means that he is frequently arrested on spurious charges. During one of his trials (at which he was found guilty), even witnesses for the prosecution testified that there was no evidence against him.
It isn't a sign of strength that a leader is rarely criticised by the media because nearly all of that media is either owned by the state or by individuals or organisations that have close ties to the regime. As a direct result, the Russian media does not hold the state and its leaders to account in any meaningful sense. This is not to belittle the efforts of the many Russian journalists who struggle daily to strike a balance between maintaining their professional standards and protecting their jobs, and even their lives. Russia is a dangerous place for investigative journalists, as we can see by its ranking in the World Press Freedom Index.
It isn't a sign of strength when the leader of a nuclear weapons state finds it necessary to keep telling the world that it does, in fact, still have nuclear weapons and might choose to use them. The frequency - and inappropriateness - of Putin's references to Russia's nuclear weapons suggests a lack, not an excess, of confidence. It also indicates that Russia has few other assets Putin feels he can use in public diplomacy.
Finally, it isn't a sign of strength when a leader feels the need to engage in public displays of hyper masculine behaviour to get across the message that he is capable of running the country. Putin is often shown playing sports, riding horses, fishing or swimming in icy rivers. The dissemination of these images is part of a carefully-calculated strategy to create a personal connection to ordinary Russians, whose continued support for the regime - especially in difficult economic times - depends in large part on their faith in the physical and mental toughness of the president.
Despite appearances, Vladimir Putin is not a strong leader, but it takes a willingness and an ability to look beyond the illusion of strength to understand that.