Alexei Bayer: A tale of two Putins
If you read American newspapers and watch American television, you may think that Vladimir Putin is winning big in the second phase of the Cold War. Ukraine is under siege and, apparently, has no choice but to accept Russian conditions. European leaders, spearheaded by France’s Emmanuel Macron, are talking about re-engaging with Russia. In the U.K., victorious Boris Johnson is about to do Brexit, Moscow’s cherished project which it hopes will eventually lead to the breakup of the European Union— and the U.K., as well.
In the US, meanwhile, Donald Trump is doing his best to corrupt the government, undermine alliances and shred democratic principles. His Republican cult is mouthing Russian propaganda and all but pledges allegiance to Putin.
This picture may be useful for the Democrats working to impeach Trump, and it is certainly flattering for Putin. But inside Russia, in its opaque, Byzantine political establishment, some strange recent developments point to possible changes. It may be yet another false dawn, and changes may not necessarily be for the better, but triumphs abroad, either real or imagined, may be cut short by unexpected developments at home.
As a Russian-born American, I have known for a while that there are two distinct Putins. Not because he has a double who sometimes stands in for him, as some conspiracy theorists maintain, or because he is a master of disguise. It is due to the widely different images of the Russian leader that have developed at home and abroad. And this raises the question of where exactly Russia is headed under Putin.
The Western Putin is a wily ex-KGB agent who successfully meddled in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and is preparing to do so again in 2020. He spreads conspiracy theories which are then parroted by the leaders of the Republican Party and gets Donald Trump to do his bidding.
In Europe the Western Putin undermines the EU and NATO, helps the Tories win the Brexit vote, funds resurgent right-wing political movements and blatantly murders his opponents.
Media stories about this Western Putin are illustrated by pictures of a much younger, trimmer Russian president sternly glaring into the camera.
Then there is a completely different Putin the way he appears to his countrymen. It is a short bald man in his late 60s, bloated with Botox and hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. He cracks dumb off-color jokes and when he is serious he makes hare-brained suggestions such as his recent idea to replace Wikipedia with an online version of the Russian Encyclopedia.
The guy’s only interest seems to be playing ice hockey. Though barely able to stand on skates, he improbably scores numerous goals against some of the best players in the world.
While state-owned TV is still respectful, the internet and even some newspapers are openly disdainful, ridiculing his various foibles.
There is even a suspicion that this silly old man is no longer in control. For instance, he recently started to complain about political talk shows on TV, declaring that they spend too much time bashing Ukraine. It has not gone unnoticed in Russia that his appeal fell on deaf ears, and heaping abuse on Ukraine remains front and center of Russian propaganda, saturating the airwaves.
Even more glaring, the survival of Russian corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, who regularly puts out highly popular videos revealing corruption schemes by government officials and identifying their ill-gotten assets, suggests that Navalny enjoys high-level protection. Navalny appears to be untouchable, and since he openly attacks Putin and his closest associates, it would have to be someone who is above Putin who protects him.
Accordingly, the Western Putin has a far-reaching plan for Russia’s future. He wants Russia to reclaim its place among the leading nations in the world, which it lost after the fall of communism and the collapse of its empire, and which the West has been denying it for too long.
The Western Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, and for this reason he has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine and is threatening the Baltic States. He wants to project Russian military power around the globe and once more be a kingmaker in places like Syria and the Central African Republic. He wants Russia to be respected, which by his KGB logic means to be feared. He is rattling his nuclear missiles, reviving a Cold War-style arms race.
But the picture inside Russia is quite different. Over his two decades in power, Putin has built a massive kleptocracy and a lawless mafia state, where bureaucrats, security officials, well-connected businessmen and common thugs highly efficiently plunder the country’s wealth and ship their gains abroad.
Despite earning trillions of dollars over his 20 years in office by exporting oil, gas and other commodities, Russia has largely failed to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure or restore its manufacturing base. Its education, health care and social services have deteriorated dramatically since the Soviet era. The institutions of state have become hopelessly corrupt and are failing.
Russia’s population is shrinking both because of an ongoing social crisis and emigration: two hundred thousand of its youngest, best-educated and most ambitious men and women leave every year. And a recent poll found that more than half of Russia’s young people would like to leave the country.
Technology is a measure of economic prosperity, political leadership and military strength. By this measure, Russia is falling far behind the United States, China, India and other nations.
Taken together, all these factors are far from painting a picture of a feared world leader. In fact, Russia is more likely to fail than to emerge as a major threat to the existing global political system. And, for all the gains of the Western Putin, failure may be just around the corner.