How Vladimir Putin’s image at home and abroad makes us delusional about his goals & capabilities
The Putin delusion
The Kremlin’s audacious actions of the last couple of years have produced an illusion of Russia’s capabilities to challenge the world’s most developed and influential nations, as well as the international system itself. The media certainly praises Vladimir Putin personally, as “The Man” responsible for challenging and to some extent, even temporarily winning in the struggle against the West. Some commentators even talk of Putinism as a viable alternative model for some leaders around the world, including Europe itself.
Propaganda, sponsored and ordered from the Kremlin, has effectively produced a number of myths that portray today’s Russia as a success story of Russia’s second president. In the eyes of the Russian public, Putin is a man who brought Russia up from its knees to once again be a strong, independent and influential power. This image, combined with existing stereotypes of Russia’s greatness, has produced an unprecedented effect, and not only among the Russian public. Despite a worsening economic situation - inflation is over 16%, the cost of basic foods has increased by 20-40%, a currency devaluation of greater than 50%, and other apparent negative effects - the majority of Russians have positive expectations about the future. Some of the enthusiasm is attributed to the ongoing conflict with the United States. The majority of Russians believe that since their nation challenged the Washington “machine” and is maintaining that conflict, Russia has risen to the level of the former solemn superpower. And this belief, beyond any doubt, is attributed to one man.
In the eyes of the majority of Russians, President Putin is an asset, an achievement and a victory. Like the Soviet leaders before him, his role in the political system is beyond any democratic definition. “No Putin, no Russia” – a mantra presented by deputy chief of staff, Mr. Volodin, explains quite frankly the importance of this man to the biggest country in the world.
But what is more important is that this image of the “almighty” effective leader, crafted for Russia’s domestic audience, went global. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, Putin has been all over the news, analyzed and examined time and time again. Obviously, the Western media does not share the highly positive appraisal of the majority of Russians of their president, but it does acknowledge Putin as influential, powerful and decisive. This overwhelming attention to Putin, the generalization and simplification of the political process in Russia, produces the very picture Putin wants seen in the West. As Machiavelli pointed out - “If we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved”.
We tend to unconsciously exaggerate the magnitude of things we fear. Similairly, what Vladimir Putin is, what he has accomplished and what he could possibly do is assuredly exaggerated in the West. The victors of this exaggeration are Vladimir Putin and his political system.
The reach of the “Putin delusion” is greater than anyone could have expected - both Russian propaganda and the main stream Western media tend to simplify Russian political processes, reducing it to praise for Putin for the ‘strong’ traits present in Russia today.
The acceptance of this message in Russia is quite understandable considering the overwhelming limits on free speech and the Kremlin’s absolute control of what is broadcast on television. The Putin image Russians believe and follow on TV is a completely fabricated, well-structured persona. Indeed, following Vladimir Putin on the screen is like watching a 15 year long reality-show: Russians can follow the trials and tribulations of one hero and his hundreds of sidekicks (other Russian and international politicians). But in this reality, the hero always wins. In this reality, it is an absolutely impossibility for Putin to be blamed for any problems in the lives of ordinary Russians or in the Russian state. Even the slightest speculation that Russia’s president could have erred is treated as nonsense and provocation. If it is not the fault of the West and the 5th column, then it is some soulless oligarch or unpatriotic bureaucrat that caused something to go wrong in Russia.
In Russia, the image of a “man above all other men”, constantly enhanced by personal success stories such as the ‘pacification’ of Chechnya, the Sochi Olympic games, the ‘return’ of Crimea to Russia, and many others, create a strong impression that Putin himself is indeed responsible for all that is great about Russia today.
Putin’s image in the West suffers from the same delusion of greatness, partially due to the Western public’s ignorance of contemporary Russian politics and history. In the West, Putin’s image evolved from a “modernizer” who was supposed to make Russia into a normal state in the 2000’s, to a bogeyman who frightens at least two continents. He is definitively not understood or treated as an ordinary head of a state. From renowned academics, to yellow press journalists, each tries to crack the “mystery” that is Vladimir Putin, searching for an answer which does not necessarily exist.
But what if it is all much simpler? What if, contrary to the carefully crafted image, reality is quite different? In fact, Putin is just a man who appeared in the right time in the right place and was able to make the most out of what was given to him. Adept at working with and maintaining the “status quo” in every aspect of political action, he constantly reacts rather than promotes action. He does not present any vision whatsoever, merely joggling with what already exists. Putin has no strategy for Russia, there never was one.
While there is no strategy or plan to recreate an empire, the imperial vision is what grants his opportunism in Ukraine some degree of credibility among the public at home along with skyrocketing approval ratings. Putin’s end goal is to stay in power for as long as physically possible, in the most comfortable conditions that can be provided.
We are indeed delusional about Putin, confusing means with goals. Putin is prepared to sacrifice not only the Russian economy, but also innocent people in Ukraine, even reviving the possibility of the nuclear war, all for the sake of staying in power for another few years.
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