Critics and allies of Vladimir Putin usually have little in common. But both share an embarrassing and dangerous conceit that Russia’s president is omnipresent.
Putin The Omnipresent?
Vladimir Putin is getting a lot of coverage in news outlets across the world. In America, much of it is critical. He is accused of meddling in elections there last November. In Europe, a similar story, this one anticipatory: officials in Germany and France are worried their own national elections will be determined by hackers and misinformation deployed as part of a Kremlin destabilisation campaign. From Syria to Iran to China to Ukraine, commentators see the fingerprints of Vladimir Putin. Russia’s president, it would seem, is everywhere.
Some marvel, others recoil in horror, at how Putin has managed to redraw the map of Europe and the Middle East, to say nothing of his apparent new found influence on American politics. How has he done this?
It seems impossible to answer this question with traditional logic, so conspiracy theories come in handy. Putin is accused of: having planned the seizure of Crimea almost from the moment he arrived in the Kremlin; sending barbaric hordes to Europe, knowing that the Europeans would not be able to reject people in distress; having dirt on every more-or-less-known politician and easily being able to spread it via the Western media which are unable to betray the principle of freedom of speech; and controlling the forthcoming European elections to an even greater degree than the American ones (which must have been controlled as tightly as the Russian elections). Generally, more and more events that take place in Western societies which are being explained away as Putin’s manipulations.
Is this sensible? What is Putin’s actual contribution to being intermittently heralded “the most influential man in the world”, according to one Western magazine, or “man of the year” by another magazine’s cadre of experts? I think it is time to look at what is happening from a slightly different perspective.
Let’s start with Ukraine. In 2013, the country was faced with an apparently life-changing decision: to slightly reduce its dependence on Russia and sign an association agreement with the EU, or “yield” to Russia’s counterpart, the Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian president’s task was to use all possible means to achieve the latter and regain Kyiv’s loyalty to Moscow. What was the result? Russia’s puppet — Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — was forced to flee his capital, leaving Ukraine with its face decisively turned towards Europe, and Russia was left with a bit of torn trousers (Crimea and the Donbas) in its jaws, like an unlucky guard dog, as well as sanctions and international condemnation which cost it billions of dollars and three years of economic crisis. But in fact, where is the success mentioned not only by the Russian president’s supporters, but also his opponents? What did the Kremlin gain from the Ukrainian affair apart from the support of a populace which had forgotten how to make any conscious choices centuries ago? Personally, I have no clear answer to this question.
And now regarding Europe: there is a widespread opinion that Putin was trying to activate the continent’s most conservative political forces in order to split and destroy the EU and install his disciples as leaders in European countries. The war in Syria, where the terrible Russian military atrocities have provoked waves of refugees, is mentioned in this context. However, simple statistics show that 610 000 refugees entered the EU in 2014, 1.3 mln in 2015, and around 1 mln in 2016, after Russia’s military campaign began. But the migrant crisis started well before the Russian president could have affected it. This also partially concerns the ultra-right. According to the sociological agency BVA-Salesforce, Marine Le Pen will currently receive 27–30% of the vote in the second round of the French presidential elections – but in 2002, her biological father garnered 17.8% without any assistance from Putin. So, where is Putin’s wizardry in all this?
Later came Syria. Putin deployed troops, helped “saving private Assad”, strengthened relations with Iran, and first ruined, then restored relations with Turkey. So what is the outcome? Has the Islamic State been destroyed? Has the “legitimate government” regained control over the whole country’s territory? Is it viable without continued assistance from Moscow or Tehran? It is easy to believe that the Syrian campaign demonstrated the Kremlin’s new abilities, and thwarted some American and European plans, but what was in it for Moscow (even geo-politically, let alone in materialistic economic terms)? Does one city recaptured from the militants mean that Russia has regained its superpower status? We can recall how many cities have been liberated by the USA at some point, and who controls those cities now. And, most importantly, if we are talking about Russia’s “offensive” and its return to world politics, what is it supposed to “set its sights on” after Syria? Which new “strategic heights” is Russia aiming for? Who is it going to threaten next?
This all leads to an extraordinary situation: any political movement which even slightly stands out on the modern Western scene is declared a “Kremlin product”; any politician who refuses to repeat tired old lines for decades becomes “pro-Putin”; anyone who starts doubting the values of globalisation, multiculturalism and the social state receives similar labels; if someone is not playing according to the rules, he is a “Putinist” or an agent, etc. Naturally, all international conflicts – not only in Ukraine or Syria, but also in Serbia and Kosovo, Palestine and Yemen, the Caucasus and Central Asia – are products of Putin’s cunning calculations and actions.
I am saying this not because I want to repeat the Kremlin apologists’ statement that Russia favours world peace, doesn’t attack anyone, extends its hand of friendship to everyone (even from bombers), and employs espionage purely to improve maps which Uber drivers can then use. Not at all. My message is completely different.
In my opinion, the misleading notion of Putin’s omnipresence has gained such popularity for two reasons. On the one hand, the Russian president has created a sort of propagandistic parallel reality, in which he has attributed himself the role of controlling the maximum possible number of events – be they positive or negative. This system has been fine-tuned for years, it works efficiently, and even Putin’s active opponents have recently been drawn into it against their will. The most liberal Western media and TV channels are raising the Russian leader’s rating every day and every hour by mentioning him in different contexts – thus turning him into “the most influential person” on the planet. And if someone is indeed the most influential, which means he controls everything that is going on, we should just pay closer attention to the consequences and outcome of such influence.
On the other hand, and this is even more important, the phenomenon of Putin has become an ideal excuse for a bunch of losers around the world. If we don’t really believe that the Russian leader has superpowers, is it possible to explain why, during the occupation of Crimea, for example, or at the first stage of the coup in the Donbas, virtually no Ukrainian soldiers tried to fight the insurgents? Of course, Putin’s devious plan is very suitable for explaining the phenomenon of Europe’s surrender to migrants, thousands of whom were crossing supposedly well-defended borders – how else can you explain why they were allowed in? Of course, it is easier not to run for presidency, which is what François Hollande is doing in order to avoid competing with a “rascal paid by Putin”, than to think about the results of his own governance, during which French people died on the streets of their cities almost as frequently as in Algeria in the past. And it’s obviously easier to make a statement that the Party of Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy has been defeated thanks to “Russian involvement”, and not because, counter to all logic, it nominated a discredited candidate instead of facing “anti-system” candidates off against one another: Donald Trump against Bernie Sanders, for example.
In other words, I presume that Vladimir Putin is largely a media and ideological phenomenon, and presenting him as a great, wise and powerful figure is as beneficial to him as to all political excuse-makers that are so abundant today (and I am not mentioning the way some look up to him – those who promise to make America, Greece, Hungary, France [and others down the list] great again). Putin is the man that everyone needs, and this is where the secret of his popularity and influence lies (not in his actual abilities at all). His true achievements are not as numerous as the credit he is claiming for things that would have happened anyway without his involvement (which reminds me of an old Soviet cadence: “Spring has gone and Summer’s come, we thank the Party with aplomb!”), and he certainly has great talent for it. Just look at the way he claimed credit for Russia’s growth. The current Russian GDP is approximately four times higher in nominal dollar equivalent than when Putin just came to power. Over those years, this is exactly how much the price has grown for the only Russian products in demand – gas and oil.
So the Russian world will keep turning, with or without Putin. Overstating his influence, you could say, is just a bluffing strategy from his supporters; and for his critics, inflating Putin’s presence is all too often an excuse for their own failings.
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