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We need to talk about Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures during the joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland 16 July 2018. Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari via REUTERS

There is a tendency to see Putin as mastermind of the geopolitical chess board, behind every ‘setback’ in global politics. Donald Trump’s election, Brexit and the rise of far-right populism in Europe have been framed as part of a complex Kremlin strategy to destabilize the West.

Putin’s critics have labelled him a ‘kleptocratic dictator’ and some have drawn dramatic comparisons, such as when Hillary Clinton said Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea echoes ‘what Hitler did back in the ’30s.’ US politician Mitt Romney called Russia America’s biggest geopolitical threat, not China, Iran or North Korea. Meanwhile Trump has praised Putin as a ‘strong leader’.

‘Who, then, is Putin?’ That is the question Galeotti explores in his new book ‘We Need to Talk About Putin’ where he takes apart the common myths and misconceptions in the West surrounding this controversial figure.

‘Perhaps Putin’s cleverest ruse is to persuade you that he is behind everything,’ says Galeotti, who believes that Putin is actually an ‘unpredictable opportunist’, ‘a loyal bagman’, who moves fast and breaks things.

Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and previously as an adviser at the British Foreign Office. Having researched Russia since the late 1980s, he has studied the country’s chaotic transition from communism to capitalism under former president Yeltsin, and the increasing authoritarianism under Putin in the 2000s.

Galeotti speaks with New Internationalist about who Putin is, what drives him and what this all means for Russia’s future.

Why is it important to figure out who holds power in Russian politics?

Quite simply we are trying to work out a game plan and we are not even sure whose game plan it is. We are trying to work out what kind of country this is and where it’s going. A lot of simplistic assumptions about a one-man dictatorship lead us to particular directions and assumptions that are not just wrong, they can be dangerous.

In terms of a leader who undermines democracy, who is worse the unpredictable opportunist or the grandmaster?

A good grandmaster strategist is presumably a real challenge. But in some ways the unpredictable opportunist is worse. The very diffuse nature of Putinism reflects the diffuse nature of modern society. It’s a very postmodern threat, influencing societies in many different ways, one which clumsy state systems don’t really know how to deal with.

We know how to deal with one big challenge. Let me draw a parallel. When Islamic State became a physical caliphate with territory and an army, that in some way, was much more comfortable for governments to deal with because all they had to know was where to bomb. On the other hand, dealing with Al Qaeda, a diffuse network of guerrillas, was actually much harder.

Do you think the Putin regime will outlive Putin?

To an extent. We won’t see it magically change overnight. In the same way that we can see some of the old lineages of the Soviet past in Putinism, so too we’re going to see hangovers of Putinism.

That said, I do think that this is a specific historical moment.

The Putin state that has evolved isn’t likely to last not least because the elite don’t want it to. Historians will look back at Putin as a transitional figure and his regime likewise. I don’t think we’ll see a long-term Putinism.

Russia's trust in Putin has dropped to its lowest level since 2006, falling more than 33 per cent, according to a recent poll by the Russian state Public Opinion Research Center. Does this show that Putin is losing support at home?

Yes, I think so. We do have to take these polls with caution and they’re still very high by western leaders’ standards, but that’s because there’s no opposition in Russia. Trend is what matters. It shows how increasingly out of step Putin is with his own people.

Was Putin ever popular?

In his early years, he was incredibly successful and not so much because of his political direction but because ordinary Russians had lived better than they’d ever lived. They finally had stability, security and a brand-new fridge freezer.

Now Putin is saying ‘you’re going to have to tighten your belts so that we can afford our “anti-terrorism” military campaign in Syria. We’re doing this for mother Russia because we’re under attack by enemies.’ And frankly ordinary people are thinking nah, not so keen on that.

It’s clear from his recent speeches where he announces plans to improve social welfare that he’s trying to buy back favour from Russians. But I don’t think it’s going to work.

Who are Putin’s allies?

Putin has no real allies. That’s modern Russia’s tragedy. There are countries with shared interests – China, Iran and so fourth – but these are at best frenemies. One day they’re allies, rivals the next.

Who do you think Putin would like to see become president in Ukraine’s elections this March?

Of the three front runners, probably Yulia Tymoshenko because she might make a deal with Russia. If Putin had any wits about him he’d realize that he’s lost Ukraine.

What are Putin’s interests in Venezuela and Syria?

It’s the same answer for both. Putin can’t afford to lose what relatively few client states he’s got. Secondly, he wants to accumulate bargaining chips in the hope that he can use those to make a deal with the West. He wants to inject himself in areas that matter for the West to force us to talk with him.

Who’s your favourite Russian writer?

I’m tremendously low-brow. Don’t expect to hear Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. I like Boris Akunin and Isaac Babel – he’s got a great Hemingway-esque style.

Any favourite Russian films?

Brat Dva (‘Brother 2’) because of what this gangster movie represents. The protagonist goes to America and shows how much harder the Russian mafia is compared to the American one.

In this film, the Russians are basically saying ‘We might have a mafia but at least our mafia is the toughest around.’


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