In the second incarnation of Putin’s reign which began in 2012, he has become bolder and more assertive than in his first eight year stint. He has resurrected a vibrant propaganda machine, been unapologetic in defense of the Soviet Union, has silenced human rights movements across Russia and has annihilated his opponents in the process.
Vladimir Putin is not a killer per se. He has not placed polonium in anyone’s tea, shot anyone within sight of the Kremlin, beaten a lawyer in a prison, or even dropped a bomb on a civilian in Aleppo. But he has certainly laid the groundwork and created the atmosphere where these things are commonplace under his rule. In some respects, he is like the mafia don who gives some vague order which underlings then interpret to whack an opponent.
It is his background in the KGB, and its successor the FSB that carries out the role of silencing domestic debate. Political dissent remains a potentially deadly endeavor in Russia. But looked at objectively, by Russian standards Putin is hardly a ruthless, bloody ruler. Russian history is littered with leaders ten times worse than Putin in this area. The question remains: Is Putin a thug? One supposes he is much as one would characterize a suave mafia don as being nothing but a thug at the end of the day.
In reality, Putin represents nothing more than the regime he leads and his own self-interest. If it is anything more grandiose, it is political stability and a reaction to the chaos and threats felt during the Yeltsin years- a dark period for recent Russians.
And to the extent Putin can be described as a thug, it means little. Thugs do not see the error of their ways, nor will they change their behaviors. They have a high threshold for pain and continue unimpeded until someone takes them out permanently. Putin knows full well that his Russia is in a tenuous situation. The government is essentially a crony capitalist one and such governments tend to stagnate over time. The prosperity of Moscow or St. Petersburg is a far cry from the reality outside those cities.
Under Putin, Russia will never be a Western-style democracy and capitalist country. But by the same token, Russia under Putin is not a threat to world peace because Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. No amount of praise will end Putin’s contempt of the West. The elimination of humiliation can only decrease the chances of some ego-driven destructiveness on his part.
That is why the most recent sanctions bill against Russia will have absolutely no effect on Putin or Russia in the long run. Comments from the likes of Tim Scott who said he was elected to represent the people, not the President, would be met with surprise and condemnation in Russia. The head of the Russian parliament in 2014 equated the president with the country he leads. Hence, these statements by Congressional leaders are met with contempt in Russia who see the executive in grander terms than we do here in the US.
Clearly, the Kremlin was heavily invested in the US 2016 Presidential campaign. But, if you listen to any serious US-watchers in Russia, they will tell you the consensus reason was to weaken an inevitable presidency of Hillary Clinton, not to put Donald Trump in the White House. The latter was impossible because to Russians, the American elite or “the system” would keep Trump from winning. That was the propaganda emanating from within Russia throughout the US campaign, not a preference for Trump over Clinton. No one in Russia expected Trump to win and they were, in fact, fully expecting and preparing for a Clinton presidency. If they were colluding with Trump, would they believe, act, and prepare for the opposite?
If Americans are ignorant of the goals of Putin or of the Russian psyche, the Russians were equally guilty of ignorance of the American political system. While they place great emphasis on the executive, we view our branches of government co-equal. The system is more complex than the unfettered placement of power in the executive. If they could somehow co-opt Trump, an array of forces- Congress, the press, law enforcement, the intelligence community- were there to thwart it. They were aiming at dealing with the executive only whether it was Clinton or Trump.
Russian officials routinely call Congress “Russophobic,” but cut short of overt criticism of Trump himself. The latest round of sanctions may be a temporary setback since they hoped to remove existing sanctions. But, it is very unlikely Putin will leave the situation where it is.
The area to watch with regards to Putin’s next moves in America is whether he will take advantage of the discord in America between Trump and Congress and other institutions of government and society. It will not pay dividends to Putin any time soon or create any political victories, but it will prove to the Russian people that their political thinking is right. Relations between Congress and Trump will be so rocky that Russia will take advantage of this political schizophrenia.
Putin is much less a disruptor than Trump. He wishes to, for various reasons, maintain the status quo at home while enhance his presence on the world stage. In this way, he is more like Clinton than he is like Trump. It is inconceivable then that he would prefer a Trump presidency over a Clinton one.
The main lesson to be learned from decades of turbulence in Russia is that the Russian state always survives. Every emergence from a dark period reaffirms their resilience and their status in history. They are a population of survivalists and Putin has raised survivalism from the personal to the national level.
We have been waiting in vain for the Western-style democratic leader to emerge in Russia. The chances of that happening are probably less than it happening in the Arab world. We think that deep down everyone in the world is a closet American just waiting to be liberated when shown the light. But, there are characteristics of Russian culture and society that remain constants across regimes and political systems. Those characteristics were there under the czars, under the Soviets and they are there under Putin. And they will be there after Putin is gone.
America will survive Putin and his attacks on Western liberal democracy because it is in our national political DNA to do so. But if one suspects that Putin will be weakened or put out of power because of sanctions or conspiracy theories of Trump-Russia collusion, they are seriously mistaken. Quite the opposite- they only strengthen the Russian resolve and lay the seeds for the next Vladimir Putin to emerge. The question now is what steps we take to lessen the effects of the inevitable Russian interference in future elections and policy debates. The best case scenario for Putin is a fractured body politic. Knowingly or unknowingly, every conspiracy theorist out there, every Never Trumper still smarting from their guy losing, and every Clinton apologist is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Russia is not our friend and never really was except by necessity during World War II. The statement by Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential debates has thrown egg on the faces of the naive Obama administration who sarcastically dismissed the notion that Russia was a threat to the United States. To the extent there was interference by Russia in the 2016 election, the dismissive attitude and the naivete of the Obama administration is to blame. Trump’s campaign did not collude with the Russians to win the election because it makes no intuitive sense except to the those who want to believe otherwise. It is an infantile exercise in logic where dots are connected in a never-ending nexus of innuendo and nothing but theoretical fantasy at the end of the day. Every “gotcha” moment, every “whoa!” statement, every smoking gun leads absolutely nowhere because there is no “anywhere” to go.
So who, then, exactly are the dupes of Putin?