We Need To Talk About Putin

For the tabloids Vladimir Putin is a great source of entertainment. All those macho shots of him stripped to the waist or the glossy images of his palatial homes - nearly as priceless as the tweeting and posturing of Donald Trump. But Putin is a much more serious figure. That's why we need to talk about him.
POOL New / Reuters

For the tabloids Vladimir Putin is a great source of entertainment. All those macho shots of him stripped to the waist or the glossy images of his palatial homes - nearly as priceless as the tweeting and posturing of Donald Trump. But Putin is a much more serious figure. That's why we need to talk about him.

For a start he's the millennium man, in power since 2000. And if he wins re-election for a six-year term in 2018, he will have led Russia for nearly a quarter of a century. Much longer than any of his Western counterparts - even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will probably manage sixteen years (2005 - 21).

More important than mere political longevity is what Putin has done with all his power. He set out his aims in a manifesto published in December 1999 just as he took over the presidency of Russia. Putin applauded the end of the communist experiment, which he derided as a blind alley, and welcomed Russia's turn to "universal values" such as freedom of speech and travel as well as political liberties and human rights. But he also insisted on the importance of true "Russian" values, especially patriotism, social solidarity and strong government. He presented himself as a "statesman" in the traditional Russian sense, guarding the interests of the state above electoral politics and rampant individualism.

Putin the strongman was reacting to the political chaos and economic slump of the Nineties. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's lurch into privatization impoverished millions and financed an elite circle of super-rich oligarchs. The bright new dawn of democracy had turned into a dark nightmare of competing parties and political instability. That's why Putin was so emphatic about the need for commanding leadership, and this was top priority during his first two terms. Millions of Russians welcomed the restoration of order and the revival of the economy.

In 2008 Putin did a "job swap" with his Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, during which he remained the real leader of Russia. But when he swapped posts again with Medvedev in 2012 - having engineered a six-year term - protests began to mount, especially from the generation that had come of age with Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost. Putin won the presidential election - the Kremlin machine ensured that - but with strikingly diminished support, especially in the cities, despite facing virtually no organized opposition.

What really shocked him was the power of social media in forging networks that brought people onto the streets. This was at a time when the Arab Spring was at its height and pundits were agog about "digital democracy". Putin subsequently imposed much tighter controls of the internet, using sophisticated techniques of surveillance and justifying this by blaming Hillary Clinton's State Department for funding the politicization of new social media and thereby fomenting opposition to his rule. It was vital for him to clamp down on discontent at home so that he could pursue his agenda of re-establishing Russia as a great power abroad. Yet Putin was also well aware that foreign policy successes could serve as a rallying point at home, rebuilding national pride.

His greatest coup, in 2014, was to regain the Crimea - after it had, as many Russians believed, been given away gratuitously by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. He followed this up by giving military support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, resulting in a "frozen war" which is still unresolved today. Although expressing horror, the West has been rendered largely impotent. Both the Crimea and Ukraine illustrate Putin's determination to regain for Russia lands that were lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated. On a larger plane, he did not want the Black Sea to become NATO's backyard and regarded Ukraine as essential for his larger project of creating a "Eurasian Union" to match the EU.

Expanding territory by force is a traditional mode of power projection. Putin has also tried to extend Russia's influence further afield, from Syria to the Arctic North. The most innovative aspect of his foreign policy, however, is in the development of new techniques of so-called "hybrid warfare." Building on his electronic system of domestic control, Putin has employed cyber-power to penetrate and manipulate the democratic politics of leading Western states, especially America but also Germany.

Here Putin is playing a particularly subtle game. Unlike the Soviet Union, his country is now fully integrated into international capitalism and global communications. Yet he is using that penetration as a kind of Trojan Horse, to create instability from within the system and throw his rivals off balance. He operates as an outsider-insider, hovering as ever between accepting "universal" values and asserting "Russian" values.

Above all, Putin is challenging the whole post-Cold War order, rooted in the American triumphalism of the Nineties with its talk of a "unipolar" world. "Russia," he insisted in March 2014 after the annexation of the Crimea, "is an independent, active participant in international affairs." And independence means not playing second fiddle to America: that is his perpetual refrain, from the Crimea to Syria, from Ukraine to North Korea. As his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared at the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2017, international affairs are moving towards "a polycentric world order." That, he insisted, "is an objective trend" and "something that everyone will need to adapt to." Including, Lavrov sniped at Washington, "those who are used to lording it over others."

That's why we need to talk about Putin. He's not merely a poseur and a braggart, like Trump. This is a man with a plan. He must be taken seriously


Kristina Spohr and David Reynolds are professors of International History, respectively at the London School of Economics and at Cambridge University.

This article is based on a talk given at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 25 October 2017: https://www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/events/limited-tickets-may-be-available-door-we-need-talk-about-putin.


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